The making of history

I write this knowing full well that there are those who know the discipline of history far better than I. But having earned my living teaching it at USMA (West Point, New York) and at the Army’s Command and General Staff College (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas), watching my president play the “statues as glorious history” tune as if there is but one unchanging take on history frankly grates. It is a dangerous game. By now we need be concerned that we select well what we put on a pedestal for all too easily, yesterday’s pedestals become today’s altars.

History is constructed by man, not God. It is an invention of sorts consisting of the raw past (the written record, oral traditions, photographs, and artifacts, all of which informs us imperfectly) plus the biases and priorities of people who write it.

No history of anything is complete let alone perfectly recounted. Historical narrative is frequently influenced by issues of gender, race, ethnicity and class. This focus on which statue stands and which falls begs some critical questions. Ask yourself when you see a statue, what narrative does the statue present, and what does it ignore? What narrative remains unseen and untold? People who erect statues do so with an agenda.

They intend to sell you a way of looking at the past.

The whole tapestry of history is complex and most certainly not captured in a monument or even groups of monuments. To those who think that toppling a statue of Robert E. Lee robs us of our history, would not reading a book (perhaps a couple of books?) better tell of his virtues and his flaws? Professional historians have been rewriting the history of the Antebellum, Civil War, and the Reconstruction Era South for the last 30 years but little of that academic work has filtered into President Trump’s rhetoric.

Those who erected monuments to Confederate leaders (usually associated with the myth of the Lost Cause), did so for the purpose of providing a narrative to explain the rise and fall of the Confederate States of America, to absolve them for the bloody defeat that had cost the nation 620,000 dead, and to somehow smudge the reality that the war was about slavery.

It was never their intention to put the spotlight on slavery as an institution let alone on the slave as an individual denied first freedom and then equality in America. The slave holders of the South and their prodigy (with the exception of those born too pigmented to pass for white) never intended to put a statue up to those who worked their fields, made possible their wealth. Those women and men lived and died in near anonymity, their graves seldom marked. Certainly no pedestaled statue testified to their days, not reminded us of our complicity in America’s original sin.


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