Is the Erasure of the US’s Troubled History Really Effective?

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Given the current state of affairs in the United States — from the Black Lives Matter movement to the rise in hate crimes, anti-immigrant sentiments, and anti-Asian American attacks — it’s only natural that many Americans hesitate to celebrate monuments or symbols of past troubles and prior hatred. 

It is logical and fair that people do not appreciate and do not support statues representing everything we are fighting to abolish as a country. But this notion of erasing history to right the wrongs of the past and create a better present is a complicated one.

If we physically erase the reminders of our ancestors’ mistakes hundreds of years ago, does that effectively erase those wrongs from the past? If we remove reminders of past discrimination and prior oppressions, are we making things right today, or merely removing those tarnishes from our records and setting future generations up to repeat the same errors? And on the flip side, if we continue to celebrate those monuments and allow those flags to be flown, are we allowing that hatred to continue to exist and flourish in a country that is so desperately in need of unity?

Some might argue that these monuments mark history and are important reminders of where we come from. Others believe that these statues do not honor heritage in any meaningful way but rather serve as racist symbols of our country’s troubled legacy. And while some local governments are working to remove these dark monuments, others are actually trying to protect them.  

See, it’s a complicated issue, especially when you consider the fact that, for so many of us, history is not actually in the past but rather continuing to influence the present and the future. 

For Blacks, discrimination, racism, and inequity is a very present reality. For immigrants, Latinos, Jews, Muslims, Asian Americans, women… oppression is very real and very alive even today. The past is still present, causing people across the country to wonder if erasing the US’s troubled history is really effective.

Does Removing Monuments Really Take Away History?

As the nation battles a year (try several years) filled with attacks on the Black community, immigrant community, and white supremacy raging from coast to coast, the current administration is now calling for unity, peace, and decency. It’s hard even to imagine that in the very country battling discrimination and hate, we exist among monuments and statues honoring Confederate leaders and Klu Klux Klan leaders of generations past. 

In recent years, there have been many debates about how appropriate it is to honor Confederate legends with memorials, streets, and buildings across the country. And in several instances, those debates and protests have led to the removal of statues, most notably after attacks on minority communities. 

In 2015, after the massacre of nine Black parishioners by white supremacist Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina, the issue resurfaced. Eventually, the state removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds in the aftermath of that devastating hate-crime. The Liberty Monument and Confederate statues honoring Generals Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis were also removed.

More recently, the murder of George Floyd has led to the removal of contentious statues across the country. In Richmond, Virginia, protestors took down Jefferson Davis’s statue, the president of the Confederacy, following Lloyd’s death. 

When asked about this move, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said: “these statues, although symbolic, have cast a shadow on the dreams of our children of color. Let me be clear, removing these monuments is not a solution to the deeply embedded racial injustices in our city and nation but is a down payment.”

Similarly, a statue of politician John C. Calhoun — a former vice president of the United States and U.S. senator known for defending slavery and being a believer in white supremacy — was removed after the Charleston City Council voted unanimously to do so. 

The John Breckinridge Castleman monument, a Confederate soldier statue in Louisville, Kentucky, was removed in 2018. The city’s Mayor Greg Fischer argued that the city of Louisville “must not maintain statues that serve as validating symbols for racist or bigoted ideology.” He also rejected the idea that moving monuments would effectively erase history. “Moving these statues allows us to examine our history in a new context that more accurately reflects the reality of the day, a time when the moral deprivation of slavery is clear,” Fischer said.

If you ask William Sturkey, a Southern history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, moving or removing these statues and monuments in no way erases history but rather reframes it. “People that make the argument that taking down monuments is erasing history truly have no idea how much history has been erased. These activist organizations (who erected the monuments) sought to reshape history, reshape the meaning behind the Civil War, reshape what happened during Reconstruction, and reshape African Americans’ participation in the history of this region and our country. Those were the people who were actually erased.”

We Need to Be Careful Not to Erase History, However Painful the Memories May Be

While some support the taking down of monuments, others warn that there is a danger in taking it too far and ridding the country of any painful reminders of our dark past. 

Alfred L. Brophy, Judge John J. Parker, distinguished professor of law at UNC-Chapel Hill, warns against the removal of Jim Crow’s reminders and the codification of white supremacy. “My initial thought is that removing these monuments leads to forgetting…We need to be aware that people in power at that time thought it was appropriate to celebrate slavery and Jim Crow.” 

Yes, we need to recognize that celebrating and honoring Confederate leaders is not appropriate, especially given that we, as a country, are still trying to mend the gaps that tear cultures apart and oppress millions of people just for being different. But we also need to be careful not to forget what oppressed populations have gone through in the past.

The real question is, by making artifacts disappear, are we actually fixing the problem, or are we potentially allowing others to rewrite history to serve their own agenda?

Consider the Holocaust. 

The Holocaust was a state-sponsored, systematic attempt to murder every Jew in Europe, which resulted in the murder of more than 6 million Jews and millions of other people by German Nazis throughout Europe. The leader of this genocide was Adolf Hitler. 

To say that Hitler was pure evil is a vast understatement. He led the extermination of millions of people because they were different — whether those differences be that they were Jewish, disabled, or any other perceived inferiority. 

Today, nearly 80 years after the end of the Holocaust, there are plenty of Holocaust deniers out there who genuinely believe that the Holocaust never happened. This is why the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is so important, dare we say essential, in the mission to memorialize the victims, teach the history and lessons of the Holocaust, and work to prevent future genocides. 

According to Elie Wiesel, the Museum’s founding chairman and Holocaust survivor, the museum’s purpose and contemporary significance is to serve as a “living memorial” and explained that “the Museum is not an answer. It is a question mark.” Forty years ago, he stated that “what threatened one people in the past could recur to threaten another people or, indeed, all humanity.”

The contents displayed at the Holocaust museum are disturbing. The images are sad and traumatic. The truths are terrifying. Having reminders of these horrors is not pleasant – but it is necessary to prevent future genocides. The museum’s purpose is not to honor the atrocities but ensure they never happen again. 

The alternative is we don’t talk about Hitler, we ignore the facts, and we pretend the Holocaust didn’t happen. And then what? What will we say when the world forgets? When another dictator rises to power with promises of exterminating an entire population of people deemed “inferior” or not worthy? Then what?

Dark events of our past cannot simply be erased. They must not be forgotten. But they also should not be celebrated. Knowledge is power, and we must learn from the past. But learning from the past is not the same thing as celebrating Confederate leaders or oppressors from the past. 

There must be a better way.

According to Kirk von Daacke, Associate Professor and Assistant Dean Department of History at the University of Virginia, we must learn from the past, no matter how complex it may be. But many of these memories are not necessarily the best way to learn from the past. 

We need to reframe the monuments and statues in a way that makes sense and is more inclusive. He points out that many of these memorials lack context and can even minimize that period’s brutality. “Rethinking the memorial landscape—whether that involves moving memorials, adding new memorials, and/or reshaping how the memorials are viewed—is a necessary step in creating a more inclusive history and more inclusive public spaces,” said von Daacke.

And if we want to move forward as a country towards a more peaceful, unified place, then we must not neglect the racial tensions and division that exists and has existed for decades. 

We must confront those realities, we must recognize the troubles of the past, and we must educate ourselves and future generations. But we must also do so without glorifying the dark days of the past. 

For many, honoring Confederate leaders through prominent monuments and erected statues is not painting an accurate picture of history. For others, removing those statues erases those periods from the past. According to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, “we can remember these divisive chapters in our history in a museum or other facility where they can be put in context — and that’s where these statues belong.”