As a teacher, I see my job as informing all of the public, not just my students, on many topics. Because I am a history teacher, more often than not, those topics trend toward history, politics and government. What this basically means is, while I am not a public historian (I argue that I’m really not any type of historian in the denotative meaning of the word.), I do research and teach history in the public interest.
That said, I got into a rather heated debate on Facebook yesterday about this. I was beginning to remember why I recently took a break from Facebook for about a week, but do feel I have something to offer to this debate that has gotten totally out of hand on both sides.
I find the Army of Northern Virginia Battle Flag, more commonly referred to as “the Confederate flag”, hereafter referred to as the ANV flag, something of an enigma.
Since April 1865, the flag as been used for a variety of purposes, both informed and misinformed; both negative and benign. Notice I did not say good. While the use of the ANV flag has been been repurposed for negative ends that have been very obvious, at least at the time it was repurposed, the benign uses of the flag are still problematic, but acceptable to the extent that a person chooses to display the flag on private property.
I’ll not rehash the history of the flag. If you care to know it, you probably already do, or at least have a history of the flag you accept over all others and I can do little to change your opinion of that, how ever misinformed and misguided I might think it to be. My thoughts on the flag can be found here, here, here, here and here. Yes, I have written a few things on the topic.
That said, my biggest fear is that this debate will not end well at the present state of acrimony. I sense, at the present rate of animosity, the unintended consequences will greatly effect the study of history in the future. Because of all the controversy, there are calls for the removal of all things Confederate from the American landscape. Where does that end? Do we remove public monuments in cities, counties and states, as some have suggested, but leave those on battlefields? If even those are removed, how does this affect our understanding of American history? Will we remove individual markers from graveyards? Do we even recognize that Confederates are buried in these places at all?
Some might say these are extreme positions in the ongoing debate. We have long struggled, both as a nation and in the history community, to deal with the legacy and memory of the American Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era and advances in civil rights on all fronts, but especially as they relate to racial minorities. Here we are 150 years later still arguing these points, which speaks to their importance to our past and present.
So, what should we consider as this debate progresses that will keep us mindful of our collective past? We must continue to recognize that these events have taken place, including leaving existing memorials where they are, but providing alternative viewpoints and interpretation. We must be sensitive to the differing opinions and legacies that are represented across the spectrum of the population. We must be mindful of these opinions and legacies as we seek to expand our understanding of past events and keep them present in our study of history. We must be mindful that there are those who, because of heritage and regional identity, will want to memorialize things others find offensive, but that as long as those displays are on private property, there is nothing that can be done and, certainly, criminal activity should not be advocated to protest them nor violence employed to defend them. We must not let criminals and terrorists dictate the tenor of this debate or how we remember and study our history.
In the end, this must be an academic debate, albeit one that is based in emotion. However, we must not let the emotion overtake the historical record nor let it determine the entirety of how history is studied.