Where is this debate going?

July 14, 2015

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.

This is getting _________________!

June 25, 2015

You can fill in the blank with whatever adjective you want to describe a complete lack of critical thought.

I posted earlier in the week about how I feel about the posting of the Confederate battle flag in public. I also stated I cannot change what people decide to do on private property. I am still enough of a Lockean thinker (both his political theories and educational theories) to know your private property is where you have a right to pursue your ultimate happiness. If that includes ringing the perimeter with as many ANV flags as you can find, more power to you. The place for the flag in public, however, in my opinion, is a museum and/or classroom with proper historical interpretation and/or examining it within the proper historical context.

Businesses make decisions on products to market based on economic research and keeping up with the pulse of its entire customer base. Do I believe they are totally forthcoming with the results of that research? No. Are they hypocritical with the products they choose to keep marketing while pulling others? Yes. Are there other outlets for Confederate regalia if one desires it? Yes.

There are at least three other issues arising from the debate over Confederate iconography, a term Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory uses for the Confederate flag and statues and artwork of Confederate leaders and influencers: the vandalism of Confederate memorials; the “banning” of Gone with the Wind (hereafter, GWTW); and calls to remove Confederate memorials from public.

First, media outlets are reporting the John C. Calhoun memorial in Charleston has been vandalized. As a 19th century senator from South Carolina and as Andrew Jackson’s vice-president, Calhoun championed the cause of slavery, states’ rights and nullification leading to the idea that secession as an option later held by many Southern political leaders in the antebellum era. Other Confederate memorials have also been defaced. Whether or not you agree with what is being memorialized, defacing public property is illegal. OK, I get it: civil disobedience. No one is really hurt by the action, it makes a statement and the costs for cleaning them are relatively low. But much like burning an American flag, when you deface something that people place value (either historical, artistic or heritage), this actually devalues any point you might make on the topic at hand. It’s the nonverbal equivalent of shouting. No one listens when you shout. They hear, but fail to process and understand, the message, even losing desire to do either.

As for GWTW, why that particular film? D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is way more controversial and racist. The gap in the historical interpretation of the two films is huge. Oh, wait, it’s because people still watch and enjoy GWTW and not Griffith’s film. Folks still read Margaret Mitchell’s novel and like it. So, now we resort to censorship? Some might argue banning the flag is censorship. No one, however, is saying, at least in what I have read, seen and heard, you can’t fly the the Confederate battle flag at all, only that it should not be flown in public spaces. I have added “without adequate interpretation”. Back to films and novels: there is a wide gambit of historical interpretation in Civil War novels and films. If one is banned, should all be banned? Should we still study them for their historical value and in looking at how interpretations change over time? Is there any value in comparing them? I believe we should study the flag in its various historical contexts, then and now, and the same should apply to films and novels. Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin have long been targets for the same reason, but we still have them. We will still have GWTW and the flag, even in public in some form.

As for Confederate memorials, those tell us more about the person or groups who put the memorial there than what is being memorialized. What, at various times in history, has been important to remember and why? I believe leaving these memorials right where they are and allowing for expanded interpretation and memorializing is the answer. Moving a chunk of marble to a museum not only takes up valuable space for additional interpretive displays, the landscape context of the memorial is often as important as the memorial itself, Stone Mountain in Georgia being the largest example.

In the end, I’m happy that context and interpretation are being applied to history and memory, but I am saddened by the insane turn it has taken. Reactionary responses often lead to that. I sincerely hope the debate takes a more amiable, structured and constructive turn.

My thoughts on recent events

June 23, 2015

After reading a very thoughtful post and comments on fellow blogger Robert Moore’s site; seeing an exchange on historian Keith Harris’ Facebook page (see the post where he links to this article; LANGUAGE WARNING); and seeing a post by Kevin Levin on his Facebook page, I believe, as a history teacher and, what I would term, amateur historian, I need to comment on the murders at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, and the calls for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from public spaces by various public officials throughout the South. (Mississippi State House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican, is the latest to call for the removal of the battle flag canton from Mississippi’s state flag.)

First, my thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those murdered at a church so rich in history for all Americans, but most symbolic to African-Americans. It grieves me that any terrorists are present in modern America, whether an individual or a group, especially racially-motivated ones.

As for the debate on the removal of the Confederate battle flag from public spaces, I have been an advocate for this for quite some time. I fall in the category of believing the only proper place for any flag of a defeated nation is in a museum and/or classroom with proper interpretation. No, I can’t control what people do on private property regardless of disagreeing with their position. Perhaps, the compromise, for me, is to leave people be with displays on private property and fight the appearance of the public at large supporting the symbolism some associate with the flag.

Retailers who have decided to quit selling merchandise featuring the flag are considering those they serve as a whole. If you disagree with that, I invite you to boycott these businesses. If, however, you live in a largely rural area like I do, good luck with that!

Finally, to the “heritage, not hate” argument. A) It’s a tired argument, move on! Get some new material. B) It may be your heritage, but it is not everyone’s heritage, so leave it off public property. I’ve had middle school students with more reasoned arguments based on personal experiences than some adults armed with “facts”! That you believe the Confederate battle flag is not a racist symbol does not lessen the belief to some that it is. That is even more reason for its display to be limited to private property and public displays be limited to museums and the classroom. The argument that the US flag has flown over slave ships and a slaveholding country longer than a Confederate flag is a ridiculous one. That we still fly the Stars and Stripes today is testimony to this country moving beyond its bigoted past and to the very thing that makes us “exceptional” in the world: that we’ve only had one four year period in 238 (almost 239) years where we couldn’t resolve our differences peacefully; that we are still defining what we stand for as a nation even today.

New endeavor

May 31, 2014

While this blog has mostly been about Civil War topics and teaching the Civil War, an occasional general history and teaching post has made it on here. As I begin preparing to return to the history classroom in August, I have decided to keep this blog focused on the Civil War and have elected to form a general history and general teaching blog, with a particular focus on teaching in a modern technology environment and with digital resources. It’s called History in the Digital Age. I know, probably not the most imaginative title, but it serves the purpose I want. Because I consider this blog as an extension of my classroom, the new one will be as well. And while the district will probably offer me a webpage on their site, I would like to use it as a clearinghouse for information targeted directly to my students that is very content and class specific, linking to these sites as a window to the world, providing the district’s Internet filter doesn’t block them. Then, I’ll have to discuss that with district technology!

As I stated in an earlier post, I am glad to be back where I feel most at home, both my residence and my teaching assignment. Y’all ready for this? I know I am.

The Prodigal Returns…

May 28, 2014

After a four year hiatus from teaching history, I, like Gen. Douglas McArthur, have returned!

I have had an interesting four years, though I have been noticeably quiet on history topics both here and in comments on other blogs. Teaching media was fun, but I quickly learned I still love history and missed it — a lot! I just spent a semester teaching physical science and chemistry in a Louisiana school. That made me want to pull out what remaining hair I have and I actively looked for a history position because of it! I will be teaching eighth grade U.S. History (Colonial Era through Reconstruction) at Center Middle School in Center, Texas, beginning this August. More on my reaction to my new job later in the post.

In the interim of teaching history, I earned a master’s degree in New Media Journalism from Full Sail University in 2011. That was fun and opened new techniques I hope to bring to this blog and the classroom. I also served as associate pastor of House of Grace Church of Edgewood, Texas. Due to my short run in Louisiana, I now hold teaching certifications in two states for the next three years. I plan to become fully certified in Louisiana because I now live so close to the Louisiana state line it makes the option a viable one.

Life, indeed, has been different for me in recent months. Events have brought me full circle. I am currently living in Joaquin, Texas, the town where I started school. I will be teaching in Center, the town where I grew up and first started teaching seven and a half years ago. We won’t get into all the reasons I am back where I started, just suffice it to say life happened.

I look forward to teaching history again, in my hometown and in a district that has begun a 1-to-1 mobile device learning initiative. I see great opportunities to implement digital history and my advanced degree in this environment. Look for me to again be posting here regularly and become more regular on the blogs again. I look to all my blog friends to keeping my research and debate skills sharp and to further my history learning.

I will be the same hard-headed guy you’ve come to know with a dash of good-natured humor and the stick-to-my-guns-until-you-prove-me-wrong debater. Professor Bynum, I will attempt to control myself, and the discussion, better on here than I have recently on other social media!

It’s good to be back!


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