Before the Unite the Right rally and the death of Heather Heyer on Aug. 12, 2017, many Americans were unaware of the debate concerning Confederate monuments in Charlottesville
In March 2016, a then-15-year-old high school freshman, Zyahna Bryant, petitioned the City Council to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Lee Park (renamed Emancipation Park in 2017). The council obliged, and an assortment of white nationalists set out to generate momentum for their cause by opposing the statue’s removal — and sadly, it worked.
The violence of the “Summer of Hate” shattered the belief that we had entered into a post-racial America. Following those tragic events, much has been made about the resurgence of white supremacy, the Confederacy’s legacy and the persistence of American racism.
But Charlottesville also reshaped the conversation about history, exposing the disparity among historical truth, historical interpretation and mythology. The alt-right is clinging to distorted history — one created by segregationists in service to white supremacy — in order to advance their white-nationalist political project.
And last summer’s events demonstrated how the power to define the American past remains a deeply contested — and occasionally violent — matter.
In many ways, the conflicts on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, have overshadowed Bryant’s original petition. Perhaps then, on the first anniversary of those events, we should acknowledge that Charlottesville was as much about memory as monuments. Bryant, it turns out, reawakened the age-old conflict between historical proof and belief.
Bryant told Vice in a February 2018 article: “It wasn’t until 5th or 6th grade, when we started learning about the Civil War, that I started to really understand. Everything they taught us at school about the Civil War was so romanticized. So I decided to do my own research, which is something my family has always encouraged me to do. Once I learned the truth about slavery and the Civil War, I felt disgusted that my city wanted to display a statue that celebrated my ancestors’ pain.”
In scrutinizing how the Lee monument came to be, Bryant was actually questioning how and why history is told. A 15-year-old delved into affairs of not just history, but also historiography — the cumulative effort of historians to interpret the past — and history education. In doing so, she ignited “The Battle for Charlottesville’s Soul” and demonstrated that America’s inability to grapple with its tortured racial history has educational implications.
Bryant’s quest spotlighted a serious flaw in our history education. Most students in the United States learn history as an established, linear narrative — a set of facts that point toward progress. The Advanced Placement (AP) system has rushed generations of students through vital portions of American history (recent American history is mostly untold). Generally, the teaching of history urges rote memorization over investigating the process of writing historical narratives and recognizing “how inherent biases shape conventional instructional materials.”
The result: In an era where nostalgia often masquerades as history, many young Americans know little of the past and the forces that influence its production.
The problem of teaching history and how history is made is nothing new. Take Virginia. Generations of boomers learned of American history in textbooks that were commissioned by the commonwealth in 1957 — the height of massive resistance to public school integration.
A recent analysis of one of those textbooks, the “Cavalier Commonwealth,” revealed any number of historical inaccuracies twisted to defend segregation.
One passage stated that the slave “did not work so hard as the average free laborer, since he did not have to worry about losing his job. In fact, the slave enjoyed what we might call comprehensive social security. Generally speaking, his food was plentiful, his clothing adequate, his cabin warm, his health protected and his leisure carefree.”
Another section explained that slave owners and slaves “understood that bondage as they knew it was not totally evil; both realized that enslavement in a civilized world had been better in many respects for the Negro than the barbarities he might have suffered in Africa.”
This belief in black inferiority was rooted in American slavery, and it survived the Civil War to shape these narratives of American history. And in writing about Southern history, these textbooks relied on the perspectives of former Confederates, who were invested personally in celebrating the Lost Cause — a Confederate interpretation of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction that sought to present the South in the best, most noble terms possible.
Historians eventually challenged this version of history. The civil rights movement convinced a generation of scholars to re-examine this history and they discovered that the historical documents from the period revealed a starkly different picture. Slaves were often sickly and they constantly challenged the boundaries of the master-servant relationship.
But books such as the “Cavalier Commonwealth” were not done away with until the 1970s, and they shaped students’ understanding long after the death of the Lost Cause. The legacy of this interpretation lingers today in our debate over Confederate monuments. A fair number of boomers over the age of 55, and their children, came equipped to the debates after Charlottesville — and Richmond — armed with Lost Cause talking points, arguing that the Civil War couldn’t have been about black people. It was about states’ rights.
But historians, steeped in historical research of the documents themselves, agree that slavery, more than any other issue, brought on the war. Even a cursory search of the University of Richmond’s digitization of the Virginia secession convention demonstrates this — the word slavery comes up 512 times, states’ rights a mere 29.
Like these textbooks, the defense of Confederate memorialization often perpetuates distorted history that glosses over, justifies and glorifies our actual history of racial oppression and racism.
Bryant’s petition, in some ways, represents a coming to terms with the undemocratic reality created from this legacy. She is part of a generation of Americans who are searching for empirical answers that better explain how we got to now. And, they come equipped with over half a century of sound historical research and literature written by scholars who grapple with causality, negotiate uncertainty, and, above all, rely on the foundation of evidence to draw conclusions.
While many disagree — including this author — with the hasty removal of these monuments, that Bryant raised disagreements with the teaching of history in a Southern school reveals how deeply embedded nostalgia and mythology of the Confederacy are in the public consciousness — even after nearly 60 years of historical research has proved it wrong.
“Unquestionably,” the historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued in 1910, “each investigator and writer is influenced by the times in which he lives and while this fact exposes the historian to a bias, at the same time it affords him new instruments and new insight for dealing with his subject.”
Perhaps then, the events at Charlottesville also demonstrate that knowledge creation and historical preservation are not just contested, but contextual endeavors. Bryant, like any good scholar, came equipped in the spirit of evidence-based discovery.