How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love “Ugly History”

tags: Confederate flag, Confederate Memorials

Matthew C. Hulbert is a cultural and military historian of nineteenth-century America. He is the author of "The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers became Gunslingers in the American West"(forthcoming in October 2016 from the University of Georgia Press).

Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemtery- By Tim1965

Reports have surfaced in the last few days that lawmakers in Oklahoma are intent on defunding advanced placement (AP) courses in American history because the material being offered to students is too negative and, by extension, is unpatriotic. (Other states are apparently considering similar plans, contingent on the tone of curriculum.) One Right-leaning example common to some of the press coverage suggests that AP history materials have stopped depicting America as “exceptional” enough; and, that to define “Manifest Destiny” as something other than the justified spread of democracy and new technology from Atlantic to Pacific—as opposed to being part of a broader program of imperialism and Indian removal—is akin to intentionally filling impressionable young minds with anti-American propaganda. In short, bringing American high schoolers face-to-face with the full-breadth of their own history—ugly moments and all—and allowing them to make up their own minds has somehow become un-American.

For several months prior to the Oklahoma AP story breaking, what at first glance appears to be a move from the opposite political pole, emanating largely from Left-leaning college campuses, has swept over public spaces in America: it’s an effort to remove monuments, exhibits, grave markers, building names, and even artwork from view when they force observers to confront traumatic, disturbing, or upsetting episodes in American history. A mural depicting antebellum slavery at the University of Kentucky made national headlines when students argued that seeing visualizations of slavery on campus was upsetting and, in turn, that being upset was grounds for removal of the mural. Other notable hotspots on this front include a building named after noted defender of slavery John C. Calhoun at Yale University, a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia, imagery of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton, and Confederate monuments in New Orleans. Some critics have simply labeled the efforts a movement to “erase history”; others have dismissed it as part of a broader push to restrict free speech and install false diversity; and, some of the removal movement’s more reasonable critics—many of them academics—have called for preservation in tandem with much-needed updates in public history displays and on-site interpretation.

The fundamental problem with both of these campaigns to re-order the way Americans interact with the ugly and upsetting episodes from our national past is that once we shatter the veneer of virtually all historical narratives, things have a tendency to get ugly. Violence, imperialism, slavery, disease, sexism, racism, child labor, genocide, disparities in wealth: the list of things we’d rather not remember could go on and on. But rather than hiding from this grittier representation of the past—that is, instead of whitewashing ugliness because it makes us uncomfortable or because it complicates our long-cherished heroes and civic ideals—we should borrow a page from the Dr. Strangelove playbook and stop worrying about that which cannot be changed. The past is what it is. This isn’t a problem unique to American historians. It isn’t even really a “problem” at all. It’s just how history—which is an act of inquiry and interpretation too often conflated, by historians and the public, with the past itself—works. The difficulty seems to come when we try to wrap our heads around our lack of control over the raw stuff of history. So, put another way: no, we can’t escape an ugly past; and, yes, we should embrace ugly history. But, at the same time, we should remember that this newfound love is not naturally predisposed to one end or the other of the political spectrum.

If you won’t take my word for it—and no good student of history should ever just take anyone’s word for it, that’s how these messes tend to start in the first place—there are numerous examples that help make the case. For sake of time and familiarity, let’s take a quick look at the faces on Mount Rushmore. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln, each a titan of the American Experience as we know it.

George Washington: father of the American nation; a brilliant leader of men; also a wealthy slaveholder who famously decreed that his chattel would only go free upon the death of his wife, Martha. (It’s hard to imagine she appreciated the gesture much after more careful consideration.)

Thomas Jefferson: a dazzling inventor and architect; an equally brilliant statesman and scholar of the natural world; the social conscience behind the Declaration of Independence; also a wealthy slaveholder who, like many of his southern peers, had sexual relations with enslaved women and then essentially abandoned his mulatto offspring.

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt: ran a third party campaign that virtually handed Democrat Woodrow Wilson the White House on a silver platter because the GOP refused to make progressivism (and female suffrage) a more significant part of its core ideology; set in motion the preservation of thousands upon thousands of acres of wilderness for future generations; would today be considered an extremist war hawk, a white supremacist, and far from a friend to wildlife conservationists (owing to his prodigious hunting exploits in the American West and Africa).

Abraham Lincoln: literally gave his life to the see a war through to preserve the Union and emancipate millions of African American slaves through; however, he would have seen the Union preserved much more quickly without eliminating slavery if possible; gave serious consideration to getting rid of newly-freed black slaves via African colonization efforts.

The juxtaposition of these positive and negative attributes isn’t an argument for removing the faces of Washington and company from Gutzon Borglum’s masterwork. All four presidents earned their positions on the mountainscape, one quite literally sacrificed his life for it. Nor is leaving their faces in place—and by extension, their broader legacies—a justification of their numerous and momentous flaws. It’s simply to recognize that these men weren’t (and aren’t) cut-and-dry characters, they were human beings capable of doing great things and awful things all at once. And if they were capable of doing both, we should be more than capable of learning about and understanding that paradox in a reasonable and objective way.

Also, for the record: no, understanding that paradox of the past and liking it are not one and the same. (I never said embracing ugly history would be painless, did I?) My purpose here is not to declare that a community can’t decide to remove a name or monument from its public space after thoughtful and informed consideration of the long-term pros and cons by all parties involved. Rather, my sense is that there seems to be a great paucity of willingness to invoke such thoughtfulness in these debates.

On one hand, the knee jerk removal of commemorative artifacts because it might make us feel more comfortable in the short-term won’t undo the events in question, or assuage their respective underlying causes. In reality, such removal does bring with it the potential to leave historians in weaker positions from which to educate the public about those underlying causes. On the other hand, for certain groups to cry foul over the potential removal of monuments and murals because even ugly and traumatic history is worth saving, only to turn around and claim those same bits of rescued history are too radical or subversive for classroom use is the absolute height of partisan hypocrisy. Sadly, in the above exchange, the real loser tends to be the collective middle—left to suffer increasingly restricted access to different ideas, interpretations, and viewpoints.

Even as a scholar whose work is judged almost entirely by other professional historians, I’m a firm believer in the mantra that if both sides in a given debate dislike a proposed solution, there’s a very good chance that it’s the right thing to be saying. More often than not, that “solution” is a balanced, case-by-case approach that involves actual experts. But balance and case-by-case consideration are the last results we’re going to get from short-sighted activists, helicopter parents, paid lobbyists, and/or politicians run amok at various levels of government, because neither extreme is interested in a history curriculum or a public history discourse that grapples honestly and logically with the past. This is a genuine pitfall. Why? Because there’s a direct linkage between those who dominate the way we interpret the past (or in this case, the ways we’re not allowed to interpret it) and those who dominate social, political, and economic power in the present.

At the end of the day, then, for us to stand by and yield the ability of future generations of American students to fully grasp this relationship between past and present—and to impede their opportunities to engage with it—seems more disturbing than any interaction with a mural at UK and more dangerous than anything printed on an AP test in Oklahoma.

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