The year 2020 proved to be a contentious year on many fronts political, social, medical but nothing surprised me more than the nationwide controversies over statues and monuments associated with dark moments in our past. We here in Pendleton recently sorted out a disagreement over streets named for figures in the Confederacy, so I thought it might be worth exploring some of the issues and questions these events bring to the surface.
You often hear people opposed to the removal of controversial monuments declare, You cant rewrite history. Actually, historians rewrite history all the time. In many cases, journalists are the first on the scene of a big event, and they write what they and others observed as it happened. In Stalins Soviet Union, for example, foreign correspondents witnessed a sad parade of cringing, broken defendants in the infamous 1930s show trials.
Based on the courtroom proceedings, correspondents could only concur with the verdict that the defendants were wreckers and enemies of the state that deserved execution. When it emerged later that these people were arrested and tortured solely for their alleged opposition to Stalins brutal regime, historians corrected the record.
Sometimes, an existing narrative is broadened to reflect the emergence of individuals once obscured. American women had few books written about them prior to their debut as the home-front workers who made the nation go in World War II.
The American woman soon will have her own dedicated Smithsonian museum, the ultimate historical accolade. Gay Americans became a popular topic of inquiry after the riots at New York Citys Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. Who are these men, people asked, and what are they protesting? These inclusions enlivened and enriched the study of U.S. history, which has too often proved to be a boring names and dates recitation of political milestones.
Reevaluation of established narratives also figures prominently in the rewriting of history.
I vividly recall my fourth grade visit to the Whitman Mission, where we heard how violent Indians brutally murdered well-meaning whites who were only trying to treat a measles epidemic. Thanks to individuals like Pendletons Bobbie Conner and other scholars of Indian history, visitors are now invited to consider the massacre as part of a clash of civilizations between colonizing whites and Indians pushing back.
How would you react, the exhibits ask, if strangers came bringing deadly diseases and planning to take your land and livelihood? Similarly, novelists like Margaret Mitchell painted a distorted picture of the Civil War-era south, where plantation owners were chivalrous and slaves either honorary family members or scheming, murderous criminals.
Gone with the Wind became the standard-bearing novel and film representing this view. But as a fuller picture of African Americans emerged during both world wars and the fledgling Civil Rights movement, historians began to examine the institution of slavery with fresh eyes. They uncovered a catalog of horrors that dramatized the moral darkness of slavery slave ships from Africa, harsh working conditions, brutal beatings and family separations. In cinematic terms, these discoveries suggest that 12 Years a Slave represents the African American experience under slavery with greater accuracy than Gone with the Wind.
These revisions have naturally inspired a reckoning with individuals who supported slavery, segregation and/or ethnic cleansing. Commemorations in public spaces proclaim that the honoree is someone to be admired. The question then becomes, do people who enslaved and/or abused fellow humans deserve to be honored? Confederates like General Robert E. Lee certainly fought for a cause, but that cause was a defense of slavery.
The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs decided long ago to name their institution for President Woodrow Wilson. In recent years, a close examination of his presidency reveals that he had actively worked to block the employment of African Americans in the federal government. Is a segregationist like Wilson someone we want future public servants to emulate?
That icon of conservation and progressivism, Theodore Roosevelt, believed strongly in Social Darwinism, which holds that whites are stronger than and intellectually superior to nonwhites, and therefore justified in the ethnic cleansing of Indian lands. Should he continue to be revered as an exemplary citizen? Thomas Jefferson allegedly fathered a child with a slave on his estate, and Abraham Lincoln assisted slave-owning clients as an Illinois lawyer. What is to be done with their public tributes?
I have often thought that Europe has too much history ancient rivalries, disputed territories, numerous wars while the United States has too little. As this is fundamentally a forward-looking country, it is gratifying to see people engaging with their history, even as disagreements sharpen.
Next month, I will offer some further thoughts on these commemoration conundrums and other issues pertinent to how we remember controversial events and individuals.
Brigit Farley is a Washington State University professor, student of history, adventurer and Irish heritage girl living in Pendleton.
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