It’s hard to be a historian these days without constantly hearing about the supposed irrelevance of your work. After all, it must seem to many observers like we exist in our own academic echo chambers, engaging in ivory tower intellectualism that has little bearing on “real life.”
And then, as a nation, we have a week like last week.
Nine black Americans were murdered by a white supremacist in the church that Denmark Vesey helped to found. The images of Jennifer Pinckney at the funeral of the her husband, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, created an eerie parallel to photographs of Myrlie Evers and Coretta Scott King at their murdered husbands’ funerals. And over it all flew the flag of the Confederate army, triumphantly waving over Columbia, South Carolina. It doesn’t take a PhD in American history to see the how crucial some historical reckoning is in a moment like this.
Earlier this week, Lara Freidenfelds noted in her post about the landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that historical work was not only important in contributing to the court’s opinion, but in helping to create the atmosphere in which such a ruling was possible. This was one of those rare instances where the entire nation realized what we historians have always known — that, as Lara put it so simply, history matters.
Not only did we see how much history matters, we were reminded of how complicated history is. For example, in Obergefell, the court’s opinion relied on the work of historians to support their belief that marriage has adapted and changed through our nation’s history. Yet, the court’s dissent also called upon history, this time in an attempt to argue that “traditional” marriage has been a historical and geographic constant. The same has been true of the recent debate over the Confederate flag. Civil War historians like Kevin Levin (a longtime advocate against the public display of the Confederate flag) and Eric Foner have come forward to talk about the flag as a symbol of white supremacy — while others have literally rallied around the flag because they claim it honors Southern heritage.
History matters — but whose history? Which history? This is a moment where it becomes clear that it’s not enough for us to simply call upon popular memory or family lore. We also need professionals who are trained in historical thinking and decision making, who know how to weigh the evidence and come to conclusions. Heritage is not history — it’s a kind of historical nostalgia that sticks to the pleasant and positive. According to historian Michael Kammen, heritage “produces a beguiling sense of serenity about the well-being of history.”1 It’s a version of selective remembering that chooses the most comfortable and flattering stories and rejects the bits that complicate and darken the story. It’s the job of the historian to take those memories and think about them critically, to turn them over and over with the evidence until we understand where those stories come from. For Civil War historians and the case of the Confederate flag, this means wading through the rhetoric on heritage to dig into the less rosy, but nonetheless true, history of slavery, white supremacy, the myth of the Lost Cause, Jim Crow and the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.
If you reject the work of actual history, it’s easy to accept the Confederate flag as simply a reminder of the brave Southern men who bled for their homeland. But if you’ve done that work, that acceptance is impossible. The flag is inextricably bound up in not only slavery and the Civil War, but the growth of a post-war Southern culture that believed that the cause of the Confederacy (which was, in case you were still confused, the defense of slavery) was just, even if it was lost. It’s also entangled in the horrific out-growths of that belief: segregation, white violence, and Jim Crow. After all, the Confederate flag was not hoisted over Columbia, South Carolina until 1962, in the midst of the fight over desegregation. The flag can not be de-linked from these things. This is why Civil War historians are really not having a debate — they already agree that there is no way to divorce the Confederate flag from its white supremacist history.
The work of history, the reading, thinking, and piecing together of agonizingly small bits of information to create a whole, helps us to think through events like those of the past week. It has helped us point out the terrible symbolism of a Confederate flag waving comfortably over a state in mourning over the slaughter of black men and women. But, as so many have pointed out, this isn’t about a flag, it’s about a mass murder, and historical thinking has also helped us place this horrifying act.
As historians, we know that we can’t look at this act of terror as a singular action. We know that it comes as part of a long, sickening line of white supremacist violence against black men and women, against black churches, against symbols of black power and community. We collectively felt our stomachs churn when we heard Dylann Roof’s invocation of the myth of the black rapist. We understand that those are not the rantings of one sick young man, but yet another salvo in a centuries-long war against black Americans. In a moment like this, history matters.
It’s been a hell of a week to be a historian. We here at Nursing Clio shrieked with joy as the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was announced, and we certainly squealed happily about the citations to historians. But we also had heavy hearts as we thought about those nine funerals, thinking about how it has happened before, and is happening now, and will happen again and again unless something changes. I pray that we’re not connecting these kinds of historical dots again any time soon.
- Michael Kammen, The Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1991), 626. Return to text.