With 30 percent of Americans still denying global warming exists, and at least some still denying Barack Obama is an American citizen, it is striking that basic facts can become so contested. David Roberts, for Vox, says America is in the midst of an epistemic crisis. One advanced, he argues, by Trumpism’s rejection of mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge.
In such an atmosphere, one wonders, even if Trump is found to be guilty of collusion with Russia whether, ultimately, those facts will matter. But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Americans have been engaged in dubious interpretation and disregard of facts for as long as schools have been teaching children that the pilgrims and the Indians were friendly co-collaborators and glossed over the raw horrors of the slave trade.
The long tradition of revisionism was at the center of Public Memory in the New South, a symposium hosted by the College of Charleston Jan. 11-13. The gathering, which was free and open to the public, was chiefly concerned with what, as individuals and as a society, we remember and forget and how we choose to frame those recollections, events, and historical narratives. Focused on the Southern experience and Southern history, the two-day event grappled with slavery, the Civil War, and the significance of Confederate monuments and symbols that have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, seen by some as tools of oppression and revered by others as proud emblems of Southern heritage.
[image-3] A part of the programming for Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South, a photographic exhibit that collected 56 photographers’ visions of the South, the symposium featured scholars and a host of artists featured in Southbound who walked audiences through their work, their inspirations, and their techniques.
Speakers included: Dr. Adam H. Domby, award-winning historian and College of Charleston professor; photographer Anderson Scott, perhaps most famous for his book of Civil War reenactment photographs called Singing Dixie; and 9/11 memorial designer Michael Arad, who is also the designer of the planned Emanuel Nine Memorial.
[content-4] Sheila Pree Bright, whose work in Southbound is drawn from her collection #1960Now, which documents the Black Lives Matter movement from Atlanta to Baltimore, opened the weekend. At the Sottile Theatre, Bright, in an address titled #UNAPOLOGETIC, described her background as the “daughter of a soldier” whose parents were from the South and who did not find photography, but was instead found by photography. Her remarks focused on the meaning imbued in symbols like the Confederate flag and how, for “black bodies,” the flag represents trauma.
“I don’t understand how a group or a race of people can’t understand that type of trauma. I think memory is ingrained in the DNA, generation after generation,” she said. “When we are born, black bodies, we are born into a struggle for liberation. How can you forget?”
That question cannot be addressed without considering that for some Southerners, the Confederate flag and other emblems of the “lost cause” are tied, at least narratively, to a proud heritage of people fighting for autonomy, states’ rights, and the honorable dead.
[image-2] It is a narrative that professor Adam H. Domby is all too familiar with. “I get so many students in my classes misinformed about the factual causes of the Civil War and about slavery.” So many that Domby has come to refer to the heritage argument for the Confederate flag and other symbols as the “false cause.” His presentation, the most in depth of all of the lectures, also engaged with the “Public Memory” theme of the weekend most directly.
Highlighting a series of primary documents from the Civil War and the period after Reconstruction, during which the highest number of Confederate monuments were erected (Jim Crow), Domby unceremoniously deconstructed myths about the war’s cause and the original purpose of Confederate monuments by simply pointing to the original statements made by their architects.
[content-3] One such document was “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Succession of Mississippi from the Federal Union.” It states unequivocally the reason for going to war: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”
In another document, North Carolina industrialist Julian Carr in 1913 states in his dedication to the monument of “Silent Sam,” a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier, (which until recently stood prominently on the University of North Carolina campus), the central purpose of the statue’s erection: “The present generation … scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race … when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race.” The declaration goes on to proudly explain that that is why the purest Anglo Saxon strain can be found in the 13 Southern states, rendering the statue itself an unveiled homage to white supremacy.
[Ed. note: Carol Folt, the UNC chancellor who ordered Silent Sam’s remaining pedestal removed on Monday while also tendering her resignation effective in May, was asked to step down on Jan. 31 by the school’s board on Tuesday.]
[image-1] Other highlights of the symposium included the closing address by Michael Arad who shared designs for the forthcoming Emanuel Nine memorial. Scholar Dr. Thomas Brown’s presentation tracked the explosion of photography as an instrument of remembering with the outbreak of the Civil War and later with the erection of Civil War monuments. Speakers also posed interesting questions about whether the removal of offensive memorials contributed to a healing process or caused a kind of collective amnesia.
In an interview with Bright before her talk, the photographer poignantly noted that she believes that what contributed to the tension over Confederate monuments and related symbols of the South is that for centuries the story of America and the American people has been written by white men — that they have been the sole architects of our public memory.
She expressed hope that the Smithsonian African American History Museum and the lynching memorial at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama might help turn the tide, and recall a more complete vision of the South. Her remarks recall a memorable proverb: until the lion tells the story the hunter will always be the hero.