If you think historians are just talking heads on TV or in a classroom, what are you going to do when your kid turns to you in the car and asks, “Mom, why are all those people tearing down the statues?”
Now you are the historian, and you’d better have answers.
Well, I teach history, and I too have been wrestling with questions and answers about this summer’s fury. So here are my suggestions, not easy answers — for you, for your kids and anybody in our community.
First, let’s turn off the “thumbs up, thumbs down” approach to history. We are besieged by an all-or-nothing mentality in our mass media talk, our social media posts and even our hand gestures. Yet, look around at our family members and friends. Don’t we recognize that each person in our life has habits and styles that send our thumbs up and down in endless varieties?
That’s true with “history.” Alexander Hamilton’s reputation as one of the nation’s founders has long been that of an elitist who yearned for the stability of a monarch (thumbs down), but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wonderful musical “ Hamilton” has turned countless thumbs up in recent years. The thing is, Alexander Hamilton is still all of the above — and more. He was human!
Second, we need to figure out the difference between remembering something and celebrating it. Wait! You might say the statue topplers could care less about any distinction between “remembering” or “celebrating.” That may be so. But we should care. And our kids need to learn the difference because there is a difference.
What we choose to celebrate — “commemorate” is really the better word for this — is always going to be about us now, in the present. So of course we will change our holidays, our pageants, our public displays from time to time. Still, we need to work hard to “remember,” especially the history that those in power at the moment or the statue topplers want us to overlook or ignore.
Yet our “thumbs up, thumbs down” tendency can obscure our logic. If you visit Washington, D.C., you may notice various traffic circles with statues in the center. One is named for Gen. Philip Sheridan, a Civil War-era leader. Confederate? No. Union? Yes. A Reconstruction-era military governor of Texas and Louisiana, he cracked down on ex-Confederates. Then he ran a scorched-earth military campaign against Native Americans in the west in the 1870s. So where does he fit in?
And where does somebody like Dorothea Dix fit in? Why isn’t there a traffic circle in Washington, D.C., named for her, with her statue in the center? The Hampden native was a leader in mental health advocacy and served, amid great strain, as superintendent of Army nurses during the Civil War.
How can we decide in 2020 whether or in what way to commemorate Dix or Sheridan or countless other historical figures? I think the more relevant question is: In what ways can we remember our history and historical figures even when they are not honored or placed on a pedestal.
Recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered portraits of four previous speakers of the House removed from a place of honor in the Capitol because the four served in the Confederacy. OK. But we need new ways to learn about the scoundrels, the tyrants — all those people or events we do not want to commemorate but should understand.
Third, here at home and as a new school year looms, we need to make sure kids and adults are actually getting access to history. Ask your kids: Will you be studying any U.S. history this year? It’s not about playing simulation games or doing service projects or mindlessly memorizing names, dates and places. It’s learning about those people in the statues — and those who are not. It’s about remembering, not forgetting.
Tom McCord teaches U.S. history at the University of Maine at Augusta.