Black History Month

By Bradford Vivian and first published in

As a nation, the U.S. is debating the meaning of Confederate symbolism and history.

That debate is closely tied to how the U.S. commemorates or fails to commemorate, the full spectrum of African-American history.

In my research, I explore why people choose to remember some parts of the past and not others. I have also studied how communities choose to forget portions of the past in order to overcome longstanding conflicts.

Based on this work, I would argue that nostalgic versions of Confederate history inhibit our ability to memorialize African-American historical experiences and achievements as centerpieces of U.S. history.

Forgetting and forging ahead

A commitment to starting over and creating a new future is a deep-seated part of the U.S. experience. Thomas Paine published “Common Sense” in January 1776, as American colonists debated whether to declare independence from Great Britain. He proclaimed that a “new era of politics” and “a new method of thinking” had begun.

“Common Sense” urged colonists to forget monarchical history and culture so that they could embrace a radically new historical narrative. The doctrine of American exceptionalism that Paine helped to create – the belief that the U.S. is not only different but exceptional – depends upon an ideal of renewal. It suggests that Americans are joined together in the constant creation of a new history and a new politics.

Paine’s rhetoric argues that forgetting old customs and conflicts does not necessarily mean destroying the past. In fact, the verb “forget” descends from an Old Germanic construction that suggests losing one’s hold on something. Basic English definitions of the term – “to treat with inattention or disregard” or “disregard intentionally” – describe a voluntary decision to no longer grasp something, not destroy it.

People today don’t literally remember the Civil War. Neither can they literally forget it. The terms “remember” and “forget” are metaphorical descriptions of different attitudes toward history.

As I’ve shown in my research, sometimes communities decide that previously beloved narratives of the past have become divisive and deserve to be set aside. People often attempt to resolve conflicts rooted in history by adopting an attitude of forgetting. For example, Athenians in the fourth century B.C. restored democracy after a civil war with an act of political forgiveness. Warring parties brokered peace by swearing “not to recall wrong.” More recently, former Soviet states have removed monuments of communist leaders since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Asking Confederate advocates to forget in the name of a greater good does not mean asking them to erase the past. It means inviting them to the work of truth and reconciliation and foregoing the Lost Cause – a historical mythology that insists the Confederate cause was noble and heroic. Confederate memorials symbolize a form of white supremacy that sought to violently erase the heritage of kidnapped and enslaved Africans and their descendants. They honor efforts to destroy the history of millions while celebrating a wildly distorted version of the Confederate past.

Forgetting that distorted vision of history would not erase an authentic past. It might create opportunities for understanding post-Civil War history in more honest and equitable ways.

Truth and reconciliation

The unveiling of a slave trade historical marker in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2013. AP Photo/Dave Martin


Confederate nostalgia works against the American ethic of renewal and the desperately needed work of truth and reconciliation. Such work, as in post-apartheid South Africa, includes collective agreements to remember the past differently, resolve historical conflicts, and imagine a new future. Even Stonewall Jackson’s grandsons support proposals to remove a statue of their grandfather in Richmond, Virginia, for this purpose. They advocate for a “larger project of actively mending the racial disparities that hundreds of years of white supremacy have wrought.”

Communities can pursue this objective not only by removing monuments. They can also remove barriers to understanding history in more honest and equitable ways.

Select figures from the aftermath of the Civil War can help us to imagine what letting go or forgetting the past would look like. For example, in his second inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln implored Union and Confederate states to reconcile, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” In December 1866, Robert E. Lee himself expressed a similar sentiment. He argued that erecting Confederate memorials “would have the effect of retarding instead of accelerating” post-war recovery.

Ironically, the prevalence of Confederate remembrance today suggests that many Americans have forgotten Lincoln’s and Lee’s pleas to consciously forget past disputes.

Vastly unequal memories

Historical narratives rooted in Confederate nostalgia exert undue influence over Americans’ perceptions of national history. Distorted memories of Confederate history – depictions of benevolent slave masters and loyal slaves – hinder serious efforts to confront the brutal legacies of white supremacy.

As a result, it impedes efforts to memorialize the full scope of African-American resilience in the face of persistent brutalities. Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson are household historical names, with their likenesses preserved in numerous monuments. Not so for black Americans like Benjamin Banneker, David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington and countless others.

Myriad streets and public buildings are named after Confederate leaders. While no comprehensive catalog exists, some databases estimate Confederacy markers number in at least the thousands.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Of course, efforts to commemorate African-American history also exist. They include the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and plans to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the U.S. $20 bill. But those efforts are historically delayed and dramatically overshadowed.

These disparities indicate how reverence for the mythic Confederate past hinders the nation from seeking a new kind of future. Pursuing the difficult work of truth and reconciliation is impossible without letting go of the Lost Cause.

That work would involve sober discussions about how Confederate monuments, and the attitudes toward history that they illustrate, represent distortions of American history rather than praiseworthy representations of it. It would also require finding new ways to prioritize the teaching and commemoration of African-American history.

Local governments have removed statues of Confederate generals in the dark of night. Will we also labor together, in the light of day, to discover more honest and equitable ways of understanding our history anew?

Bradford Vivian (PhD, Pennsylvania State University) is an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences. His research and teaching focus on theories of rhetoric (or the art of persuasion) and public controversies over collective memories of past events.


  1. Nostalgia?? That’s our history. Thousands died. The male population of the South was decimated. It may not be personal history and it may not be recent, but people in the South and even descendants elsewhere – this is our history. We may not agree with these peoples’ politics or social views but they were Americans. They fought for many different reasons. Any man who fights and dies in honest defense of his family, community and country deserves respect. And who blames them for honoring their leaders during this period? Everyone’s so blinded by political correctness that they can’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt, they can’t question their own prejudices and stereotypes and really find out for themselves who these men were. You want to tear down monuments because you think everyone was a racist and fought to preserve slavery? Well, h*** you’ve got a lot of monuments and gravestones to bulldoze. Let’s start with the Washington and Lincoln monuments shall we? You want to burn a national flag that represented legalized slavery for decades?? You’ll have to burn the US flag too, because that’s where your logic leads. As for me, I choose to live in the present. Flags stand for who WE are, not who people of the past were. If we allow a statue to stand and our motives are not racist, then how is the statue or monument racist? In the end we are all pawns of political strategists who manipulate are emotions for votes. History will not die, no matter how many books you burn.

  2. This is a sad article which only promotes division and false narratives. One does not have to denigrate or suppress one groups history in order to honour or promote another groups history. In fact the concept that current monuments somehow suppress African-American is untrue.
    Large numbers of blacks and other minorities were involed in the confederate military effort so all memorials to confederate soldiers also represent these minorities. If this fact were taught perhaps more healing would occur.
    There is nothing that presently is in place that prevents individuals from raising funds and erecting monuments to any individual or event they desire just as those who placed confederate monuments did. The solution is more, not less monuments.
    Teach facts, not emotional opinions. The war was not over slavery. Lincoln said so and so did Davis. Secession’s causes can be debated, but the actual war was not about slavery. Until facts are taught there is little chance for complete reconciliation.

  3. So razing a statue to the common soldier who died and replacing it with another race doesn’t have the potential to create offense? Not because the offended are racists but because the dead are being dishonored and another race is being honored as more important. Why not simply erect African-American statues nearby?

    Most Southerners don’t even know what the Lost Cause is and certainly don’t hold the opinion that all slave owners were benevolent and slaves content. That is a distortion of the opposition’s position (though it was not true that every owner beat, raped and killed). For those of us who know enough to care: research by the leading scholars of the field do not show that preservation of slavery was the primary reason men thought they were fighting a war. It is possible that the distortion of history is ALSO on your side. That the majority of these men fought honorably and for a noble cause is not a fiction that was created after the war. Why? Because a majority had other reasons besides preserving slavery for participating in the war. It is recorded during the war, not afterward.

    The way the south was treated during Reconstruction pretty much threw “peaceful reconciliation” out the window. You know how the North and Congress tried to reconcile? By returning battle flags and erecting memorials around the turn of the century. You want peaceful reconciliation between the white and black communities? My advice: don’t destroy, build. Tip: you have yet to prove to anyone that these statues were raised for racist reasons to intimidate. I suggest you come up with some solid evidence if you want to change minds. Prove to the white community that razing Confederate memorials isn’t just about revenge and suspicions that the reason they are still standing is because the white community is still racist. Prove to whites that this simply isn’t a power play and some in the black community just want to be in control and symbolize they are dominant. Because of the rhetoric of many on the left and in the black community that exactly how this appears.

    You want the South to forget past disputes: I don’t think statues are about that to most. My question is are you asking the black community to forget? Because if that dispute was “forgotten” we wouldn’t be having statues removed.

  4. This article has a photo of the MLK monument.
    How long till Year Zero zealots seize upon MLK’s disdain for the “problem” of homosexuality and demand his statue be torn down?
    Compared to MLK I’m an moral giant, right?

  5. Major R. E. Wilson of the CSA warned, “If I ever disown, repudiate, or apologize for the Cause for which Lee fought and Jackson died, let the lightening of Heaven rend me, and the scorn of all good men and true women be my portion. Sun, moon, stars, all fall on me when I cease to love the Confederacy. ‘Tis the Cause, not the fate of the Cause, that is glorious!'”

    “Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late… It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision… It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.”
    Maj. General Patrick R. Cleburne, CSA, January 1864

    I well never disown my Confederate ancestors.

  6. Let me see if I understand your point. In order to fully appreciate one group’s history, it’s necessary to purge the history of other groups. That position is one of arrogance and selective recall in addition to being historical revisionism at its worst.


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