Roundtable: Historical Memory and Contemporary Politics

This is the third post in our series on Teaching Amid Political Tension (read Part I, Part II). Today’s post comes from Jennifer M. Black, an Assistant Professor of History and Government at Misericordia University in Dallas, PA, and Network Editor-in-Chief at H-Material Culture. She tweets at @blackjen1.

When asked to contribute to this roundtable, my mind immediately turned to a 100-level course I taught this past spring, “Turning Points in American History.” Though the course had been designed as a “greatest hits” of the US history survey, I decided that I wanted to interrogate the concept of memory as it relates to the Revolution, the Civil War, and more centrally, the shifting understandings of Freedom and Rights in the US. I intentionally chose materials that would trace these changing ideas over time and highlight the legacy of the Revolution in the Civil War, the 1960s, and our own moment today. Ultimately, I wanted to get my students to talk about the 2015 controversy that arose around the Confederate flag after Dylann Roof entered the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC and brutally murdered parishioners as they prayed. This, I hoped, would push them to consider the continued relevance of these moments—of history—for today. In forcing them to confront the ways the past still shapes our society and culture, I hoped they would be motivated to work towards a better future.

Several discrete moments provided the chronological framework for the course—the decades surrounding the Revolution, the sectional crisis and Civil War, Progressivism and the New Deal, the Civil Rights era, and our contemporary moment. Adopting Eric Foner’s Story of American Freedom (1998) as my main text, I supplemented with primary sources, political cartoons and images, podcasts, and other related materials. Beginning with the decades leading up to the Revolution, we considered how colonial Americans defined freedom and liberty; in constructing the Constitution, how they fought with the questions of whose rights would be protected (and how), and how they struggled to define the role of government vis-à-vis the individual. As we moved into the antebellum period and the sectional crisis, I highlighted the ways in which these debates structured reform, notions of citizenship and belonging, and shifting understandings of labor in the economy.

The course argued that in many ways the Civil War was a reiteration of older debates that fueled the Revolution: whose rights deserved protecting? How should they be protected, and what should the role of government be in guaranteeing those rights? As Foner argues, the Civil War redefined the relationship between government and its people, vastly expanding federal power to guarantee rights to those who lacked protection before (African Americans). The ideal of expanded rights extended through the New Deal, but they were imperfectly implemented through discriminatory policies (such as red-lining) and tentative political coalitions.

Moreover, contested historical narratives—experienced through memory—provided the backdrop for political entanglements during the centennial celebrations of both the Revolution and the Civil War. Tracing the Lost Cause enabled me to connect the use of the Confederate flag as a symbol of white supremacy through the Dixiecrats in 1948, George Wallace in the 1960s, and Dylann Roof in 2015. The whole class led up to this final discussion, by connecting the concept of freedom, the history of expanded (but tempered) rights, and the tensions over the role of government throughout our 240 years as a nation. After briefly discussing the Charleston shooting and the ways in which the ensuing conversations dredged up older debates about freedom and rights, our discussion organically grew to include discussions of #BlackLivesMatter, populism, and of course, our current president.

In the final moments of the course, I asked the students why this shooting should prompt debates about history. After all, I reasoned, other shootings had not sparked such a heated debate about a flag popularized 150 years ago. Perhaps, I suggested, the Civil War isn’t over. Sure, the battles ended and Lee had surrendered, but the underlying arguments about whose rights, freedom for whom, and government protection for “all” still persisted. Speechless, my students stared and blinked with looks of profound realization on their faces. My work over the course of the semester had paid off; they “got it.”

The legacy of the Civil War is all around us. Nursing Clio recently retweeted a post from 2015 in response to HBO’s statement that it would produce a new drama outlining an alternative reality where slavery was still present. The next day, the New York Times featured an editorial on the ways in which conservatives’ preference for vouchers over “government schools” harkens back to the post-Reconstruction debates about educating free blacks. Contemporary politics resurrects old narratives, erasing the legacy of racism through evocations of “Heritage, Not Hate.”

Have we reached an age of alternative facts, and a rejection of historians? As one of my colleagues at Misericordia suggested, the currents of anti-intellectualism that ran deep in the antebellum period seem to have risen to fever pitch today. But my discussions this past semester shows that our students haven’t completely written off the Enlightenment’s focus on evidence and reason yet. They have come to college to learn; many of mine major in science or health science fields, and they appreciate evidence and facts. Finding terms they can understand may mean swapping disciplinary jargon to make a point—asking them to “diagnose symptoms” in the source material, rather than “interpreting evidence.”

On that last day of class, I stopped my students as they gathered their things to depart. Recognizing their somber expressions and not wanting to end the course this way, I added one final note: my goal was not to depress them by telling them that the Civil War isn’t finished, but instead to remind them of the hopefulness that the Revolution and Emancipation inspired. Our nation is still an imperfect experiment—history (and my course) had demonstrated that much. But if history had shown us anything, it was that the legacy of the Revolution could (and should) still inspire us create a more perfect future. Smiling, the students filed out, giving me a small measure of hope.

The full syllabus for my course, Turning Points in American History, is available on my website.

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2 comments on “Roundtable: Historical Memory and Contemporary Politics

  1. […] is the final post in our series on Teaching Amid Political Tension (read Part I, Part II, Part III). Today’s post is by Sean Trainor, who teaches history, writing, and professional […]

  2. This is a very interesting and useful approach. I am currently finishing preparing a course I’m teaching this fall that focuses wholly on the memory of the Revolution from the 1780s to the present and explores the ways in which it has changed over time as it has been used by various, often opposing groups throughout American history.

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