University scholars interrogate replacement of Confederate monuments

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - 10:29pm

Walter Johnson, Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, discusses the evolution of monuments and their role in today's society in North Quad Wednesday evening.

Walter Johnson, Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, discusses the evolution of monuments and their role in today's society in North Quad Wednesday evening. Buy this photo
Carter Fox/Daily

Humanities scholars from the University of Michigan and Harvard University gathered Wednesday evening to discuss the significance of Confederate monuments in the United States, and appropriate public and governmental approaches to replacing them. The discussion was a section of the three-part High Stakes Culture lecture series jointly hosted by the Institute for the Humanities and the Humanities Collaboratory. 

Since the city of Charlottesville, Va., announced plans to remove a prominent statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee in August — following deadly white supremacist rallies earlier that month — protests spread around the country, many on college campuses.

Angela Dillard, associate dean for undergraduate education and professor of Afroamerican and African studies, lead the panel of scholars. Dillard situated the discussion within the context of a larger national debate regarding racially charged Confederate monuments and statues.

“After Charlottesville this past summer, nationally, town after town, we saw instances of these memorials coming down, being removed, being vandalized, being liberated,” she said. “Nobody really knows how much of this stuff we have in our public spaces.”

Dillard reiterated while there have been rough estimates about the number of Confederate monuments and symbols around the U.S. — the Southern Poverty Law Center estimated nearly 1,503 memorials remained in 2016 — a great deal remains unknown about the scale of the issue. 

Kristin Hass, an associate professor of American culture, discussed the distinct modern relevance of patriotism and nationalism in the U.S. as linked to protests in favor of and against Confederate monuments. 

“For people under the age of 25, you have come of age in a period in which patriotism and cultural practices around patriotism are ubiquitous — they’re everywhere, they're like air and water. For those of us over 25, we have experienced periods where they were out of style, where they didn’t matter, where they were neglected,” Hass said. “It’s really important to understand that there’s a sweep of history, and there have been times where these cultural practices and these monuments didn't matter at all.”

Matthew Countryman, an associate professor of history and American culture, explored the relationship between nationwide movements to remove monuments and local conversations focused on the history of segregation and exclusion at the University. Students and faculty turned out in droves last fall to call for the re-naming of the C.C. Little building, currently dubbed for Clarence Cook Little, a former University president and avowed proponent of eugenics. An official proposal to rename the building is still before University president Mark Schlissel's Advisory Committee on University History. Other building names that have come under question include Angell Hall and Yost Ice Arena. 

“I am deeply conscious, as I sit here, that I have been occupying a space at the University of Michigan that has its own particular history of racial segregation and exclusion,” he said. “We have our own particular history of racial exclusion at the University. It’s important to contextualize our conversation about monuments around our own location and our own institutional history.”

Walter Johnson, a professor of history and African American studies at Harvard University, deflated the belief that monument removal eliminates the legacies of events and people. He emphasized monuments are less valuable to historical remembrance than some might think.

“When you take down a monument, you’re only taking down a particular representation of the past. Is it really true that if you take down a monument of the Robert E. Lee that you’re actually going to forget the Civil War — it’s ludicrous,” Johnson said.

There was disagreement as to whether vandalism should be viewed as a morally acceptable response to Confederate monuments. Johnson expressed vandalizing monuments is on the spectrum of graffiti that he believes serves as a way for marginalized people to reclaim space and make their presence felt. Dillard disagreed.

“If vandalism is the standard, then any monument, even the good ones, become a target,” Dillard said.

Public Policy senior Jordan Sandman explained he appreciated the panel’s diversity of perspectives. He commented students on campus could benefit from the candid open discourse he noticed between the professors.

“I think the panel represented a deep breadth of intellectual viewpoints on the subject. The campus is going to have to realize that we need to approach contentious social issues from a variety of perspectives to combat them,” he said.

LSA junior Andrew Jullette said while the speakers’ variety of academic backgrounds was helpful in broadening the scope of conversation, the panel may have been more useful for an audience elsewhere in the United States. 

“I worry, to some extent, that this event was preaching to the choir in that the attendees and the panelists generally agreed on the topic at hand,” Jullette said. “I would love to see the University try to find a way to facilitate a dialogue on difficult issues like the monuments or racial divisions as they occur on campus and in society.”