Watching on TV as hundreds of avowedly racist young men carried torches through a college campus, gave the Nazi salute, chanted anti-semitic and racist slurs, and flaunted swastikas through the streets of Charlottesville was profoundly shocking and disturbing.
This is a good time to revisit questions that nag at the backs of our minds: How does history help? What does teaching about long-ago people and events have to do with the present?
I do worry that even many of those who teach history confuse it with the past, and that sites and Facebook pages aimed at teachers focus so much on trivia. Just because something happened in the past does not make it history: History is not an attic full of colorful and quaint items to amuse us. That’s why I don’t post lots of “fun” factoids on my Facebook page, even though I expect both would make me popular. I don’t do it because, as an academic historian, that’s not what I’m about. Rather, I am interested in encouraging people to seek out context through reading, and thus to think historically.
Why? Because those who are most deeply informed about Nazism and the story of race in America are also the most appalled by what happened this weekend. The swastika is such a poisonous and dangerous symbol that it is banned in Germany: In a small footnote to Charlottesville, a drunk American tourist in Germany was beaten up this weekend after throwing the Hitler salute.
Attending a quiet protest vigil last night (unusual for me, since I’m not overly fond of protests), literally the first people I met were a German woman, and an Austrian woman who had arrived in the U.S. less than a week ago. We know, viscerally, what Nazism means. We know what it did to our countries. We know its evils. We learned because, literally, we were surrounded by that history while growing up. I do not for one moment intend to diminish the fact that nearly half a million Americans died fighting the Second World War. But Britons, Germans, and Austrians saw the war come to their doorsteps and into their homes. German and Austrian families, and even some Britons (look up Oswald Mosley) , became complicit in unspeakable evil, by actively participating, or by failing to speak up. This is a lesson that the postwar generation learned well: Nazism is something apart from normal politics. It has no equivalent on the American Left.
In Charlottesville, at issue was much more than a Civil War statue, but it was a Civil War statue that was the supposed focus of a fascist rally. We can certainly debate whether or not Confederate statues should remain, but we must consider what they mean, and that is much more than as a memorial to fallen soldiers. Indeed, these memorials were not put up until long after the Civil War. They were erected in the turn of the century South, at a time when the antebellum era was being romanticized, even as there was brutal segregation and growing violence against African-Americans.
People today who think of Jim Crow segregation too often reduce it to drinking fountains in the 1950s. That’s one of the problems with curriculum forcing us to race through important subjects. Read in depth (not just in a textbook) about the “progressive” era in America over a hundred years ago, and it all comes to disturbing life for those of us with neither personal nor family experience.
We learn of the everyday humiliations of people being told that they were unfit to sit on a bus seat, with the threat of assault or even murder if they showed the slightest resentment. Read of W. E. B. DuBois and his wife being harassed with catcalls as they walked behind the coffin of their small son in Atlanta. And if you can stomach it, or even if you can’t, read of the appalling torture-murders of black men that took place before baying crowds of men, women, and children. These are part of the vital context to the statues. I do not, I rush to add, expect anyone to describe lynchings to 5th graders. But teaching history well and meaningfully requires knowing more than we can actively teach, and modeling curiosity.
The more we overcome our fear of knowing, and the more we seek to know the truth, the harder it is to hate. I listened on the radio this morning to the emotional report of a BBC journalist who visited Amritsar, the site of the appalling 1919 massacre of hundreds of Indian men, women, and children by British troops who emptied their guns on people in a walled garden for ten straight minutes. Jason Rowlatt, the reporter, declared that he was the great-grandson of the author of the Rowlatt Act, a draconian law passed that year, aimed at Indians who protested British rule. Jason Rowlatt did not apologize on his own behalf, and I would argue, nor should he: We are not responsible for the acts of our ancestors. But we are responsible to continue to investigate the past, clear-eyed and without defensiveness, to continue to find the context for our lives today. Fighting back tears, Rowlatt did apologize on behalf of his family, and his country. Yet his family had already done their bit to bring the family history into the light: When he was young, Rowlatt’s parents took him to see the movie Gandhi, which depicts the Amritsar massacre, and told him of his great-grandfather’s shameful role in Indian history. This is how we make history matter: Through truth and reconciliation.
We are at a dangerous crossroads in American history. How do we proceed? How can we help? These are the questions we each must ask ourselves, again and again.