Teaching Confederate Monuments

When Jason Kessler submitted the permit for the infamous Unite the Right Rally, he described the event as a “free speech rally in support of the Lee monument.” Yet the rally was never really about the monument. It wasn’t even about Lee or the Confederacy. Instead, it was about “the demonization of white people and their history,” as Kessler described it on Twitter.

After Heather Heyer’s death, I knew I had a responsibility as an educator to engage the debate on Confederate monuments in my classes. As a teacher of early American literature and history as well as critical thinking and argument, I knew I needed to do so by taking Kessler’s (and many, many other’s) rhetorical manipulation of history, memory, and monuments seriously. I needed to help my students analyze that rhetoric, to understand our shared history and transform our future.

I wanted students to:

  1. Understand that history is constructed
  2. Participate in constructing history themselves
  3. Develop their own agency as learners and citizens

Whether they wanted or planned it, they were already constructing history. Now they needed to shoulder that responsibility. So, I developed an argumentative research paper that asked them to defend who or what should be remembered, explain why they should be remembered, and develop a plan for how they should be remembered.

Dr. Mariah CrilleyDr. Mariah Crilley

To build towards this final assignment, we unpacked the terms history, memory, memorials, and monuments. We read an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s Beloved on “disremembering,” listened to a podcast on the Buck vs. Bell Supreme Court ruling that allows for the eugenic sterilization of people deemed mentally unfit, and discussed how Italy has reimagined rather than destroyed their monuments to fascism and Mussolini. With these assignments, our conversations ranged from slavery to eugenics, extending beyond Confederate monuments to consider what else we have chosen to remember, forget, or repackage and reframe. Importantly, we moved from critique to composition, from deconstructing monuments and history to imagining how to construct alternatives.

We also took a virtual walking tour of Charlottesville, VA, moving from the many Confederate monuments to the overlooked (certainly by Kessler) Slave Auction Block Plaque. The plaque reads, “Slave Auction Block – On this spot slaves were bought and sold.” The plaque’s language not only dehumanizes enslaved people, but also uses passive voice to exculpate White slave owners from their agency in “buying and selling” human beings.

Beginning with a close-up image of the plaque, we then zoomed out to grasp its entire context: this plaque is located in the sidewalk, on the ground, constructing a radically different history—and present—than the Lee monument a few blocks down the street. This plaque was recently stolen and replaced with one that highlights the racist contortions and historical “disremembering” that enabled the original plaque: “Human Auction Site – In 1619 the first African kidnap victims arrived in VA. Buying and selling of humans ended in 1865. For 246 years this barbaric trade took place on sites like this.”

Students intuitively understood that history was “written by the winners,” but this assignment asked them to understand how it was constructed and to intervene in that construction themselves. It asked them to intervene in the past in order to shape the present and the future.

I didn’t ask students to defend or deny the Confederate monuments, a concerted choice on my part. I didn’t want students to believe that I was indoctrinating them, not because I was afraid of challenging them, but because I didn’t want anyone to retrench, to shut down defensively and abandon critical thinking. Yet, while no student wrote about the Confederate monuments, every student participated in the questions and rhetorics of power, injustice, history, and futurity that these monuments embody and espouse: Who is remembered, and who is forgotten? Why? How can we change that?

Dr. Mariah Crilley is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA.