Memory  /  Comment

Charlottesville Was About Memory, Not Monuments

Why our history educations must be better.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Before the Unite the Right rally and the death of Heather Heyer on Aug. 12, 2017, many Americans were unaware of the debate concerning Confederate monuments in Charlottesville

In March 2016, a then-15-year-old high school freshman, Zyahna Bryant, petitioned the City Council to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Lee Park (renamed Emancipation Park in 2017). The council obliged, and an assortment of white nationalists set out to generate momentum for their cause by opposing the statue’s removal — and sadly, it worked.

The violence of the “Summer of Hate” shattered the belief that we had entered into a post-racial America. Following those tragic events, much has been made about the resurgence of white supremacy, the Confederacy’s legacy and the persistence of American racism.

But Charlottesville also reshaped the conversation about history, exposing the disparity among historical truth, historical interpretation and mythology. The alt-right is clinging to distorted history — one created by segregationists in service to white supremacy — in order to advance their white-nationalist political project.

And last summer’s events demonstrated how the power to define the American past remains a deeply contested — and occasionally violent — matter.

In many ways, the conflicts on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, have overshadowed Bryant’s original petition. Perhaps then, on the first anniversary of those events, we should acknowledge that Charlottesville was as much about memory as monuments. Bryant, it turns out, reawakened the age-old conflict between historical proof and belief.

Bryant told Vice in a February 2018 article: “It wasn’t until 5th or 6th grade, when we started learning about the Civil War, that I started to really understand.

Everything they taught us at school about the Civil War was so romanticized. So I decided to do my own research, which is something my family has always encouraged me to do. Once I learned the truth about slavery and the Civil War, I felt disgusted that my city wanted to display a statue that celebrated my ancestors’ pain.”

In scrutinizing how the Lee monument came to be, Bryant was actually questioning how and why history is told. A 15-year-old delved into affairs of not just history, but also historiography — the cumulative effort of historians to interpret the past — and history education. In doing so, she ignited “The Battle for Charlottesville’s Soul” and demonstrated that America’s inability to grapple with its tortured racial history has educational implications.