On August 11 and 12, in Charlottesville, Virginia, thousands of white nationalists, Klansmen, and Neo-Nazis gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally. One of their major objectives was protesting the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park. People across the country and world were taken aback by these worldviews and actions, and Bates College was no exception.
On Monday, September 18, the Bates History Department held a roundtable titled “Responding to Charlottesville: Historical Perspectives.” Held in the basement of Pettengill Hall, room G65 far exceeded capacity as swaths of students and professors gathered to hear what historians had to say about Confederate statues and how something like Charlottesville could happen in 2017.
Professor Christopher Petrella moderated and contributed to the talk, with the four main speakers being Bates professors Margaret Creighton (chair of the history department), Patrick Otim, and Andrew Baker, along with visiting Harvard University PhD student Robin McDowell.
Professor Baker spoke first and stated that, when looking at these events, “the value of history is just as much about absence as it is presence.” Baker’s main initial points were that we cannot isolate the history of white supremacy as unique to the South, like how Northern scholars in the Dunning School at Columbia University in the twentieth century wrote extensive literature romanticizing slavery. Baker added that “it’s on us to aim for harder targets” when confronting racism, alluding to places like parks and colleges named after controversial figures.
Margaret Creighton spoke next and recounted a story of a road trip she took years ago with her “Introduction to Historical Methods” short term class to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. While there, they met a black woman whose enslaved ancestors played key roles in allowing Union troops to advance at the Battle of Gettysburg, but today receive little recognition from the town’s historical societies. Creighton used this anecdote to combat the narrative that removing monuments was akin to erasing history: “there are so many people for whom monuments were never built and their history was never written.”
Patrick Otim followed by recounting how he flew back from his native Uganda just days before Charlottesville transpired and how the event made him question much of what he has learned about the United States. He said how, as an “outsider”, he was shocked by the racial relations in this country and how he “started questioning things and ideas like the First Amendment, freedom of speech; where I come from, these things don’t exist.” Otim then discussed how issues like white supremacy and a country’s past leaders are so different in a place like Uganda that suffered under colonialism, only to then have many Ugandan leaders become tyrants.
Robin McDowell gave the final opening remarks and discussed her leadership in Take ‘Em Down NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana), an activist group with the goal of removing Confederate monuments. She described being screamed at by enraged (at times armed) counter protesters and how this has impacted her research as a student of African-American studies. She also disliked how many people see removing Confederate statues as a superficial solution to racism: “it is not and it never was just about the statues. The monuments are tools for coalition building and community engagement.”
The panel then moved into question and answer, with Petrella asking broad questions and the public also being allowed to inquire. Questions ranged from the role art history might play in looking at these statues to how extreme groups like Antifa could help or hurt the cause.
One question that generated particular buzz amongst the speakers was how useful historians are in combatting racism in this country. All the panelists, along with professors in the audience, agreed that they and their fellow academics needed to be more active in breaching the ivory tower and to inform those willing to listen. Baker said that, for example, historians ought to spread the truth that “these statues were put up to claim public space in the name of military victory, as in white supremacy and Klansmen terrorism.” The panelists all concurred that subverting the true meaning of these statues, with lessons like the aforementioned one, is a crucial step towards stopping their lionization.
In the end, McDowell proclaimed that “wherever we tear down, we also need to build up.” In other words, we must continue the fight against systemic racism and create new social dynamics to build stronger interracial relationships.