Re-examining the “good guys” of history: lessons learned from Charlottesville
Perhaps statues are not the most effective way to teach balanced and critical history
On August 12th, 2017, anti-racist protesters marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. They asked for the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. White supremacist groups clashed with the protestors and James Alex Fields was charged with second-degree murder, after forcing his car through the crowd and killing a thirty-two-year-old woman named Heather Heyer.
Courts ordered for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on September 6th. The removal was brought to a halt after a federal judge placed a temporary restraining order. However, this lawsuit was dismissed. The action will proceed as of September 7th.
The Charlottesville anti-racist protest, although resulting in tragedy and terror, was an important physical reminder of how rarely we learn about the immoral legacies the “good guys” of history left behind. A quick Google search of Robert E. Lee names him as a General of the American Civil War, and a brief look at his Wikipedia page or biography on the Civil War Trust website—which “seeks to inform the public about the vital role [America’s battlegrounds] played in determining the course of [the] nation’s history”—tells readers that his contribution is one of “military greatness.”
Ten days after the Charlottesville tragedy, I visited University College London as part of my Summer Abroad program, where I studied their Francis Galton collection. As a psychology student, I knew Galton as a trailblazer in genetic advancements and the pioneer of important mathematical concepts such as linear regression and correlation. To my surprise, the collection’s curator focused on Galton’s contributions to the eugenics movement and Nazi ideology.
Various artifacts lay at the front of the room. In one glance, I could see an original case of Galton’s pea plant seeds—which led to his breakthroughs in statistics and genetics—as well as a measurement device for his practice of craniology (the pseudoscientific ranking of races by intelligence).
I felt a wave of resentment rise up within me. How was it that I had spent my entire final year of high school in AP Biology learning about Galton’s contributions to genetics—and in Data Management learning about correlation and regression—without learning that Galton’s elegant numbers led to the systemic discrimination and enforced sterilization of minority groups?
Illustration | Yilin Zhu
The way we teach, talk, and write about history will always be biased. History is a narrative created and written by people, and writing requires choices of what words to use, who to include, and what to say about them. Every choice defines how the next generation will see the world, who they will trust, and how they will act going forward.
So how should we write, talk about, and commemorate historical figures, when “good guys” are rarely all-good? How do we decide whom to commemorate? How do we educate people about powerful legacies that also resulted in great acts of immorality?
Taking down the Robert E. Lee statue opens up opportunities for a more complex narrative to be written in its place—one that is not reduced to one version of history founded on white supremacy, but one that includes the voices that the statues silenced. I do not argue that such controversial figures should be left out of history, but rather more carefully examined.
Should we take down all monuments that depict someone or something that has both positive and negative connotations? Not necessarily. Monuments can stand for tragedy or respect. History lessons, exhibitions, and museum collections can open up discussions for alternative explanations and criticism. Statues that depict individuals, on the other hand, fail to tell a full story by themselves, and instead showcase a snapshot of someone who is assumed to be a historical hero and ideal.
History must be simplified into lessons, which entails limited time and wording. It is, however, more important to do the past, future, and current populations justice in the way history gets told. The Canadian general education curriculum commits a tremendous act of violence with its erasure of Indigenous narratives. This lack of understanding of our own history gives way to the continued oversights and continued acts of oppression and colonization toward Indigenous populations. Historical truths come from considering multiple perspectives—not from erecting a statue that asks for admiration and offers little opportunity to question the legacy behind it, or simplifying Canadian history into figureheads on a textbook page without a truly nuanced discussion.
Let the legacy of the Charlottesville protest be one not of fear and failure, but one that reminds us to take criticism seriously when it comes to how we edit past narratives, as well as how we will write our own.