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Our Monumental Mistakes | The Nation

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Our Monumental Mistakes

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Overall, Loewen has written a devastating portrait of how American history is commemorated. The book is lively and informative, and his mini-essays correcting the errors and omissions at various sites offer valuable history lessons in themselves. Loewen does take note of recent efforts to diversify and modernize public history. Montana has introduced new markers on aspects of Indian history, and Pennsylvania recently decided to commemorate the state's African-American past. But perhaps because he is so intent on exposing the deficiencies of the historical landscape, Loewen fails to give adequate attention to larger debates and changes now under way.

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Eric Foner
Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia...

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Loewen does not analyze the visiting experience itself, or the possibility that people attuned to newer perspectives on the past may come away from monuments and exhibits with rather different impressions than their originators intended, or may contest how history is being presented. He offers no account, for example, of the controversy over history at the Alamo, where Mexican-Americans and others are challenging the representation of the fort's white defenders as champions of liberty while ignoring the expropriation of Mexican lands and the expansion of slavery that were an essential part of the movement for Texas independence. He notes that Boston's Freedom Trail has been supplemented by a Women's Heritage Trail, a Black Heritage Trail and even a guide to the city's gay and lesbian history, but fails to reflect on how the quest for tourist dollars can be a spur to diversifying public history.

Loewen says nothing about the efforts of the National Park Service, under chief historian Dwight Pitcaithley, to re-evaluate the hundreds of sites under its control. Slavery may be ignored in most public presentations of history, but the Park Service is currently developing a historical site in Natchez, Mississippi, devoted to the experiences of slaves and free blacks in the city's history. Gettysburg still offers a neo-Confederate view of the Civil War, but the park's directors have developed an ambitious plan to place military events there in the context of the era's social and political history, including the history of slavery.

These developments, while salutary, do not negate the overall force of Loewen's critique. Why, one wonders, has our understanding of history changed so rapidly, but its public presentation remained so static? Ultimately, public monuments are built by those with sufficient power to determine which parts of history are worth commemorating and what vision of history ought to be conveyed. One of Loewen's more interesting observations is that while labor history is almost entirely ignored in textbooks, it enjoys considerable presence in public monuments. Because unions possess economic power and political influence, they have been able to persuade states to erect markers commemorating strikes and confrontations between labor and the police, as well as noting mine and factory disasters.

Nonetheless, powerful forces remain resistant to change--a lesson the Smithsonian Institution learned a few years ago when protests from veterans' organizations scuttled a proposed exhibit on the dropping of the first atomic bomb because it pointed out that military officials disagreed over the necessity for the weapon's use. Regarding the racism so powerfully embedded in our public history, what is surprising is not that monuments and markers erected a century ago reflect the views of the Jim Crow era but that many Americans remain wedded to these representations.

Americans applauded the Muscovites who in 1991 toppled the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, but citizens of New Orleans who demanded the removal of the monument glorifying the White League were denounced as "Stalinists" by a leading historian in the pages of the New York Times. The point is not that every monument to a slaveholder ought to be dismantled but that existing historical sites must be revised to convey a more complex and honest view of our past, and that statues of black Civil War soldiers, slave rebels, civil rights activists and the like should share public space with Confederate generals and Klansmen, all of them part of America's history.

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