GLIMPSES: History’s mirror often cloudy

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Last week’s events in Charlottesville, Va., emerged from two unspoken questions: How do — and how should — we view the past?

Rather than dismiss these queries as merely politically correct, honest reflection about their relevance might at least counter some of the demons that erupted in Charlottesville.

Early in my 40 years as a history teacher, I glimpsed the importance of pondering with my students the perils, pitfalls, and potential benefits that accompany my chosen field. Eventually, I stumbled across a way to make those deliberations more concrete. You at home can engage in a similar exercise.

To the right of the entry door to my classroom, I placed a mirror; I called it “historical memory.” On the opposite wall, I hung a huge map of the world; I called it “the past.”

Near the end of day one of my courses and regularly thereafter, I challenged students to peer into the mirror and reflect on what they saw.

Students immediately realized that the labels on the map were reversed. From this, we all agreed that our shared memories were more puzzling than imagined.

Thoughtful students soon glimpsed another, more perplexing insight. Their very image blocked out much of “the past” as revealed in the mirror. Shifts to the left or right might alter what they saw, but the distorting effects of our individual predilections can never be completely removed from our views of the past.

Finally, I would from time to time ask a student to look in the mirror and then leave the classroom. Invariably he straightened his hair or she adjusted her blouse before going out the door.

The message? To paraphrase William Faulkner, we cannot escape the living past. Memories of yesterday invariably influence our today and tomorrow. The instinctive, unwitting nature of this influence makes it more profound yet potentially more deceiving.

Events in Charlottesville stemmed in part from debates about two historical figures: Thomas Jefferson, father of the nearby University of Virginia, and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

I offer several common-sense premises about these two controversial Virginians in response to last week’s events.

First, like everyone who has ever lived, Jefferson and Lee were products of their times. Slavery was a reality of those times. It enriched wealthy slave owners like the two Virginians. But every Caucasian resident of the antebellum U.S. profited from that institution. Less obviously, many benefitted emotionally from its systemic dehumanization of others.

Any attempt to understand Jefferson, Lee or their era without these insights distorts a complex reality. Judging them by standards of subsequent generations is even more misleading and potentially devious.

Secondly, the two Virginians were exceptional for any time but hardly without foibles. Jefferson was a brilliant student of the human condition, a gifted writer, talented musician, architect and statesman. Lee was learned and dignified, a brilliant military tactician, and leader who inspired loyalty.

Lee was also aware enough of his own shortcomings and the limitations of the Confederate cause to graciously accept defeat and its consequences. This, in turn, unmasked a flaw apparent to subsequent observers.

Jefferson and Lee both glimpsed slavery’s wickedness, but neither could overcome intertwined forces – personal and societal — that justified it as a “necessary evil.” Lee ultimately led forces committed to slavery’s preservation and perpetuation of second-class citizenship for African-Americans.

Jefferson’s flaw was more glaring. It was long rumored that his sexual liaisons with slave Sally Hemmings produced numerous offspring. Whether consensual or otherwise, this behavior was not uncommon. Perhaps that is why it became for Americans of the era (and ever since) the ultimate taboo and paradox.

By coincidence, I was a graduate student at Jefferson’s University of Virginia when the first serious studies about his relationship with Ms. Hemmings appeared in 1973. Jefferson’s defenders understandably dismissed them.

But 40-plus years later, modern DNA evidence affirms the revisionist view.

Like Jefferson’s defenders, those who insist on retention of Gen. Lee’s statue as evidence of the nobility of the Southerner’s “lost cause” place personal preferences above historical accuracy.

But that should not be our final point.

Back to my mirror, we – and not just scholars – should realize that our flawed memories of Jefferson, Lee and the entire human experience generate sharply contrasting responses.

On this point, President Trump’s comments on last week’s events were correct. It does, indeed, take two to tangle.

Sadly, our president’s knee-jerk assertion of a moral equivalency in the Charlottesville showdown misread and worsened a volatile situation. Diverse responses to Mr. Trump affirm the other truth gleaned from my mirror.

Conflicting understandings of past events often fuel tensions in a fleeing present and generate sharply contrasting aspirations. Unresolved these conflicts undermine civility and the common good and endanger the future for all of us.

I will close with two hopefully helpful observations.

First, as flawed individuals, we should not so quickly abandon our flawed heroes. Lee’s identification with slavery should not blind us to his dignity in defeat. Whatever Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings, his preamble to our Declaration of Independence remains the beacon of our best selves and highest aspirations. Thanks to Divine grace, the worst human shortcomings are neither final nor fatal.

Secondly, this debate over our public memory should remind us of the important role of conflict in open societies. As always, the question we face in 2017 is will we allow our differences to divide and destroy? Or can we, by the grace of a benevolent creator and our own human goodness, wring creative and constructive consequences from our diverse lessons from the past?

Our own historical reputations rest on our response to this timeless question.

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Mark Banker is a historian and retired teacher. He lives in Kingston.