September 9, 2018

GROSKAUFMANIS | Framing History

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This September, students in my old school district in Virginia returned to a newly named Justice High School — previously J.E.B. Stuart High. Same walls and infrastructure; new decorations, sports uniforms and absence of Confederate memorialization. Stuart, the dethroned-honoree-in-question, was a Confederate general who fought to maintain slavery. The name change, which neutralizes the school’s explicit nod to Confederate history, was the subject of a long, arduous debate that is still ongoing, according to the nearly 200 comments on the Washington Post’s most recent coverage.

From one end, this name adjustment is read as an attempt to rewrite history, a pandering to political correctness. But I think this particular change and many others actively work to preserve our understanding of history in a way that’s more compatible with the progress we’ve made in the interim.

The context in this case is especially illuminating. Stuart High School opened and was named in 1959, almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War, but only five years after Brown v. Board of Education — a Supreme Court decision that Virginia met with particularly massive resistance.  At best, the timing could be read as a coincidence and, at worst, it could be interpreted as a deliberate effort to intimidate newly integrated African-American students. Given the fact that this example fits into a larger trend, there’s a case that can be made for the latter. Data shows that the construction of conservative monuments in the U.S. increased substantially during two significant civil rights moments: the institution of Jim Crow laws in the early 1900s and the Civil Rights advances made in the 1960s.

The legacies of how these monuments come into being are often as political as the question of whether or not they should continue to exist.  While these monuments honor figures from the Civil War, their construction fits into the fabric of a more recent history. Proponents of their preservation say that to change a name is to erase an accurate portrayal of the past; but I would argue that keeping many of these names only serves to honor the ugliest parts of our present.

Seemingly trivial choices, like the names of the public schools we attend and dorms we live in, reflect deep truths about our values as a society and are inherently political. Last year, Yale made national news when the university moved to change the title of a residential college named after John Calhoun, a former vice president and a white supremacist. In response, in line with fairly mainstream logic, opponents to the change said it prevented students from having conversations about history. I think there’s merit to the argument that we shouldn’t shield ourselves from facts and concepts that make us uncomfortable. When monuments are discussed as if history books and academic departments don’t exist, other methods of historic preservation that don’t involve glorification are conveniently tabled.  Honoring someone with a statue or a holiday isn’t an objective, academic means of approaching history. If you want to remember J.E.B. Stuart, a quick search in the Cornell Library database will give you 1,484 results, with or without a high school named in his honor.

Last year, Cornell moved to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day in replacement of Columbus Day; a change also adopted by Harvard, Yale, Brown, UCLA and the nearby Ithaca Common Council.  According to students who lobbied for the change, it was a process that took more than a decade.  While the decision sparked some controversy, I think it’s an example of an alteration that actively works to preserve history — albeit a reframed version.  Against a backdrop in which the federal government and a majority of our peer academic institutions continue to celebrate Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples’ Day offers a different interpretation of the same moment in time, from the perspective of those who were victims of violence as opposed to a man who contributed to it.  Rather than neutralizing the significance of the holiday, this change calls who and what we honor into question — a question I think we need to start asking more rigorously.

One thing I’m wary of is over-inflating our sense of what these kinds of cosmetic changes can achieve.  What we choose to honor, as a society, is consequential and speaks to our values, but revision isn’t a panacea. Justice High School may have been rid of its strategically granted Confederate title, but it’s still only about 100 miles from a spot where, a year ago, unabashed white supremacists in Confederate paraphernalia marched violently through the streets of Charlottesville. These names, their legacies and how they came into being are symptomatic of issues that name changes alone can’t tackle. That being said, they are a start.

Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Dissent runs every other Monday this semester. She can be reached at jgroskaufmanis@cornellsun.com