Happy History! Erasure of the uncomfortable past

Recently, there has been discussion in the United States about the vast amount of confederate statues. Some of those have been torn down, which caused great resistance from people who consider it a part of American history that should not be taken away from them. This week John Oliver dedicated an entire episode of his show ‘Last Week Tonight’ to this debate. He stated that, though it is important to remember this part of American history, tributes to the confederacy are not the way to do it. Especially since most of the statues were built in the 20th century, and thus are not part of the history of the Civil War itself. They shape a false history in which the South is remembered as heroic and almost as a kind of freedom fighter.

During the first half of the show, Oliver mentions a family restaurant named Dixie Stampede, which presents a Civil War themed dinner show. In a commercial for the place, the war is mentioned as a friendly North-South rivalry. While watching the dinner show, people can eat and drink as much as they like, served by a confederate soldier. John Oliver empathizes the impact this presentation of history, and that it might misguide people into thinking the Civil War wasn’t that bad, and make them forget the fact that the South fought to preserve slavery.

This erasure of slavery in historical representation of the United States is the main focus of the article ‘Crafting emotional comfort: interpreting the painful past at living history museums in the new economy’ written by Amy Tyson. She writes about two living history museums and how they deal with the subject of slavery. Since these museums are a part of the service economy, Tyson states, the main goal is to keep both visitors and the staff of the museums emotional comfortable. If visitors would feel uneasy with the subject of slavery, the museum staff would not even bring the topic on. In the cases that slavery was mentioned, the focus would be on positive aspects or examples. The result according to Tyson, is an erasure of slave history and a misrepresentation of the past.

I don’t think this is a new or isolated process. The discussion of the confederate statues shows the same problem the above mentioned museums have. People feel uncomfortable with the past and choose to focus on a more ‘positive’ presentation, even though this misrepresents of even denies the past of others. This is something that happens everywhere in the world and has happened throughout time. I consider it a positive thing that this discussion is so lively right now. It influences not just the United States, but Europe as well. In the Netherlands people were inspired and started to discuss the statues and street names of famous figures from the Dutch colonial period. I have hope that this is just the beginning of a major reassessment of how we remember the past.

Anouk Heeres