Professors discuss celebration of history at panel

Guilford College Logo

On Wednesday, Sept. 13, Guilford College hosted a panel entitled “Race, Commemoration, and Politics of the Past,” which focused on the differences between honoring the past and being aware of what happened. Panelists told anecdotes of being raised to revere Confederate soldiers, settlers and other American figures without knowing their full histories.

“We can’t change what happened, but we can change the stories we tell,” said Damon Akins, panelist and associate professor of history.

Akins grew up in Oklahoma in an area that saw a large influx of settlers hoping to acquire land during the Land Rush of 1889. Native Americans lost over 2 million acres of land in Oklahoma during the settlement boom.

“Oklahoma was carved out of Native American territory by what were called land rushes or land runs,” said Akins. “In elementary school we would celebrate 89er day during recess , and we would come dressed as pioneers … And we would all run out into the six acres of grassy area next to the playground, and we would stake our claim.”

89er day continues to be celebrated in Oklahoma to this day. The celebration honors white settlers, all the while refusing to acknowledge the Native American loss of life and land.

“What I learned from (89er day) was that there were no Indians there, or if the Indians were there they no longer used the land, and they no longer had a legitimate claim to the land,” said Akins. “I think that’s strange but also terribly problematic … It increases the notion that this was legitimate.”

The other panelists, Part Time Lecturer of History Tiffany Holland, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Tom Guthrie and Director of Community Learning James Shields, also discussed their opinions on commemoration in their presentations.

Commemoration played a role in Shields’ childhood. He grew up in the South and lived in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Chattanooga.

“In Virginia in the ‘60s, we were indoctrinated to the myth of the lost cause of the Civil War,” said Shields. “When I was coming up, I came to have a certain amount of reverence and respect for Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart without thinking about it.”

Shields believes that the interpretation of Civil War figures leads to a misconstrual of Southern identity.

“This idea of what is Southern to me is a little bit different from what we’re being told,” said Shields. “When you hear about ‘Southern heritage,’ I always want to ask someone when they say ‘heritage not hate,’ explain to me the heritage part. That doesn’t include the lynchings, that doesn’t include the enslavement, that doesn’t include the disenfranchisement.”

Commemoration can be used to create identity.

“We draw on the past to create our own identity in the present,” said Guthrie. “Commemoration in history is always about power (relations).”

Audience members reacted well to these claims.

“I think it’s part of ongoing conversation we’re having, and I hope that it will inspire more conversations like this,” said Kathryn Shields, associate professor of art. “Your generation plans on handling these events much (differently) than in the past.”

Akins agrees that the new generation has the capacity to understand and resolve issues of commemoration.

“Kids are really good at handling complex stuff, and we often underestimate and under value their ability to do so,” said Akins.

The panelists have hope for the future.

“Your history textbook will be about the greatness of America,” said Holland.