Professors discuss memorials in light of Charlottesville

On Tuesday, Oct. 17, the Vassar History Majors Committee and History Department Academic Intern Maya Sudarkasa ’18 hosted the second of the series of “History and Memory after Charlottesville” lectures. They organized a panel discussion titled “Contesting Memory: An International Perspective.”

After the racist incident in Charlottesville, VA, in August, Sudarkasa and the History Majors Committee decided to organize the serial discussion events in order to share opinions about how the United States and other countries remember histories of wars, conflicts and injustices.

The first event of the series was held on Thursday, Sept. 28, when the Head of the West Point history department Colonel Ty Seidule visited the campus and delivered a speech on the Confederacy. As a continuation of the discussion, the second talk, a panel discussion by Vassar faculty about the relationship between commemoration and political power was established.

According to Vassar’s Office of Communications’ event listing, “The panelists will help contextualize historical efforts to (re)construct national history and identity in specific international spaces, while also discussing both promises and/or limits of this work, as well as possible ways forward” (Vassar Info, “History and Memory after Charlottesville, ‘Contesting Memory: An International Perspective,’ October 17, 2017,” 10.9.2017).

Many students participated in this event in Rocky 300 on Thursday. Emma Wiley ’20 was one of the attendees who looked forward to the discussion. As a history major, Wiley had attended the first event in the series and found that the project was very interesting. Through the panel discussion, she wanted to continue learning more about the topic. Wiley also added that her hometown is Falls Church in northern Virginia, which is close to Charlottesville. She said the series triggered by the Charlottesville incident would give her an insight to understand her local community more deeply.

Four Vassar professors participated in the panel discussion: Professor of Political Science Katherine Hite, Professor of History Ismail Rashid, Assistant Professor of History Wayne Soon and Professor of History Maria Höhn. Each of the speakers talked for 10 to 15 minutes about the various ways of memorializing historical events relating to their respective fields of expertise.

Professor Hite was the first speaker. At the start of her speech, she posed the question about how people remember a political violence. She said, “[Memorials are a way of] challenging a silence and opening up important conversations.” Nevertheless, the process of creating memorials, such as deciding narrative, context and design, is deeply influenced by politics, power and interest.

Hite explained these points by using Texas, her home state, as an example. She stated that Texas and other southern U.S. states have numerous controversial memorials. For example, proponents of Confederate state monuments argue that they are historical markers honoring heritage, while opponents would disagree by saying the memorials symbolize slavery, racism and a history of brutal territorial expansion.

Hite introduced another example: the construction of a monument for Jesse Washington, a Black teenager who was lynched in Waco, TX, in 1961. The proposal of creating the monument was suggested so that people could commemorate the victim and remember the inhumane racism. However, the proposal has not yet been confirmed.

Finally, Hite pointed out the fact that there is no major memorial to the Mexican and Mexican-American victims of the Border War during the Mexican Revolution. Hite concluded her portion of the panel by arguing that it is crucial to put more efforts into remembering the history of marginalized groups.

Professor Rashid continued the discussion by talking about monuments in South Africa. He opened his talk by introducing the protest “Rhodes Must Fall (#RhodesMustFall).” In March 2015, students of the University of Cape Town protested to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes on the campus. They argued that the statue symbolized colonialism and racism and so it should be eradicated. Moreover, the protest asked for the decolonization of education across South Africa. The protest soon became extremely powerful and garnered international attention. In April 2015, the statue was removed.

Rashid also talked about how the South African government changed the culture of monuments. Previously, there were a lot of monuments in South Africa symbolizing white supremacy and discrimination of marginalized groups. However, recently, in order to counteract this message, the South African government is making an effort to create memorials to the oppressed.

Rashid suggested three examples. First, he introduced the Zulu King Monument which memorializes the Bambatha Rebellion in 1906. Next, he highlighted the Voortrekker Monument, the memorial for the Voortrekkers who left the Cape Colony to avoid British colonial rule. Finally, Rashid summarized his speech by introducing Freedom Park, which contains more diverse contexts of the victims during South African Wars, the World Wars and the apartheid era.

The third speaker, Professor Soon, discussed the relationship between medicine and the history of wartime China. Soon brought up Norman Bethune, a Canadian physician and renowned Communist who worked in China under the Mao Zedong government. During WWII, there was a global myth that Chinese people had died in hospitals because Chinese nationalists blockaded ways to attain medicines. The myth, however, was revealed to be false by “In the Memory of Norman Bethune,” the book written by Mao Zedong. According to the book, Bethune in fact received medicines from the nationalists, which directly contradicted the misinformation.

Soon emphasized that “In the Memory of Norman Bethune” does not say anything about medicine or therapeutic information. Rather, the whole book talks about creating a nationalistic spirit in China. As a result, during the Cultural Revolution, the book became one of the mandatory books that all Chinese people should read. Due to his death by illness, Bethune stayed in China only about a year, but through this policy, his story is still alive in China. Indeed, Soon made his final point that Bethune’s ideologies go beyond the Chinese nativism and eventually have formed a modern nationalistic culture of China.

The last speaker was Maria Höhn, whose field of study is German history, specifically during and after World War II. She started her discussion with the reactions of West Germany to the Holocaust. Cooperating with United States, West Germany established monuments commemorating victims of the genocide and remembering the brutal actions of the Nazis. For example, the monument that was first constructed was the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. On the other hand, East Germany eradicated most reminders of its inhumane history. Höhn then explained about how to integrate these opposing narratives. She introduced two innovative Holocaust memorials as examples.

First, she talked about the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. This grand site is filled with 2,711 rectangular concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern. Their heights and widths are varied and people can walk around them. There are no words or pictures of the Holocaust, which makes this memorial extremely abstract. The purpose of the abstraction is to portray the memorial as a graveyard and to provoke uneasiness, which would help visitors connect themselves emotionally with the tragic history. As Höhn described, “It produces new memories to future generations.”

The second monument that Höhn introduced are the stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”). Created in 1993, stolpersteine are cobblestone-size concrete cubes inscribed with the name and life dates of Holocaust victims. These cubes are embedded in the ground where the victims had lived for the last time—such as houses or workplaces—before they were taken to concentration camps. The memorial blocks are placed in many villages and cities throughout Germany. As a result, because of its ubiquity, people can frequently face and remember the history in their ordinary lives.

The last lecture of the series will take place on Nov. 9 and will continue and summarize the discussion about history and memory in United States, as well as in other countries.

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