Remember Well but Celebrate Carefully

Until the past few months, I have rigidly believed that rewriting history is a slippery slope. Well, it still is a slippery slope, but recent events have caused me to challenge the rigidity of my belief.

Recently my friend Phil Williams made a profound comment that put it in perspective for me.  He said that we need to understand that remembering history and celebrating history are two different things.

History is important; we (hopefully) learn by understanding history. Sometimes we learn because we were successful.  Sometimes we learn because of failure.

But without history, we lose valuable knowledge, experience, and insight. And we are doomed to the proverbial “history repeats itself” because we humans are fallible, particularly when trying to satisfy a diverse group of constituents.  By removing or revising history, we cannot learn.

Banning books is a good example of revisionist history. Banning books is a practice of censorship, per the American Library Association which maintains a list of all attempts to ban books so that the American public can be informed about censorship efforts.

Banning books ignites images of bonfires of censored books during WWII.

Removing monuments is another possible revision to history and we seem to be doing that left and right these days.  There is a perspective that removing monuments revises history. But there is a growing sentiment that those very monuments are offensive to some.  Well, in fairness it might not be a new sentiment to some, but it is new to me.

I spent most of my life in the capital of the Confederacy – Richmond, Virginia.  I travelled Monument Avenue regularly, passing ultra-large bronze statues of Robert E. Lee, J.E.B.Stuart, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson without a thought.  Others gave them a lot of thought, I’m now learning, as a representation of a period in our history where black people could be owned by white people. The irony is not lost that these monuments were on a beautiful upper-class, tree-lined street of gorgeous mansions

All of the statues except Lee are gone now in the wake of the awakening of Black Lives Matter.  Several months ago, I considered the removal of these monuments as rewriting history on a slippery slope to erasing history.

I have had quite a few epiphanies recently, and this is one of the loudest.  My friend’s comment about the difference between remembering and celebrating is still ringing in my ear.

Those monuments were in celebration of individuals who fought on the losing side of a rebellion…whose participants would be considered traitors to their country in most societies.  The war was fought to maintain a culture that perpetuated ownership of slaves…why would anyone want to celebrate that? While I can’t completely understand, I believe that I now can empathize with why it is offensive.

I don’t want to see people demeaned.  That is not who America is.  I appreciate Phil’s lightbulb and wanted to share it with others.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. I have to ask. where do we stop, how much is enough. How do we know when to stop. My ancestors were slaves to Saxons, their ancestors slaves to the Romans . Should we tear down the Roman Colosseum, their ancestor were slaves to the Greeks and the Egyptians had slaves , should we tear down the pyramids, the Persians had slaves. My grandmother was a Sioux and you can images what she feels. After all we took their whole country. We all have blood on our hands so how do we navigate this? I am southern but I never understood the monuments. 90 percent of the southerners were poor dirt farmers and had no idea why they were fighting. I grew up on a farm and spend my youth working in the fields with many people. I respected and became friend with all. The other 10% destroyed the Souths economy and the south was devastated by the Civil war. So again I never understood celebrating this with monuments. This is a great article that ask important questions and I hope we will find the right answers for everyone. I for one have more questions than answers.

  2. Historical memory is a need and a duty to become aware, understand and therefore not make any mistakes.
    Know to understand. Understand to become aware. Become aware to make a warning of the past.
    Monuments are used to remember the good and bad of a country, a history, a culture. As well as cultural artifacts (even a film like #viacolvento). Not to be celebrated, but certainly to be remembered.
    Removing them is an attempt to erase memory that more than progress reminds totalitarian regimes.

    • Hi Aldo, thanks for your comment. Whether it’s the right thing or not, our country is slowing removing remnants of our Civil War. One hundred and fifty five years later, we are still fighting it. While I agree generally about removing, I’ve come to realize that this might be a way to heal.

  3. Thank you for this thought-provoking article. There is much to digest in our ever-accelerating society. I understand the removal of individual monuments and names. Still, the problem appears that people do not know their history when they begin removing statues of Frederick Douglas and condemning the likes of anti-abolitionist Ulysses S Grant. Consequently, for those who forget history are indeed doomed to repeat it paraphrasing Santayana. I appreciate you addressing this critical matter.💖

    • Thank you Darlene for your comment. You hit the nail on the head about not knowing history. I just responded to Mac’s comment below about not realizing what I was seeing while in Virginia. As much as it bothers me to say it, I’m not sure I could have told you who were confederate or union statues. I feel like I am learning sooo much these days.

  4. Thanks, Carol.
    I attended Washington and Lee University and there is controversy (and has been for a while) about the name. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, one of my heroes, said “The national symbol should not be the eagle but the pendulum.” We’re swinging in a different direction right now about the issue, and pendulums have to reach the farthest point in their swing before they start back, right?
    I personally don’t get changing the name of my alma mater. And it’s not a fighting issue for me. People change their names and that may not change their character. I had a tremendous experience at the school, the best teaching and learning I have ever had, and the name change has, and will have, no impact on that: scale, right?

    On the other hand, I follow the Washington NFL team (I know, I’m a masochist) and that name has always offended me deeply.

    Our country’s roots lie in a soil fertilized with racism and genocide. I don’t believe we as a nation have ever truly acknowledged and made amends for that. So I would rather err on the side of atonement than on the side of ignorement (I made that one up to maintain the cadence of the sentence). As long as those splinters of hatred and intolerance remain embedded, we cannot begin to heal.
    Be good. And well. And please visit the back2different podcast, which now features three (3!) of our benchmates:

    • Thanks for the comment, Mac. My son went to VMI – I’m not sure I had much of any appreciation for everything I saw throughout Virginia – clueless is probably the right word. The pendulum is the right analogy and we are swinging. I think the complacency by which we have lived our lives for several decades is being chipped away. We’ve been in ignorement for too long….

  5. Like you, Carol, I have struggled with the dilemma you so articulately present. History is complicated and messy because people are complicated and messy. The South was fighting to preserve slavery. Many, if not most, southerners were fighting out of loyalty to their homelands and against the perception that “radicals” in the north were making a power play to destroy their way of life.

    What appears black and white from our distant vantage point was considerably more gray at the time. Is it possible to celebrate the nobility of southern heroes without endorsing the objective illegitimacy of their system? If not, is it possible to celebrate any hero or leader despite their inevitable human shortcomings and failings? These are the challenges we face. Dealing with them will not be easy.

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