Democracy Works podcast examines how public remembers Charlottesville events

August 08, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This time last year, the streets of another college town — Charlottesville, Virginia — were filled with violence and protests in a weekend that set off debate around the country about many things, including the city's statue of Robert E. Lee and the messages it conveys.

One year later, how has the conversation around race and Confederate history evolved, and how will it continue to do so moving forward? How do we remember the protests and the larger role of the Confederacy in southern history?

Bradford Vivian, professor of communication arts and sciences and director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation in Penn State's McCourtney Institute for Democracy, opens the second season of the Democracy Works podcast with a discussion about public memory, Confederate monuments, and last summer’s Unite the Right rally and counterprotests.

Vivian studies public memory and is the author of “Commonplace Witnessing: Rhetorical Invention, Historical Remembrance, and Public Culture.” He said public memory begins to form right after the original event and fact is often mixed with fiction to the point where one can’t be separated from the other.

One classic example of this is the notion that Betsy Ross stitched the first American flag, a story that originated long after the end of the Revolutionary War and has never been proven true.

“People testify about what they've seen and experienced, and eventually as a community, we might build up stories about what happened,” Vivian said. “Parts of those stories may have close fidelity with historical fact, but they don't need to at all.”

In the case of Charlottesville, Vivian argues that much of the public memory is dominated by President Donald Trump’s comments in the days after the rally. Rather than focusing on the underlying racial issues surrounding the Lee statue, the conversation shifted toward the president’s comments rather than a dialogue about race and Confederate history.

Vivian grew up in the Charlottesville area but recalls the area far more for its homage to Thomas Jefferson than Lee. He points to the removal of the city’s predominantly African-American Vinegar Hill neighborhood as a factor that discouraged conversation around Confederate history.

“Things were rendered a little bit invisible,” Vivian said. “In the wake of the riots, what has struck me is how much we didn't talk about the omnipresent Confederate iconography, the Robert E. Lee statue being the typical example of that.”

The Lee statue still stands in Charlottesville; requests to take it down are caught up in legal challenges. As the country looks back on what happened last summer, Vivian encourages people to look beyond traditional media narratives and construct their own memories that can contribute to a broader public conversation.

“People in Charlottesville are debating this, and they're going to be debating it for a long time,” Vivian said. “Communities are going through democratic processes to decide what story they want to tell, and in what form. I think instead of imposing national media frameworks or stories about the nostalgic South onto those communities, we need to flip it and listen to a broad cross-section, a diverse cross-section of those residents themselves.”

To listen to the full interview with Vivian, visit the podcast website or subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.

  • Brad Vivian

    Bradford Vivian, professor of communication arts and sciences and director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation in Penn State's McCourtney Institute for Democracy.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated August 08, 2018