Nostalgia and Narrative after Charlottesville: Comparing Myths of Origins in the Middle Ages and the American Civil War

AHA Session 223
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Adams Room (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Matthew Gabriele, Virginia Tech
Danielle Christmas, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Kevin M. Gannon, Grand View University
Sierra Lomuto, Macalester College
David Perry, University of Minnesota

Session Abstract

    • In recent years, both Europe and the United States have seen the resurgence and emboldening of white supremacist groups. Their presence struck the American consciousness perhaps hardest with the events of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The ostensible purpose of the rally - to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee - engaged a long-simmering controversy about the continuing public commemoration of the Confederacy. But alongside the Confederate battle flags were other symbols, many drawn from the European Middle Ages. Shields with crusader-style crosses and sporting the phrase “Deus Vult!” (“God wills it!” - the rallying cry of the First Crusade) appeared, as did Viking-style Nordic runes. And this wasn’t the first time. Humanistic scholars of both these periods - the Middle Ages and American 19th century - have long confronted the popular appropriation of the past, both in their classrooms and in public forums. But this time seems different. Scholars who work on these periods have increasingly found themselves in the spotlight, called upon in forums and in print to offer historical clarification about the reality behind, and roots of Confederate and medieval nostalgia, whether manifested in rallies, debates about “whiteness” in video games, or conversations about the “meaning” of historical events. In other words, these groups of scholars, across all humanistic disciplines, are confronting the same phenomena and manifesting itself in quite similar ways.

      Thus, this session, the first (to our knowledge) of its kind, will bring together americanists and medievalists - scholars who have professionally and publicly studied and discussed modern nostalgia for their period, and how that nostalgia is being deployed to advocate on behalf of white supremacy both in Europe and the United States. Also, taking advantage of the unique opportunity offered by the overlap of the meetings of the American Historical Association and Modern Language Association, this session is fortunate to feature scholars currently housed in programs in history, literature, and religion to reflect on how these issues manifest differently in different academic departments. It will be submitted in parallel to the MLA 2019 committee as well. Moreover, our participants, all at distinct types of institutions ranging from Ivy to public research to liberal arts, and all on distinct career paths, will offer their papers with a spirit allowing for flexibility and collaboration, intended to find common threads.
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