In “They Have Blood on Their Hands,” Chauncey DeVega takes issue with those who would celebrate the 150th anniversary of the South’s secession from the Union. The celebrants make the well-rehearsed claim that the Civil War was primarily about states’ rights with slavery being an incidental factor. For the author this is history that “does political work,” untruthfully presenting the Civil War in the tradition of great debates over political liberty rather than what most reputable scholars deem it was, the South’s attempt to maintain white supremacy and economic prosperity through the enslavement of African-Americans. Furthermore, those who would obviate slavery as the fundamental issue use “selective forgetting, and intentional remembering to advance certain ends in the here and now,” as Devega says. Those ends serve a mainly older, white and conservative demographic, who struggle to cope with the dissonance of the inaccurate history they learned and the reality of a country becoming browner, where those who have been typically marginalized, increasingly decry the whitewashing of history. The dominant version of US history, that many of us learned, was packaged as white, male, Christian, and as David Blight says in the Atlantic Monthly online, its gloss was a “romanticizing and sentimentalism” that allowed the defeated South to rewrite the history of the Civil War in exculpatory tones. This Lost Cause made secession an easy history pill to swallow because the unpleasant truth was excised in favor of a sugarcoat that masked a willingness to treat people as property. As Blight’s quote, used in the title of this week’s post informs us, the Civil War is still being fought and it is not a forgone conclusion that truth will overcome lies.
That a Virginia textbook states thousands of black people fought for the South, quoted in The Washington Post online, reminds us that there is a constant battle amongst some to either insert dishonesty, or perhaps more disturbingly, an effort by those who have been taught lies and wish to “correct” what they see as the distortions of others. Am I naïve to be shocked that a school text book is not written by “a trained historian” but by someone who “has written several books.” Or that the author’s examination of the subject was derived “primarily through Internet research.” How did it get passed reviewers? I can understand how it might seem innocuous to some to say ‘Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson,’ but wouldn’t someone on a review panel be either politically or historically astute enough to question that?
Larry Cebula’s post about his visit to the Baron Von Munchausen Historic Home, and the subsequent reply from its director was reminiscent of earlier readings from Slavery and Public History. Again, we read of someone defending slavery’s omission from history in deference to the feeling of black people/students. This speaks to the difficulty we have in discussing our past, particularly on those issues involving race or shameful actions. I can understand how slavery might make an African-American feel angry or shameful, or uncomfortable and be painful to hear about. However, if we avoid the conversation through euphemisms like “maid” or “servant” we perpetuate the lies that encumber our present. And while we shouldn’t forget the positive aspects of our history—we have come a long way from Jim Crow—the director’s advice to stop focusing on negatives is a common complaint from those who want to believe an Emancipation Proclamation or Civil Rights Act cured overnight, as David Blight terms it, “the nation’s persistent racism.”
The Washington Post online story, “Conservative class on Founding Fathers’ answers to current woes gain popularity” describes a manifestation of white Christian conservative economic insecurity. Because of the traditional hagiographical treatment of the Founding Fathers, they make ideal role models for those drowning in a sea of doubt. Additionally, it is reassuring that they were white, wealthy grandfatherly types who were always on the cusp of banning slavery, but just could not figure out how to do it. Or at least that is what some on the right would have us believe. Ironically, the economic policies supported by conservative politicians and pundits have encouraged the widening wealth-gap that pushes lower or middle income people to scramble for answers in a world of uncertainty. Rather than questioning the causes of their financial distress, many are happy to accept the scapegoating of immigrants, people of color and those who do not subscribe to their procrustean religious views. So the snake oil salesperson’s tells us to learn from the Founding Fathers, whose feet of clay have been sanitized, their deism has been defenestrated, their elitism leveled and their slaves freed. Of course, the snake oil salesman has to be careful, because after all, the Founding Fathers did rebel when they felt their economic interest was threatened to a particular degree.
Jeff Robinson asks, “How can historians and publics use the power of the past to catalyze social change?” in his Public History Commons post. Can those who decry fracking use the lands’ history as a tool to persuade their neighbors to resist selling their property to oil and gas companies? Seriously, if someone offered you five million for your fifty acres could you resist? Apparently many do, and in this Robinson sees the power of history harnessed to the yoke of public activism. He also theorizes about getting people of opposing views to sit down together, to talk through their point of view, in order to reach compromise. This made me wonder about the nature of compromise. Is compromise always a good thing? Or is it just the best that we can expect in an imperfect world? If some places are saved isn’t that better than none? If some human rights are respected isn’t that better than none? Perhaps compromise is not always the best route. Maybe reframing the question and removing false dichotomies are a better place to start before compromise is attempted.