My classes are now exploring the origins of slavery in the colonies. We are examining specifically the process by which Virginia evolved from a society with slaves to a slave society. Here in Virginia this involves the fairly sharp transition from indentured servants to black slaves in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, which took place in 1676. I make it a point to emphasize the fact that the study of black history and slavery has a relatively short past that goes back to the 1960’s. Students are asked to think of reasons as to why this is the case. Most do not have a frame of reference, but once in awhile a student will focus in on access to education for black Americans and the introduction of African-American scholars and programs in black history. The focus on slavery in their textbooks is an even more recent phenomenon. This is important since it drives home the various factors that determine which groups are emphasized in their textbooks and why. It is easy from this perspective to appreciate the dangers and consequences of intentionally ignoring large sections of the past.
But what are those consequences? Let me mention one example that I came across a few months back and even briefly blogged about it at the time. The story is related to the issue of black Confederates and one of its most fervent advocates. His name is H. K. Edgerton and what makes him so interesting is that he is African-American. Now, before I continue I should point out that I have never met this individual nor do I claim to have any knowledge about his motivation. Here is a brief biography of Edgerton from the Southern Poverty Law Center:
H.K. Edgerton speaks wistfully of the “sense of family” that bound blacks and whites under slavery. There was great “love between the African who was here in the Southland and his master,” he says. Despite its poor reviews, Edgerton concludes, slavery served as an “institution of learning” for blacks. Edgerton sounds a lot like other apologists for slavery — many of whom, like him, pledge allegiance to the Confederate battle flag and the movement around it. But he stands out from this crowd in some significant ways. For starters, he’s black. And Edgerton is also the former president of the Asheville, N.C., branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — a group that fellow neo-Confederate Arthur Ravenal, a white South Carolina state senator, described this year as the “National Association of Retarded People.” Edgerton sees no contradictions here. In an interview with the Intelligence Report, he insisted that he’s doing his part to “correct the lies” when he suggests that “it was better to be an African in the Southland as a slave than to be free in Africa.” He’s speaking as a “favored son of the South,” he said, when he addresses Confederate flag rallies from North Carolina to Georgia to Texas. In a lily-white movement that most blacks find deeply offensive, Edgerton seems to feel quite at home. And as he dances to the tune of “Dixie” — sometimes quite literally — he helps gives the cause the appearance of legitimacy. It is a gloss that frequently racist neo-Confederate groups desperately need in order to maintain the idea that theirs is a movement that celebrates “heritage, not hate.”
In 2002 Edgerton walked 1,300 miles from Asheville, North Carolina to Austin, Texas in support of Southern Heritage. Edgerton can also be seen on products such as t-shirts sold by Dixie Outfitters, which I find absolutely baffling.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about what Edgerton’s ardent support of a narrow Southern/Confederate past means in light of my comments at the beginning of this post. Perhaps his support of the idea of black Confederates can be explained by some deep need to identify with and locate a place for himself within the Southern past. [Notice once again how quickly the Southern past reduces to the four years of the Confederacy.] Of course, one could identify with any number of regions and/or times in that past, but it is no surprise that the Civil War looms large here. After all it comes pre-packaged with stories of battlefield heroics and sacrifice that have proven attractive to so many – especially men.
What I find so depressing at the root of all of this is the apparent desperation on the part of Edgerton to find a home in the past through a white narrative of the Civil War that tends to ignore both the role of slavery as its cause and the importance of emancipation followed by the continued struggles for basic civil rights by African Americans after the Civil War. It’s as if those who push the black Confederate story are only willing to acknowledge black agency if it somehow conforms in a way that supports their own agenda. From what we know tens of thousands of black slaves risked their lives by running away from their farms and plantations towards Union lines. If that isn’t a story that begs for some kind of personal identification I don’t know what is. Why doesn’t Edgerton march across the South with that message? If our broader national narrative is about the struggle to realize our founding principles as contained in the Declaration of Independence than the story of African Americans has much to teach us.
Edgerton’s overly zealous identification can be seen as evidence that black Americans have a deep need to connect with the American past. But if that past has been sharply edited and controlled by one race as a means to maintain a racial hierarchy than is it any surprise that Edgerton is willing to interact with white Southerners who, for a number of reasons, are pushing the wild conclusion that large numbers of black Southerners fought in Confederate armies? I wonder whether he was taught about the multiple and meaningful ways in which slaves and other free black Americans influenced the outcome of the Civil War and added to our national narrative. Is glory and admiration really only to be found in a story that is so far-fetched that only a small handful of people support?
When I teach about the Civil War I try to bring as much agency to the actions of African Americans as possible. The reason, of course, is that most of my students know next to nothing about African-American history and at times that story is absolutely crucial to understanding how the nation evolved along racial, political, and economic lines. The other reason is that there is a great deal to be proud of and to identify with and to hold up for its moral value.