Is It a Rising or Setting Sun?

LeeLet’s face it Confederate Heritage Month isn’t what it used to be.  In years past the month was identified with the remembrance of all things Confederate, but this year that acknowledgment is being clouded and even challenged on a number of fronts.  This is of course nothing new for people who have followed the cultural/political trends throughout the South since the 1970s.  The demographic shifts have been quite profound and our state and local political bodies reflect groups whose pasts do not necessarily conform or reduce to a vision that celebrates white Southerners as understood during the four years of the Confederacy. 

These shifts can be seen in the number of legislatures that have issued statements that express apologies or regrets surrounding a state’s involvement in introducing or perpetuating the institution of slavery and its Jim Crow descendant.  Virginia has already done so along with Maryland while North Carolina is currently debating a similar bill.  Over the past few weeks legislatures in Texas, Georgia, and even in the U.S. House of Representatives have either introduced bills or begun the discussion. 

In the case of North Carolina and Georgia the debate over a slavery apology has accompanied one that would involve a formal declaration of April as Confederate Heritage and History Month.  Here we find the clearest indication of the profound changes taking place throughout the South.  Can anyone imagine the possibility of this type of compromise just 20-30 years ago?  For some the situation is even more dire.  Recently the mayor of New Castle, Indiana repealed a proclamation naming April Confederate Heritage Month just three days after authorizing it.

No doubt smaller counties throughout the country will have little difficulty authorizing proclamations, but the days of state proclamations may be drawing to a close.  I’ve said before that there is nothing surprising about these changes.  In fact, the very changes that we are witnessing today stem from the same dynamics that brought about the emphasis on a white Confederate past by the turn of the twentieth century and throughout much of the century to follow.  Our state legislatures now reflect a wider range of their constituencies.

Is it any surprise that a past constructed by white Americans designed to reinforce a racial hierarchy would therefore be challenged and revised? 

12 comments… add one

  • University Update Apr 5, 2007

    Is It a Rising or Setting Sun?

  • Rob Wick Apr 5, 2007

    Kevin,
    While I too applaud the changes which are taking place, I wonder if it will bend too far in the other direction. For example, even though the New Castle incident seems odd (why would a town in Indiana want to commemorate Confederate History?) the action of repealing it because someone found it offensive is bothersome to me. History is full of actions that some party may find offensive if commemorated. I think too many people are confusing commemorated with condoned. Confederate Heritage can be commemorated without celebrating what it stood for. In fact, it is important that we do so in order to give all sides an opportunity to defend their position (and try to change minds if possible). It seems to me that our society is continuing on that slippery slope where we have to constantly be careful about what we say and think so as to not offend someone somewhere. I’m not a neo-Confederate and I believe the South was fighting to defend slavery and for no other reason. I loved the recent art display of the Confederate flag hanging from a noose. But I also think that those who believe something (even if I think it’s wrong) have just as much right to have their own commemoration and to present their views without worrying about someone shouting it down because they think its wrong. Forced civility is meaningless, and in many ways, dangerous.

    Best
    Rob

  • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2007

    Rob, — Thanks for taking the time to offer up such a thoughtful comment. I agree with just about everything you said. I should have been more careful in distinguishing between why any one individual would want to acknowledge a connection with the past and the extent to which our collective memory constitutes an attempt to consciously shape or reshape the past for political or other purposes. It is very possible that we move too far in the opposite direction. Part of the problem is that this debate about the past is that these debates are being held in our state legislatures where politics clearly intrudes.

    Change is inevitable, but perhaps what your comment points to is the need to construct a collective past that does justice to the history as well as our need as members of different social/racial backgrounds to identify with the past. In other words, we need to find a way for the various parties to be able to sit down and talk openly about how our public spaces and proclamations ought to be managed by our political bodies.

  • Jim Apr 5, 2007

    Just curious Kevin, do you think we’ll see apologies from CT, DE, NH, NJ, NY, VT, RI, PA who legalized, profitted from, and perpetuated slavery? Or what about OH, WI, IN, and IL who discouraged black immigration and openly applied discrimination and segregation?

    I also want to know if monuments and homage to slaveholding American icons like Ben Franklin, William Penn, John Hancock, etc. are subject to your “political posturing” campaign?

    If a southerner is offended by any monument or tribute to the Union, etc., does he have a right and will he get a voice in determining whether that tribute be removed? Because according to your arguments, southerners did not have a voice in what monuments were constructed in the North. If gays are not openly allowed in the military, then can offended gays ask for the removal of all military paraphenalia in public?

    Lastly do you have any personal family experience that links you to the America’s past? Did your ancestors participate in the CW? If so, which army did they participate in?

  • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2007

    Jim, — I usually enjoy reading your comments, but rather than respond to this one I will wait until you cool down and perhaps offer something that I can actually understand. I have no idea what points you are trying to make in re: to homosexuals or my own family connection to the Civil War.

    If you persist in these rants I am going to ban you from commenting. You are always welcome to disagree; in fact, I prefer reading comments that present a challenge. In the end, however, this is my site and you will not be permitted to use it as a forum to offer irrational rants.

  • Jim Apr 6, 2007

    Kevin, I’m trying to get an understanding of your views in order to determine whether you should be “challenged” or simply ridiculed. How about taking the most elementary step and answer any of the questions that you do NOT find irrational?

    Anyone who argues for the re-evaluation of a region’s culture without a certain understanding and native relationship should be critiqued. Of particular concern is the removal of Confederate memorials to behind closed doors or worse on the basis that their contributors are not really memorializing the honor of fallen soldiers is extremely disconcerting.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2007

    So I assume by your comment that if I argued for something more satisfying to you that the fact that I was not born in the South would be irrelevant. To say that I am arguing for a “re-evaluation of a region’s culture” is simply ridiculous and bares little understanding of the depth and breadth of Southern culture. I am simply trying to understand how our historical interpretations are generated, maintained and for what purposes they are utilized in re: to the Civil War, and you consistently respond with blanket statements about bulldozing Southern culture. Southern culture is much bigger than our narrow understanding of the white South and Confederacy. If you want me to respond to your questions than you are going to have to do a much better job of framing them.

    If you are in fact interested in better understanding the positions expressed on this blog I suggest you click my curriculum vitae on the left sidebar and explore my published work. The most concise overview of my historical interests as they relate to many of the contemporary issues discussed on this blog can be found in a speech I gave last year during the Virginia Festival of the Book. It an be found on the left sidebar by clicking “Why the Civil War Still Matters.”

  • Jim Apr 6, 2007

    “So I assume by your comment that if I argued for something more satisfying to you that the fact that I was not born in the South would be irrelevant.” I would not use the word irrelevant, rather it would give me an idea of how the South is perceived by people with different backgrounds. It also gives me an opportunity to discuss these differences to determine if there is any common ground or if we will perpetually agree to disagree.

    You may not think it a unique chance to discuss your views with someone whose family has historical ties to the South since Jamestown; however, I would appreciate the option to express my views when it seems appropriate.

    If possible, I would like to know how consistently you would apply your “policy prescriptions” across the nation. My personal opinion is that the various groups within our diverse society can much more easily agree on how to plan for America’s future, but they will always have conflict when trying to interpret the past, despite how deterministically translated, that can only be solved by tolerance rather than change our historical landscape and traditions that gives many a sense of place and belonging.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2007

    I’m not sure what “policy prescriptions” you are referring to. This post was simpy a quick summation of recent actions surrounding Confederate Heritage Month. My main point is that the designation has been challened in recent years. As a historian who is interested in how certain interpretations gained ascendency I find these debates to be instructive of how the general public along with public institutions goes about shaping its historical spaces.

    The issue seems to be much more complex than whether a monument stays or goes or the name of a school is changed. I am reminded of the images of the King of England and the seal that were torn down on the eve of the American Revolution as a statement about identity in public spaces. I don’t believe anyone consulted with the Loyalists as to whether they approved. This is an extreme example, but it allows me to make the point that political power is a strong determinant of how the past is represented in public spaces.

    Of course, I would much prefer that current debates were conducted in environments that allowed for a more honest and open communication. That said, has there ever been a time in American history when political control did not work as a strong determining factor for the particular shape of our collective memories? As I’ve stated more than once recent demographic trends have led to more inclusive state legislatures which explains many of these recent controversies.

    The reason they haven’t occured earlier is because most state legislatures throughout the South (which is where many of these debates are now centered) were white. That is a fundamental fact that must be acknowledged as to why there has always been the appearance of contentment when it comes to our collective memories. These debates are not simply the result of “revisionism” but a natural extension of increased political participation.

    Of course I would love to see more tolerance when it comes to all of this, but I don’t know if that is realistic given our history. Change is inevitable and it can come by adding to or taking from the public landscape.

    The debates are difficult and emotionally draining for some. I for one am just happy that we are now at a point where we can have a debate. That’s progress.

  • GreenmanTim Apr 6, 2007

    The sun in this piece of artwork is neither rising nor setting. Lee and the Virginians depicted on the monument are facing due East toward the copse of trees at the High Water Mark, and the sun is in the NE, a position it NEVER assumes in this hemisphere. Artistic license, of course, and picky of me, but it is a fabrication nonetheless.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2007

    Leave it to you to pull the rug from under me. (LOL) Than again your critique reminds me of an earlier post on the vegetation in a Don Troiani painting which is what initially attracted me to your blog.

  • GreenmanTim Apr 9, 2007

    If you’ve dropped by recently, Kevin, you may have noticed in a March 26th post that my mother the quilter placed a sunrise in the same position in her landscape quilt of a cove in Monhegan Island, ME. Artistic license done for effect, she assures me. Naturally, one assumes the same of the creator of the confederate viewshed depicted in your post.

    The answer to your initial question, of course, is provided by William Faulkner:

    “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago…”

    Faulkner: Intruder in the Dust, 1948

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