One of my readers responded to yesterday’s post on the forthcoming Civil War Centennial study by firing off a private email. Though the email was relatively brief this reader gave me a great deal to think about in connection with how the Civil War will be remembered in a few short years during the sesquicentennial. For this reader "the [centennial] observance was a celebration in plastic soldiers and cool pictorials in
Life Magazine, any political considerations were far above my buzz-cut
little head." Indeed, little has changed within the more popular audiences that attend reenactments, Civil War Roundtables, and read the popular magazines. This stands in sharp contrast with the direction of recent scholarship of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and black history generally.
What I failed to consider, which was pointed out in the email, is the possibility that the sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president. How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances? My friendly emailer asks:
As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing
crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from
now? And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate
legacy be revealed to be?
The more I think about it the more it seems obvious that an Obama presidency could radically reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of the American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement. We’ve already seen – and I assume this will emerge in Cook’s study – how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions. This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963. The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative. Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War. Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others. It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president. In short, the "emancipationist legacy" of the Civil War would return to center stage. It has the potential of becoming overly celebratory; however, my interest is in the way the nation’s focus would be shifted.
Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the "emptiness" referred to in connection with "Confederate heritage" is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors. I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember. It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative. It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South. More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy. In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.
This post is not meant in any way as a justification for a vote for Barak Obama. The election of a black president would be an important milestone for this country, but in our attempt to understand how we as a nation arrived at this point it also has the potential of radically shifting the way we think about our collective past.