Waving Goodbye to Earl Ijames

I know many of you out there are looking forward to a day/week without a blog post about Earl Ijames.  Many of you are perhaps disappointed with the way I’ve gone about all of this.  There is plenty of room to disagree.  I want to state up front that my goal has never been to attack Mr. Ijames’s personal character.  I have no doubt that Mr. Ijames is fully qualified in his role as an archivist and curator at the North Carolina Museum of History.  In fact, I’ve seen his name mentioned a number of times in the acknowledgments section of books focused on North Carolina history.  I wish Mr. Ijames nothing but continued success in this area of his career and have no doubt that he will continue to aid scholars and the general public in the goal of better understanding various aspects of North Carolina history.

What I have done is expend a great deal of energy and time challenging Mr. Ijames on what I believe to be fundamentally flawed claims concerning the roles of black southerners during the Civil War, particularly in the Confederate armies.  It is not just some of the more outrageous claims made by Mr. Ijames that trouble me, it is the belief that this entire debate is little more than an extension of a deeply-embedded and racist narrative thread that continues to portray slaves as obedient and loyal and works to distance slavery from the Civil War.  This particular issue is complex and we desperately need trained scholars to explore it.  Mr. Ijames is clearly not that individual. On the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial this is something that is too important for an educator, historian and blogger to ignore.  I claim no expertise beyond the research that I’ve carried out on a closely related subject as well as my understanding of the relevant historiography.  As I have judged Earl Ijames’s research so must my own arguments be judged.  That is how this process works.  The difference as I see it is that I have taken the extra step to have my research and writing publicly scrutinized while Mr. Ijames has not.

As to why I’ve singled out Mr. Ijames it should be crystal clear.  I expect this kind of behavior from the likes of H.K. Edgerton or the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy.  Both groups have a long history and vested interest in manipulating the past in a way that fits with their preferred view of the antebellum South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.  Yes, I comment on them from time to time, but I honestly do not get worked up about it.  On the other hand Mr. Ijames works for a state agency whose stated goal is to preserve and interpret the history of North Carolina for the public.  It’s a worthy goal and one that they clearly take seriously.  For that reason alone Mr. Ijames must be held to the highest standards of scholarship.  I am not a public historian so I am unfamiliar with the protocol for handling these types of cases in institutions such as museums and archives.  I would hope that like colleges and universities they are organized in a way that allows for the widest latitude in critical thinking and intellectual creativity.  As I stated above Mr. Ijames is no doubt a valuable employee within the Office of Archives and History, but his public presentations, regardless of whether they are sanctioned by his employer deserve to be challenged.  The only thing that I expect from his employer is the acknowledgment that his response to my initial request for his presentation was inappropriate.  I still find it curious that I have not been contacted.  [On the question of institutional responsibility and academic freedom I highly recommend Brooks Simpson’s recent post over at Civil Warriors.]

So, what should the consequences be for Mr. Ijames’s claims of expertise in this particular field?  That’s not up to me to decide, but for the broader public.  I would hope that such behavior prevents Mr. Ijames from being considered for certain promotions within the museum and broader institutional system.  As I said before I find it hard to believe that I am the first person to raise these concerns.  Clearly, a seasoned scholar like Dr. Jeffrey J. Crow must be aware of the shortcomings of Mr. Ijames’s research in this area.  In addition, I would hope that respectable institutions decide not to invite Mr. Ijames to speak on this particular issue, especially as we approach the sesquicentennial.

Finally, I hope I’ve done my part in all of this.  I make no apologies for utilizing this format to raise questions and to try to promote the kind of discourse, and hopefully the further research, that this subject so dearly deserves and desperately needs.  Yes, certain individuals and groups will ignore my commentary regarding Mr. Ijames, but that pales in comparison with the number of people who will be introduced to him through this site.  I’ve done everything I can to raise specific questions about statements made on this blog and in his public presentations.  Now we have his own words in a complete presentation on the subject for all interested parties to consider. [see here and here for audio]  I have to say that given Mr. Ijames’s challenge/invitation to meet him in a public setting to discuss this issue I am incredibly disappointed by the quality of his presentation.  What else can I say other than that I truly expected more than the same tired stories and almost complete lack of analysis that can be found on most websites.  But that is neither here nor there, it is up to you to decide.  If this is your idea of good history than so be it.  It’s not mine.

No doubt, you will see Mr. Ijames mentioned in a future posts, but for now I think we’ve all had enough.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

4 comments… add one

  • Scott Manning Mar 5, 2010

    Kevin,

    After your first open-letter, I spent some time reading your older posts regarding Ijames' work, which put everything in a clearer context. I appreciate your goal of getting to the root of his claims and determining their validity. If I had one criticism toward your approach, it would be your inconsistent attitude toward Ijames. There was almost a Jekyll-Hide scenario at times. Your posts, especially the open-letter, tended to be very professional, but your comments did not always fit this format and were much more aggressive. For example, in one comment on his response letter, you flat out called him a “fraud.” Later, in the debate thread, you were very flattering by saying, “As critical as I have been re: Mr. Ijames's handling of this issue I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and to learn from him.” You went on to point out that he has been in a unique position by being so close to the resources. By the time you made that comment, I think Ijames could only listen with suspicion.

    In addition, I understand your logic with posting Ijames' response to your open letter, but I doubt he expected that. You also run the risk of missing such a candid response to future letters, because the writer may fear seeing his words posted on the Internet.

    Finally, and this is a minor issue, I would have made the effort to meet him. I speak from experience on this topic, because I have spent time deconstructing the historical work of Patrick J. Buchanan and I disagree with many of the conclusions by David Irving. In both instances, I made the effort to hear them speak and shake their hands. These situations are obviously different, because both of these men have published works that I can read whereas Ijames only had quotes published in news articles. That, however, makes it even more important to meet and hear him speak.

    This ended up being more than one criticism. Again, I think your cause is a worthy one, but these are just some things I think you could have handled differently and probably gotten either a better response from Ijames or a better perspective on his work.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2010

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. You make some excellent points. I agree that my reactions have been inconsistent, which I noticed after taking the time recently to reread the posts. Part of it is a function of my own emotional state at the time of the post and/or comment. I don't make it a habit of posting emails on my blog, but I thought given the circumstances it was appropriate. What it means for the future I cannot say.

      I do want to address your final point which suggests that it might be worthwhile to meet Mr. Ijames in public. As far as I am concerned there is no reason for me to have to drive 4+ hours to hear Mr. Ijames speak since we have a recording of his presentation. Let me also say again that there really is no difference in interpretation between the two of us. The reason I say this is because Mr. Ijames does not have what I would describe as a historical interpretation. What he has are a couple of stories that have been strung haphazardly together along with a weak attempt to convey some sense of meaning/significance. That to me is not what goes into doing serious analytical history. If Mr. Ijames had any interest in doing that he would have published a paper on the subject. That he hasn't is instructive.

      Perhaps we can talk about this some more next week as part of my visit to Shepherd University. I look forward to meeting you and thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      • Scott Manning Mar 5, 2010

        Kevin, I understand making comments in the heat of the moment. The Internet is unforgiving with its history trail of everything we say.

        I think you might have me mixed up with someone else. I would love to meet and chat, but I have no plans to go to Shepherd University next week.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2010

          I do have you mixed up with someone else. Sorry about that.

Leave a Comment