Triumph, Not Trauma

There is an interesting article over at Psychology Today, if only because it takes a different perspective on the controversy surrounding Confederate History Month.  Molly Costelloe Fong suggests that Governor McDonnell’s proclamation may have certain psychological effects within the black community owing to the long-term legacy of slavery:

When one group deliberately inflicts suffering on “others” as through slavery, the victimized group suffers certain psychological effects: shame, humiliation, guilt, and a decreased ability to be assertive.  McDonnell’s blundering declaration reinforces shared mental images of Black oppression within our national psyche and will likely perpetuate feelings of victimization for African-Americans.

The author suggests that the governor’s proclamation may trigger those “unconscious” feelings of victimization and oppression:

When mourning is unfinished business — the trauma is handed down to future generations. This is done through stories, feelings, and unconscious behaviors that “deposit” images of an injured self into one’s children and other descendants.  In these ways, a younger generation is asked to perform certain unresolved psychological tasks. “Confederate History Month” may also contribute to the perpetuation of historic trauma across generations.

Since I am not a psychologist I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the assumptions at work in these short passages.  On the fact of it it looks like an incredibly weak argument.  My real interest, however, is with the picture of black history that is implicit in this piece.  At first I thought I was reading something out of Stanley Elkins’s thought-provoking study of slavery which uses the structure of the concentration camp system to understand the relationship between slave and master along with its psychological consequences for its victims.

Few people will deny that the horrors of slavery had both short- and long-term consequences for the African-American community. I am not so sure that they can be reduced in the way that Fong asserts, but I must assume that her analysis fits in somewhere within the overall analysis.  The problem for this author is the tendency to interpret the response within the black community to the governor’s proclamation as somehow stemming from the experience of slavery, which no one today experienced first-hand.  It also portrays black Americans as victims and their collective story as a history of victimization.  Historians who have written about American slavery since Elkins have tended to move away from such a narrative to one that explores the myriad ways in which slaves and free blacks struggled to shape their own lives within the confinements of terrorism and legal discrimination through much of the twentieth century.  What we have here in Dr. Fong’s analysis is a short description of how she views black history; I would dare say that her limited understanding of this collective story has been made to fit into her psychological analysis.

What Dr. Fong has missed is the extent to which the reaction of the black community and the subsequent apology and amendment by Gov. McDonnell reflects a story of triumph and perseverance and not some lingering collective trauma.  There was some anger expressed by certain individuals (Roland Martin), but for the most part I read what I consider to be fairly moderate reactions.  Very few people suggested that Confederate soldiers ought to be dropped from any public commemoration; rather, African Americans argued that the Confederate soldier does not encompass the entire story of the war in Virginia.  In short, African Americans have stated openly and forcefully that they do not share the governor’s vision of how to remember and commemorate the Civil War in Virginia.  As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, it is a response that was not possible just a few decades ago.  That it is possible now – on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial – can be traced to the sacrifices and determination of African Americans since the Civil War who were determined to force the United States to live up to its ideals of freedom and equality.  Since the 1960s that has translated into increased involvement on all levels of government and it is that involvement that was at work last week in the wake of the governor’s announcement.

4 thoughts on “Triumph, Not Trauma

  1. Mark

    Some interesting insights. And even if we were to go back to the bad old days, it bothers me when the oppressed in history are treated as mere objects with no will of their own. I appreciate much more, for example, histories that are able to tease out patterns of subaltern resistance. I’m not familiar with how such attitudes have played out in American history, but it has led to some interesting history for the Soviet Union, where people try to understand Soviet society, instead of seeing it as mere putty in the hands of a clearly oppressive and inhumane regime.

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  2. heidic

    The African American memory of the Civil War had many different threads post-Reconstruction and one of the things I have noticed in my study of memory of the Civil War is that the African-Americans almost universally wanted to start with memory at ground zero (emancipation) or trace their heritage back to Africa or declared that slavery was part of God’s plan. Either way, there is no doubt that being subjected to being a slave, being held as inferior, and often times mistreated leads to psychological effects. I admire the African American communities perseverance to recognize and try to change the interpretation of the Civil War to making it understood, at least in Virginia, that there was more to the war than Confederates.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Heidi,

      I pretty much agree with you. There are two recent studies that do a pretty good job of analyzing black Civil War Memory. The first is Kathleen Ann Clark’s “Defining Moments” (UNC Press, 2005) and Fitzhugh Brundage’s “The Southern Past” (Harvard University Press, 2005).

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  3. Steven Mynes

    I found it interesting that reactions from the black community focused on the recognition of the importance of slavery to the narrative, while the SCV declaration perpetuates stories of dubious origin, demands a narrow exclusionary focus, and contains demonstrable inaccuracies meant to convey an agenda.

    I have no issue with celebrating the courage and sacrifice of Confederate ancestors in the war, and I wish they could stick to that, rather than parading half truths around in a tired old parade of Lost Cause folklore. I’ll even concede to influences other than slavery in the coming of the war, though it seems to me most other sectional differences are ultimately rooted in that one issue.

    Lastly, I think a community that courageously demands inclusion must have come far in overcoming any lingering psychology of victimization. Despite the incoherent raging of the Roland Martins out there, many other responses, and those that the Governor seems to have acted upon, appeared measured and respectful of the legitimate aspects of remembrance entailed in McDonnell’s proclamation.

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