Talking Past One Another

Looks like the Associated Press has picked up another story about the myth of black Confederates out of North Carolina.  It includes what has become the standard fair:

  • Black man struggles to come to terms with what he believes is the military service of one of his ancestors: “Gregory Perry of Monroe, N.C., who learned recently that an ancestor was awarded pension for Confederate service, says it’s hard to reconcile that fact with what he knows firsthand about being a black man in the South.  ‘I grew up in the era of Malcolm X and militancy, and would never have considered something like this possible,’ said Perry, 46, reflecting on the life of his great-great-grandfather, Aaron Perry.  ‘I wonder: If Aaron Perry knew the Union Army was coming to free him, why did he join the other side?’”

  • Professor of History recounts the standard narrative: “John David Smith, professor of American history at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and a member of North Carolina’s Sesquicentennial Academic Advisory Committee, said the South’s 11th-hour effort to recruit black soldiers was ‘too little, too late.’ ‘There’s no evidence of any real mobilization of slaves,’ Smith said. At most, a company or two — including one of hospital workers — was ever organized…. Smith says he believes painting African Americans as Confederate sympathizers plays down the real causes of the Civil War.  ‘What gets professional historians concerned is when certain people start calling these people soldiers. It all goes back to how you define soldier. And for me, the story of so-called black Confederates is not as important as the story of why it keeps coming back.’  He added, “I think it keeps coming up because there are certain people who resist the idea that slavery and white supremacy were the cause of the Civil War.’”
  • Make sure you cite two supposed experts: “Earl Ijames, curator of African American and community history at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, helped Way with his research.  Ijames, who is black, said it is unrealistic to maintain that no people of color took sides against the Union. A seventh-generation North Carolinian, Ijames said some blacks may have pledged allegiance to the Confederates as a means of self-preservation.  Meanwhile, Ed Smith [and here], an American University professor who has spoken widely on the subject, says today’s audiences can’t really gauge the societal, economic and other pressures that played on blacks and whites during slavery.  He said that’s why it is so hard for anyone to imagine that a slave’s Southern identity could have been at odds with his ideas about freedom.  ‘In today’s world, it’s hard to look back on slavery with any kind of clarity,’ Ed Smith says. ‘Frankly, I think it’s going to be quite messy for the next four years.’”

The only thing that will remain messy is this style of reporting that gives equal weight to anyone that has an opinion about this subject.  Meanwhile, Mr. Perry is left believing that his ancestor was a soldier in the Confederate army because he was awarded a pension.  Apparently, no one has told him that the pension would have been awarded for his presence in the army as a slave and not as a soldier.  At the same time both John Coski and John David Smith are drowned out by the vague ramblings of Ijames and Smith, neither of whom has ever done any serious research on the subject.  All Renee Elder has done is give legitimacy to a story that is filled with falsehoods and numerous misconceptions about Confederate policy toward its black population.

[Click here for more information about Weary Clyburn]

34 comments… add one

  • H.J. Stout Jun 13, 2011

    Your apparent past differences with Earl Ijames aside, could you please tell us exactly what is factually inaccurate or wrong about either of these statements by him? Thank you.

    “Ijames, who is black, said it is unrealistic to maintain that no people of color took sides against the Union.”

    “Ijames said some blacks may have pledged allegiance to the Confederates as a means of self-preservation.”

    • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2011

      Thanks for the comment.

      First, I think it is a mistake to characterize my interactions with Ijames as mere “differences.” It has been demonstrated that Ijames has misinterpreted evidence and has contributed to the distortions that can be found on websites and elsewhere. The image of the headstone is that of Weary Clyburn. Click on the link at the bottom of the post and you will see just how involved Ijames was in the dedication of a grave marker that clearly suggests that Clyburn was a soldier.

      Ijames has demonstrated that he is in no position to characterize how slaves identified with the Confederacy. He is not an authority on the subject.

      • H.J. Stout Jun 13, 2011

        Thank you for elaborating on your differences with Ijames.

        You still didn’t answer my question though. Exactly what is factually inaccurate or wrong about his statements in the article?

        • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2011

          I responded to your question.

          • H.J. Stout Jun 13, 2011

            You responded to my post. But you did not answer my question.

            That you can take the time to type out paragraphs about your personal differences with Ijames, yet fail to answer a simple and plainly stated question about the accuracy of his claims in this article speaks for itself.

            • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2011

              As I stated already, I don’t have any personal differences with Ijames. I’ve never met the man.

              There were roughly 4 million slaves living in the states that comprised the Confederacy. Of course, some African Amerians took actions that could be construed as against the Union. The claim itself is uninteresting and almost meaningless without context or more careful analysis.

              • H.J. Stout Jun 13, 2011

                For one who has no personal differences with Ijames, you do seem somewhat obsessed with the man.

                And for the matter of meaning, what is it you are doing to provide the “context or more careful analysis” you purport to desire? Because most of your words on black confederates are not about that context but rather the bones you have to pick with people like Ijames.

                The above is an example.

                • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2011

                  I would suggest that you dig a bit further into the archives, which is easily accessible or the tags that appear at the end of the post. Yes, I’ve written a great deal about Ijames and others who have done a poor job interpreting the subject. I am sorry to see that you find this problematic. I would also suggest that you do a search for Weary Clyburn, John Venable, and Silas Chandler for a better understanding of where I stand on this issue. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

                  • Justin Howard Jun 14, 2011

                    Kevin,
                    On March 4 of 2010 you stated in a post entitled:
                    Waving Goodbye to Earl Ijames
                    “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.”

                    You do have a personal problem with, and ill will toward, Mr. Ijames. Apparently you wish him finacial and personal suffering for his lack of following your dictate.
                    “I would hope that such behavior prevents Mr. Ijames from being considered for certain promotions within the museum and broader institutional system.”

                    And you seek to stifle his right to free speech as you deem him dangerous.
                    “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.”

                    Isn’t this a little bit too extreme Mr. Levin? You seek to harm and silence the “opposition” as you see it.

                    Is this necessary?

                    • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2011

                      You’ve done a fabulous job of editing what was a fairly extensive post. Here is the link for those of you who would like to read it in its entirety: http://cwmemory.com/2010/03/04/waving-goodbye-to-earl-ijames/ It also includes additional posts about Ijames. Finally, I think it’s a bit of stretch to suggest that I am trying to stifle the free speech rights of anyone.

                      Thanks for the comment.

                    • Connie Chastain Jun 14, 2011

                      Kevin, since you do stifle the free speech rights — mine, for example — on your blog comments, where you have the control to do so, one can only conclude if you had wider control, you would exercise wider stifling.

                    • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2011

                      Connie,

                      Your comments are not approved because you cannot help but engage in personal insult. This has nothing to do with your free speech rights and has everything to do with trying to maintain a certain level of mature and respectful discourse on this site. You have demonstrated on this site as well as your own that you are unable to meet these standards. I suggest that if you have something to say that you do so on your own blog site.

                      You clearly have no understanding of the First Amendment.

                    • Brooks Simpson Jun 14, 2011

                      I don’t think Connie understands the notion of rights, let alone free speech rights or the Constitution.

                      This notion held by some people that they are free to be abusive on a blog toward other people, including the blog owner, is ridiculous. But it shows that they believe it is their right to be abusive, and they equate being abusive with “free speech.”

                      Connie, you have your own blog. Exercise your free speech right there. But to confuse Kevin with the government grants him far more power than most of us think he possesses. Apparently you concede that no one will pay attention to you on your own blog, which is why you seek attention by trolling other blogs.

                    • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2011

                      This woman hurls insult after insult at me on other sites and she has the nerve to question why I refuse to give her a forum on this site. Connie is unbelievable.

                    • Richard Jun 15, 2011

                      Kevin
                      I am sure you have spent time in the Confederate Veteran Magazine, think I saw a post once where you mentioned having the bound volumnes. These former slave masters speak about honoring their former slaves/servants on many occasions.
                      Fast forward to 2011. The placing of a confederate monument on these mens graves is really just enslaving them all over again, no matter how well-intentioned. It follows the traditions of the slave master, quite disturbing.

                    • Kevin Levin Jun 15, 2011

                      I have said something along those lines on a number of occasions.

                    • Marianne Davis Jun 14, 2011

                      Mr/Ms. Stout and Mr. Howard,

                      You both err in assuming that Mr. Levin’s “problems” with Mr. Ijames stem from personal animus. I have read this blog for some time, and have seen no instance in which Mr. Levine has wished Mr. Ijames personal or financial harm.

                      As for free speech, I yield to you that every one of us has an absolute right to spin any sort of tale we want. Every one of us has the right to claim expertise or evidence we do not have, the right to impute truths from data that do not support them, and to trumpet these faux histories to anyone who will listen. Then, responsible historians have every right, and indeed responsibility, to insist that we offer proof: evidence, not inference; history, not heritage.

                      Earl Ijames has consistently avoided facing his professional responsibility to present unequivocal evidence for his claims. It is for that reason that we should all be suspicious of his conclusions. We can raise an eyebrow even as we agree he has a right to speak.

                      As to Mr. Levine’s quite temperate cautions to the institutions that invite Ijames to speak on the subject he has not quite mastered, let me just say this. Anyone can stand in a hospital lobby and proclaim a new cure for disease. But responsible hospitals check their physicians credentials, and aren’t we all glad they do?

    • Andy Hall Jun 13, 2011

      H.J., you asked, “exactly what is factually inaccurate or wrong about either of these statements by [Earl Ijames]?”

      Kevin’s already responded, but my concern about the statements here apply both to Ijames and Ed Smith: their quotes in this piece aren’t “factually inaccurate” so much as they’re devoid of fact altogether. They’re the sort of vague, generalized rhetoric that sounds profoundly intellectual, but doesn’t actually say much at all. It certainly doesn’t tell us anything about the specific nature of Aaron Perry’s involvement with the Confederate military, much less his thoughts or motivations.

      Kevin’s right that this news story follows the usual, predictable pattern for such items. But the offered narrative of Aaron Perry follows a usual, predictable pattern as well – latching onto a single, problematic document, a pension record – and then spinning it off into larger speculation and rhetorical questions about the thoughts and beliefs and motivations of African Americans in the Confederacy as a whole.

      Those are legitimate questions to ask; what we shouldn’t do is fool ourselves that Aaron Perry’s pension record answers them.

      • H.J. Stout Jun 13, 2011

        You also didn’t answer my question. You sidestepped it by going after Ijames personally.

        So I’ll state it again in another way: Is it unrealistic to maintain that no people of color took sides against the Union?

        • Andy Hall Jun 13, 2011

          Is it unrealistic to maintain that no people of color took sides against the Union?

          No, it’s not unrealistic to maintain that some people of color took sides against the Union; in fact, we know some did. In what capacity, and for what reasons, and how much agency each had in making that choice, are all much more elusive.

          My concern is tossing out a name like Aaron Perry’s, and then using it to draw broad, sweeping claims about African Americans in the Confederacy, generally. Based on the article, there’s virtually nothing known about him. It could almost be pulling names out of the phone book, the way individuals’ names are tossed off as evidence of all sorts of things one cannot actually ascribe to them.

          • H.J. Stout Jun 13, 2011

            Even though it is packaged with unsolicited qualifiers and side tangents, thank you for a fairly reasonable and specific answer that others seem reluctant to give.

            • Rob in CT Jun 13, 2011

              How dare you qualify your answer, Andy. The man wanted a yes or no! A study of History, as we all know, is properly done by asking and answer questions in binary yes/no form.

            • Andy Hall Jun 13, 2011

              My “unsolicited qualifiers and side tangents” are part of my answer. Don’t just acknowledge the part you feel affirms your position, please.

              Tens of thousands of African Americans accompanied Confederate armies in the field. They worked as personal servants, cooks, teamsters, hospital attendants and laborers. The vast majority of these were slaves, even free black men were often conscripted into service. They were not considered citizens, and unlike enlisted white soldiers, swore no oath to the Confederacy. Some did, we know from anecdotes, find themselves in action and picked up a weapon. Very few of these men had any real choice about their service, and (compared to white Confederate soldiers) very few left any firsthand accounts of their experiences. As a result, it’s sloppy and misleading to simply rattle off names of men about whom next to nothing is known, and ascribe to them (or infer) things like motivation, commitment and patriotism. So much of what passes for “research” on black Confederates is nothing more than lists of names like Aaron Perry’s, or Weary Clyburn’s, bound up with grand but undocumentable claims on their behalf. It’s “scholarship” that’s a mile wide, and a quarter-inch deep.

              Now, what do we actually know about Aaron Perry?

        • Billy Bearden Jun 13, 2011

          HJ,
          Ironic that this story from NC didn’t touch on the following…

          We know that Sam Ashe, a black man who was doing stuff involving, related to, taking part in Confederate activities (but God forbid we ever dare put the two terms together and say “Black Confederate” ) as a participant with the 1st North Carolina at the Battle of Big Bethel during the Peninsula campaign and is credited for shooting Union Colonel Winthrop.

          During the 150th Bethel reenactment at Endview in Newport News back in April a black man was amongst the NC Confederates, and another black man was working the crowds portraying Sam Ashe. Saturday June 11th, a black man / former Marine was present at the Vermont Monument dedication at Bethel Park portraying Sam Ashe. .

          • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2011

            Last year I purchased a bass guitar from Sam Ashe.

    • Brooks Simpson Jun 14, 2011

      I’m sure both statements are factually true. So what?

  • Brooks D. Simpson Jun 13, 2011

    How is it relevant that Earl Ijames is black or that he’s a seventh-generation North Carolinian?

    • TF Smith Jun 14, 2011

      Definitely the “some people say” approach to journalism.

      First rough draft, indeed.

      Best,

    • TF Smith Jun 14, 2011

      More relevant would be citing any of his published and peer-reviewed work on the topic.

      Oh wait, I guess there is not any…

  • TF Smith Jun 14, 2011

    Kevin and/or Brooks –

    Have either of you considered writing an op-ed on the BCM and how it has been reported by mass media, and submitted it to the HNS? Given the anniversary, the issue will undoubtedly continue to come up.

    Might be worth working with a journalism professor as a co-author; another useful place to attempt to place something would be Jim Romanesko’s site, which is supported by Poynter and tends to get attention.

    As it is, if you want journalists at general interest publications – who are almost always generalists when it comes to history, of course – to consider the issue, you’ll have to go to them. They (probably) are not reading Cliopatria, much less anything like CWM or Crossroads.

    Be worth considering submitting something to SPJ, as well.

    Best,

    • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2011

      That’s a really good idea. I could write something up for the NYTs Disunion page.

      • TF Smith Jun 14, 2011

        I think that is a good approach; don’t discount HNS, Romanesko/Poynter, and SPJ, however. Trust me, there is a lot of discussion in the profession about journalism as “he said/she said” and the LCD form of reporting controversy.

        Best,

  • Lyle Smith Jun 14, 2011

    I thought this article was pretty fair for being an AP article.

    I’d like to point out that if Mr. Perry is 46 years old as the article says he is, that means he was likely born in 1965. Malcolm X was murdered in 1965 so his claim of growing up in the Malcolm X era is a bit off. The elementary school he attended was also likely integrated by the time he started kindergarten or first grade since the South’s rural schools (most of the cities were already integrated) integrated in 1969.

  • Mark Jun 15, 2011

    Wow! Powerful article, really enjoyed it. These kind of stories make a person think and shows that the civil war isn’t really dead int he American consciousness.

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