Edward Sebesta seems to think that there is a Neo-Confederate boogeyman lurking around every corner. His reading of a post by Ta Nehisi-Coates on my recent visit to Harvard to listen to a talk on black Confederates by John Stauffer led him to post the following at H-Afro-American:
Henry Louis Gates is promoting the neo-Confederate nonsense of black Confederates at Harvard. You can read about it here. I am not sure what else is happening at Harvard, perhaps the physics department is promoting the idea of caloric fluids, or the chemistry department is reviving the idea of phlogiston. Perhaps the biology department is going to be teaching creationism. Maybe the geology department is going for a six-day creation. The astronomy department might be re-considering Ptolomeic spheres.
I won’t go into how the overwhelming weight of historical evidence is against it. What I think is of importance is what this reveals about Henry Louis Gates. There is a current effort to get Confederates memorialized at Harvard. It might be that the rationalization will be that persons of African ancestry fought for the Confederacy so it is okay. That is the underlying point of this Black Confederate nonsense.
Sebesta’s attempt at humor only serves to highlight his ignorance about the presentation and Gates’s interest in the subject. He doesn’t even seem to be aware that the talk was presented by John Stauffer. Gates simply hosted the event. I’ve already shared what I perceive to be some major problems with Stauffer’s presentation as well as Gates’s comments during the Q&A. To assume that Gates is providing the “rationalization” to have Confederates memorialized at Harvard Memorial Hall, however, is patently absurd and irresponsible on his part.
For what it’s worth I will take a quick stab at trying to understand Gates’s interest in the subject. A few weeks ago my wife and I caught one of Gates’s African American lives shows on PBS. I don’t remember who he was with, but at one point Gates asked his guest how she felt about having an ancestor who owned slaves. Of course, the woman was visibly shocked, but what I found interesting and just a bit disappointing was that Gates did not provide any context to understanding this seemingly strange situation. Of course, it is possible that those scenes were edited out, but I’ve seen this more than once.
I think it is telling about what Gates is hoping to accomplish with these programs and that is to complicate our understanding of the past. He wants us to embrace our family histories, but he also wants us to understand that our own understanding is often undercut by research. Of course, these stories need to be placed in their proper context, but perhaps that takes away from the shock value that works so well with television. Given this I am not surprised that Gates would be interested in hosting a talk on the subject of black Confederates. One can easily imagine Gates asking a guest how he/she feels about having an ancestor who fought in the Confederate army. A number of his comments, including the reminder that African Americans were just as complex as whites, clearly reflects this preoccupation with stories that force people to step back and reassess some of their fundamental assumptions about the past.
Contrary to Edward Sebesta, I would argue that this doesn’t make Gates a Neo-Confederate.