Thanks to everyone who left a comment in response to my last post on David Blight. I wanted to take a few minutes to respond to Barbara Gannon’s comment, which I believe gets at something central to Blight’s overall approach to Civil War memory:
Blight’s explanation is popular because it is neat and satisfying. It posits memory as useful, and historians believe in useful memory. It makes us feel important. In his work, he suggests that forgetting emancipation and the failure to protect African American are somehow tied, in a cause and effect relationship. He posits history was useful to Southerners in this case. His implication, if memory had been right, and slavery remembered, it would have changed things, and been useful to African Americans. Its a real problem when people remember slavery in this era and this did not effect on the status of black Americans. My book and others coming up challenge his fundamental assertions, not minor points in his work. [my emphasis]
The topic of biography comes up at the very beginning of John Neff’s interview with Blight, which I think is key to any response to Barbara’s comment. Blight’s entry into Civil War memory comes before Race and Reunion (2001) in his collection of essays, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (1989). Douglass clearly sits at the center of how Blight sees memory unfolding during the postwar decades and its implications for African Americans. It is perhaps not a stretch to suggest that Blight has adopted Douglass’s own view of the moral and political implications of memory as his own, which he believes is important for the rest of us to reflect upon. This is the sense of ‘useful’ that I believe Barbara is getting at.
Barbara’s new book shows that GAR chapters were largely integrated and that African Americans managed to achieve positions of authority while John Neff argues that the Union dead and Lincoln’s assassination rendered reconciliation shallow and problematic. Both books, as well as others, challenge central claims made by Bight in Race and Reunion, but both books tackle narrower topics. We are still left with the brutal fact of Jim Crow and a world that Douglass saw crumbling around him by the end of his life. There is the question of how representative Douglass was to the African American community during the postwar period, but it seems to me his life is useful for reflecting on the connection between historical memory and political power and the larger historical shifts that took place, which tend to be where people find a deep sense of meaning.