Many of you know that I have a personal connection to 9-11. I lost a cousin on that horrific day. It should come as no surprise that I care very deeply about how my cousin and the history are remembered by the nation as a whole and, more specifically, by the 9-11 Memorial Museum.
Though my interest is very personal, in no way do I believe that I occupy a privileged position when it comes to discussing/debating how 9-11 ought to be remembered. Every American has something at stake regarding this question. It is our history. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to argue that I enjoy anything close to a monopoly on this question of remembrance and commemoration.
With that in mind I have to wonder what kind of distorted and arrogant view of the past would warrant someone to suggest that an ancestral connection to a Civil War soldier is necessary to engage in questions of commemoration and memory. Somebody is going to have to explain to me what that argument looks like. What exactly is the source of this privileged access?
My memories of 9-11 are still fresh. I experienced that day and its aftermath in a way that very few people will ever understand and I will carry that personal connection with me for the rest of my life.
What do you carry 150 years later that trumps such a connection and that places you in a position that you feel comfortable dismissing the myriad ways in which the past matters to each of us? The Civil War is everyone’s history and heritage.
OK, so I decided to take the plunge and read the first chapter of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. It’s incredibly dense and I will likely have to read it again to more fully grasp the argument. What I do understand is quite fascinating. In the process of showing how future slaveholders gradually supplanted Jefferson’s idea of a west that would guarantee a republican vision of small and independent landowners, Johnson emphasizes the connectedness of the new slave economy to international market forces. For Johnson, slavery must be understood as helping to forge a vibrant capitalist economy.
What held these regional, national, and international economies together over space and time and across time was money. The abstract scale of dollar values allowed business to take place in a space not strictly delimited by the physical properties of the thing being traded. The value of a barrel of salt pork, which would go bad if it sat on the levee waiting for the crop to come in, could be noted and paid off in sugar when it finally did; the value of a young woman in Virginia in May might be compared to that of an old man in Louisiana in September, although their bodies were distant in time and space, and distinct in physical proportion and capacity; the value of either might be compared to a bale of cotton in Liverpool in January, a barrel of sugar in New York in June, or a plot of land that was for sale down the road two days hence. Yet money sometimes moved while things stood still: the ownership of a bale of cotton in a warehouse in New Orleans or a descendant’s claim to a particular slave in a share of an estate on the Red River, for example, might be transferred several times, although the actual bale of cotton or the actual slave was never carried away. Nothing in this economy moved without money. The real problem, it sometimes turned out, was moving the money. (pp. 42-43)
There is quite a bit to unpack in this short passage and the rest of the chapter, which I am not going to do. I suspect that Johnson is not the first historian to emphasize the international economic context in which American slavery existed and thrived. The passage beautifully captures the interconnectedness of it all over time and space. It also leaves you appreciating the extent to which the value of even the most mundane material items was somehow connected to the value of cotton and slaves. More importantly, Johnson is forcing me to reconsider my tendency to think of slavery as somehow backwards or pre-modern. Far from it. Johnson paints a picture of slaveholders engaged in creative speculation in numerous domestic and overseas markets. Yep, sounds pretty modern to me.
Perhaps in a nation that fully embraces capitalism as a moral system we resist the idea that it was responsible for generating an exorbitant amount of wealth and suffering. In other words, there was nothing incompatible between capitalism and slavery.
Harvard University Press sent along a review copy of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom even before its publication, but I have yet to make much headway. It’s a beast of a book. Here is an interview that Johnson did with Deirdre Cooper Owens from the University of Mississippi.
Update: The more I think about it, the more I agree with a commenter below that on this particular issue I am splitting hairs. Perhaps I’ve allowed my disgust for this project to get the better of me. Take a listen to NPS Ranger, Christopher Young, who just finished commemorating the 150th anniversary of the battle of Chickamauga. He has the right idea when it comes to remembering and commemorating our Civil War soldiers. Finally, let me be clear that I am not offended by the sight of this flag. What I find offensive is how it is manipulated and abused by these people.
Next weekend the Virginia Flaggers will unveil their Confederate battle flag somewhere along I-95 in Chesterfield County, near Richmond. This week they unveiled their new flag on the steps of the Virginia capital. It appears they went with something that resembles the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. I say resembles because if you look closely something is very, very wrong.
If you look closely you will notice that the stars are not spaced properly. Continue reading “Virginia Flaggers To Fly Historically Inaccurate Flag”
Recently I agreed to chair the committee for the 2014 Award for Excellence in Public History sponsored by The Society of Civil War Historians.
The Society of Civil War Historians solicits nominations for the $5000 Award for Excellence in Public History. Funded by the Blue and Gray Education Society, the award will recognize an outstanding public history project completed and made available to the public in 2012 or 2013 that enhances public awareness and understanding of the Civil War era, including the events leading to the war and its direct consequences.
We are looking for:
- public exhibitions
- media productions (including internet-based projects)
- public programs, events, and tourism initiatives
- preservation projects that include the interpretation of objects, documents, structures, or landscapes
Additional information can be found at the SCWH website. Please pass this along to anyone who might be interested. Thank you.