Yesterday I spent about an hour on the phone talking with a writer at Education Week about the teaching of Civil War history during the sesquicentennial. We talked about a wide range of issues, but at one point I was asked if I can discern any noticeable difference between the teaching of this history in the North v. South. I’ve been asked this question before and I always struggle to answer it. For one I’ve only taught history in the state of Virginia and most of the teachers that I’ve interacted with through various workshops also teach here. That said, Virginia is instructive given its location in the South and its close association with all things Civil War/Lost Cause.
A cursory glance at recent events in Virginia suggests that not only has it moved away from anything resembling Mildred Rutherford’s vision of the history classroom, it has taken a national lead in introducing students to a Civil War narrative that is very much in line with recent scholarship. That said, I have no doubt that there are still pockets of resistance, but I suspect that much of it is generational in nature. I’ve seen this in various workshops over the past few years. Younger teachers have little difficulty with some of the tough questions of Civil War history related to race and slavery, but teachers reared on a more traditional narrative tend to be suspicious. The important point, however, is that I don’t believe we can plot such resistance along regional lines given recent demographic shifts.
The heritage syndrome, if I may call it that, almost seems to be a predictable but certainly a non-conspiratorial response–an impulse to remember what is attractive or flattering and to ignore all the rest. Heritage is composed of those aspects of history that we cherish and affirm. As an alternative to history, heritage accentuates the positive but sifts away what is problematic. One consequence is that the very pervasiveness of heritage as a phenomenon produces a beguiling sense of serenity about the well-being of history–that is, a false consciousness that historical knowledge and understanding are alive and well in the United States.
Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, p. 626
To understand something historically is to be aware of its complexity, to have sufficient detachment to see it from multiple perspectives, to accept the ambiguities, including moral ambiguities, of protagonists’ motives and behavior.
I’ve learned a umber of things in the course of my research on the Crater and public history/historical memory. For any number of reasons we’ve underestimated the level of interest in the Civil War within the African American community. In Petersburg public interest could be found in the postwar years in local churches, in black militia units, and in local schools. A heightened awareness of the role of African Americans in the Civil War can be found in the 1950s and 60s in such popular magazines such as Ebony and Jet. Over the course of the past year we’ve seen ample evidence of African Americans embracing the Civil War. The level of interest is directly related to the wide range of events that can be found in museums, historical societies, educational institutions, and other private organizations. Despite what the mainstream media would have us believe, we are witnessing a profound transformation in our collective memory of the war compared with just a few short decades ago.
The National Park Service has led the way in broadening the general public’s understanding of the war and the meaning of our most important historic sites. Consider John Hennessy’s recent tour of Fredericksburg, titled, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg”, which attracted roughly 70 members from the area’s historic black churches. John’s optimism is tempered somewhat by the comments he heard from a few people:
“Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.
I have little doubt that the public perception of the NPS among African Americans will continue to improve with continued programming that reaches beyond traditional narrative boundaries. The NPS in Petersburg has also taken steps to reach out to the local black community with, among other things, a series of walking tours of downtown Petersburg. Again, all of these things bode well for the future.
Back in January I announced that I was adding affiliate links for Amazon.com books into my posts. As a result, I get a small percentage of each sale in the form of a gift certificate. A few weeks ago I added a widget in the sidebar that extends this affiliate program to include titles from my personal library. Well, this little experiment has gone better than I anticipated. Since the beginning of January Civil War Memory has earned $55 dollars in commissions based on the sale of 49 ordered items. I am feeling very good about this program. Most importantly, I have complete control over the products that I advertise and it is clear that readers of this blog are clicking through, which implies a certain amount of trust on your part.
I’ve proceeded carefully down this road with the full understanding that it is my wide readership that makes Civil War Memory such a popular and dynamic site. The last thing that I want to do is alienate readers with misleading advertisements or even worse, inferior products. I have resisted utilizing Google Ad Sense and other automated programs precisely because they do not afford me a sufficient level of control over the placement of specific products. At the same time I simply can’t ignore the fact that this site could help to supplement my income over the next year. If anything, it could help offset the costs involved in maintaining this site and given my impending move to Boston every little bit helps.
What I can guarantee all of you is that the ads will compliment the content of this site and will allow me to continue to direct this blog’s audience to companies that support my broader mission of history education. Let me know what you think and please feel free to voice any concerns.