Making Room For a Richer History

From Governor Robert McDonnell’s recent announcement:

This proclamation will encapsulate all of our history. It will remember all Virginians-free and enslaved; Union and Confederate. It will be written for all Virginians.

While we cannot fully put to paper the definitive collective memory of this period, we are going to at least ensure that all voices are heard in the attempt.

One of the things that I strive to do in my classroom is to give my students a sense of the complexity of the past.  I want them to struggle with competing voices from the past as well as our continuing struggle as historians to make sense of it all.  One of the aspects of Gov. McDonnell’s recent speech that I truly appreciate is that it aligns his office, and the influence that accompanies it, with this worthy goal.  Over the next few years we need to figure out how to challenge the boundaries of our own personal narratives of the past.  If we claim to be serious students of the Civil War as well as educators then we need to find ways to bring these stories to the public and help to forge a richer collective past.

Here are two examples that I came across today in my reading.  The first is an 1856 editorial written by University of North Carolina Professor, Benjamin Hendrick:

Opposition to slavery extension is neither a Northern nor a Southern sectional ism.  It originated with the great Southern statesmen of the Revolution.  Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Madison, Randolph were all opposed to slavery in the abstract, and were all opposed to admitting it into new territory.  One of the early acts of the patriots of the Revolution was to pass the ordinance of ’87’ by which slavery was excluded from all the territories we then possessed.  This was going farther than the Republicans of the present day claim.  Many of these great men were slaveholders; but they did not let self interest blind them to the evils of the system.

Hendrick reminds us that while the antebellum South was committed to maintaining a slave society there were voices that continued to reflect antislavery sentiment.

Today in the Boston Globe there is an excellent article on the history of slavery in New England:

As the nation prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War in 2011, with commemorations that reinforce the North/South divide, researchers are offering uncomfortable answers to that question, unearthing more and more of the hidden stories of New England slavery — its brutality, its staying power, and its silent presence in the very places that have become synonymous with freedom. With the markers of slavery forgotten even as they lurk beneath our feet — from graveyards to historic homes, from Lexington and Concord to the halls of Harvard University — historians say it is time to radically rewrite America’s slavery story to include its buried history in New England.

As a teacher, historian, and proud citizen of Virginia I consider the governor’s words to be our marching orders to ensure that the Sesquicentennial gets as close to the “definitive collective memory of this period” as possible.  Thank you, governor.

Brag Bowling Responds to Governor McDonnell

It didn’t take long for Brag Bowling, the commander of the Virginia division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, to respond to Gov. Robert McDonnell’s announcement that he would discontinue the practice of designating April as Confederate History Month. Instead, the governor has decided to create a new designation that he calls, Civil War in Virginia Month.  Unfortunately, Bowling’s response does little more than render his organization even more irrelevant on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial:

“Our organization is terribly disappointed by this action,” Bowling told TPMmuckraker. “He succumbed to his critics, people who don’t support him anyway. And the vast majority of citizens of Virginia support Confederate History Month.”  He said he had spoken with the governor’s office and told them the same thing. He said “Civil War In Virginia Month” is a poor substitute.

“Nobody’s ever been able to reason with me and tell me why we’re honoring Yankees in Virginia,” Bowling said. “The only northerners in Virginia were the ones that came to Virginia and killed thousands of Virginia citizens when they invaded.” He also defended against the charges of racism.  “There was nothing racist about Confederate History Month. It was honoring Confederate soldiers who fought and died for their state,” he said, adding that the Sons will continue celebrating the month privately.

The problem with the criticism that the governor succumbed to his critics is that while it may apply to his initial retraction it doesn’t explain Friday’s announcement.  And the charge that the governor is honoring “Yankees in Virginia”  suggests that Bowling doesn’t understand an important aspect of Virginia Unionism.  Bowling also fails to deal with the substance of McDonnell’s announcement.  As I stated the other day, it was an incredibly thoughtful speech.  The governor has decided that Virginia should make room for multiple narratives of its Civil War experience.  The truth is that the change will not prevent the SCV or anyone from remembering the service and sacrifice of their Confederate ancestors.  What the governor has put forward is a proclamation that acknowledges the rich Civil War history of this state and which has placed him in line with the work of the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission – a committee funded by Virginia taxpayers.

What I don’t understand is why the SCV doesn’t endorse McDonnell’s decision.  What harm could come of it?

Gather Around Children and Let Me Tell You a Story

One of the nice things about Mr. Weeks’s decision to lodge a complaint about me with my school is that I ended up with an advanced copy of Entangled in Freedom.  I am trying to make my way through it, but it has been incredibly difficult.  It is much worse than I originally thought.  In fact, the book is downright dangerous and has no place in a classroom that is dedicated to presenting young children with an accurate view of the past.  Rather than try to put together a formal review, I’ve decided to share passages from the book.  This first one takes place early on the book as Isaac is preparing to leave with his master (Abraham Green) for the war.  In this scene Isaac is talking with an elderly white woman, Mrs. Jessica Fair, about the war and his place within it.  The setting is 1862 and Isaac is the narrator:

So, I asked Mrs. Fair, “What advice do you have for me?  I don’t want any trouble.”

“That’s a good question.  Newton County [Georgia] has been training you for this day Isaac all your life.  We in the county knew that slavery wasn’t going to last always.  I want you to come back a leader.  Help us rebuild this community.  Leaders don’t wait until trouble comes; they strategize for years about how to withstand the worst of circumstances.”  She looked at me to see if I understood what she was saying…. “When President Abraham Lincoln heard firsthand the intelligent words of Frederick Douglass, Lincoln realized that his world had already changed.  We in the Deep South knew all the time that black people are cut from the same board of cloth as whites.  That’s why Sally has been teaching all of your family to read and write, and why Abraham takes you to all of his business meetings.  He has been training you how to conduct yourself.  However; there are people from both the north and the south who still want to keep the slaves oppressed.”

Master Green interrupted and said, “I told Isaac.  It’s because of the laws in the state of Georgia.  That’s why I can’t set you free or I will go to jail…. [Mrs. Fair] “You make us proud in the war.  Abraham might be a farmer.  I believe in my heart of hearts that you will be a rich planter one day.  You remember this old lady.” [pp. 27-29]

I can only imagine what I am in for as Isaac and his master go off to war together.  The list of historical sources used for the book are included at the end and they are pretty much all online references.  They include Kelly Barrow’s books, a video of Edward Smith discussing black Confederates, a Son of the South site as well as an SCV web page titled, “Black History Month: Black Confederate Heritage.”  Surprisingly, they also include a reference to one of my posts on the upcoming Patrick Cleburne movie.  I must assume that their bibliography reflects their understanding of the history of slavery, race relations and the Civil War itself and if this is the case these two authors understand very, very little.

I hope I won’t have to field additional complaints about how I’ve handled this situation.  As far as I am concerned, to do so implies agreement with the historical basis of this story.  Stay tuned for future installments.

Confederate History Month to Civil War in Virginia Month

Unfortunately, I was not able to attend this year’s Virginia Sesquicentennial conference on Race and Slavery at Norfolk State University owing to a school visit by former First Lady, Laura Bush.  For those of you looking for some excellent commentary on today’s proceedings I urge you to head over to Jimmy Price’s blog, The Sable Arm.  I am sure at some point the conference proceedings will be made available, but one of the highlights has to be Governor McDonnell’s opening remarks in which he announced that he will not “move forward with a proclamation to claim April 2011 as ‘Confederate History Month.’  Instead, he will proclaim next year’s observation as ‘Civil War in Virginia Month’ as a way to settle longstanding disputes within the Commonwealth over its history as the former capitol of the Confederacy during the Civil War.”  The governor’s remarks were spot on and I especially appreciate the following:

In the century and a half since the armistice was executed at Appomattox, few states have undergone as many changes, or witnessed such stunning growth and progress, as our Commonwealth. Our borders have been fixed for 147 years; but our culture, community, and breadth of opportunity have been incredibly dynamic. These changes have made Virginia a stronger and better place.

But they have also made our collective “memory” — how our diverse society remembers and processes the events in its collective history — much more complicated.  In earlier times, Virginia’s dominant culture was defined by relatively few, and basic civil rights were excluded for many. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of that culture, and both were present in abundance, as in any human enterprise – there was a common lens through which to view history. Those in power wrote a single, narrow narrative. It left out many people, along with their powerful stories.  And so, while talking about our history has become more complicated today, we can all agree it has also become a much richer conversation.

I couldn’t be more pleased with the governor’s decision as well as his incredibly thoughtful address.

Entangled in Nonsense

Imagine my surprise yesterday when the headmaster of my school handed me an advanced copy of Kevin Weeks’s and Ann Dewitt’s new book, Entangled in Freedom.  Apparently, Mr. Weeks decided to send a copy to my school along with a letter claiming that I had “slandered my literary work without conducting a formal book review.”  You may remember my recent post in which I offer a few thoughts about the book’s description.  This was not meant as a formal review in any sense, though a number of people expressed their concern that I should have waited until I read the book.  What is interesting, however, is the nature of Mr. Weeks’s overall complaint against me.  In addition to the letter he included my school’s statement of its core values, which reflects a commitment to diversity.  Apparently, my comments about the book reflects my lack of understanding of diversity as seen in this particular story about black Confederates.  Even more interesting is the following accusation:

Does St. Anne’s – Belfield School concur with Mr. Levin that African-American history, regardless of how controversial, should be removed from historical museums and the voices of African-Americans, as mine, be silenced?

I simply have no idea how to respond to such an accusation.  No one is trying to silence anyone and this has nothing to do with a lack of commitment to diversity.  What it has to do with is pointing out history and historical fiction that is fundamentally flawed based on the historical record.  Now that I have a copy of the book I can take a closer look at the content of the story.  Last night I tried to sit down to read the first few pages and somehow I managed to finish the first ten pages.  It’s much worse than I thought.  I understand that historical fiction tends to play looser with the historical record and I understand that children’s books must operate on a simpler conceptual level, but this is ridiculous.  If I somehow find that I can make it through, I will give the book a formal review.

Finally, I still don’t understand why my school is being contacted about this issue.  As I recently stated, this site has no formal connection with the workplace.

“Students Should Feel Free To Criticize”

Today I received a student scholarship application from our local Lee-Jackson Educational Foundation.  They run an annual essay contest and award three $1,000 scholarships as well as an $8,000 award to the public school, private school, or homeschooled student who authors the essay that is judged to be the best in the state.  There is much that I like about the contest.  On the one hand the judges seek essays that are “well-written and thoroughly researched” and offer a “rigorous defense of a well-reasoned thesis.”  They even make it a point to advise students that it is permissible to criticize Lee and Jackson.  Perceptive students may inquire as to why such a point needs to be made at all.  Although the contest allows students the widest latitude in formulating a topic and thesis, the foundation does offer some suggestions:

  • General Lee’s or General Jackson’s heritage and their lives at war and at peace.
  • Lee’s Christian fervor or Jackson’s religious passion
  • Jackson’s enigmatic personality or Lee’s dedication to gentlemanly virtues
  • Lee as President of Washington College or possible changes in the course of the Civil War had Jackson not died so early.

There is a slight bit of tension between the insistence that students think broadly about the topic and feel free to “criticize” and the suggested subjects listed above.  They are more than suggested topics; rather, they include a number of implicit assumptions that are deeply rooted in our collective memory of these two individuals.

2010 Is Not 1861

It’s incredibly disturbing to hear a former president compare the extreme political polarization that we are currently experiencing to the state of affairs that led to the Civil War and the destruction of a large section of the country.  To reduce our current political climate to Red v. Blue states completely misses the crucial point that no issue currently dividing Americans does so in the way that slavery did.  Our politicians are not beating one another in the Senate chamber.  President Obama did not enter office following the secession of any one region of the country and it is safe to say that he will never have to order out the military to put down a rebellion.  Comparing 2010 with 1861-65 not only grossly distorts the past, it clouds the salient conditions that led to Americans butchering one another for 4 years.  It trivializes our Civil War.  President Carter’s rhetoric only adds to the perception that what we are currently experiencing in our political culture constitutes a dangerous and new shift.  Just study the political world of the 1790s if you have any doubt about this.  In other words, CALM DOWN!