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.