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!

Adventures in American Studies (Part 2)

Today we returned to UVA’s Special Collections to introduce students to their individual documents/artifacts.  The students spent about 50 minutes exploring their documents and responding to a series of questions that will help them with further research.  They were able to take photographs using digital cameras and they will be required to make one additional trip to the archives at some point over the next few weeks.  I have to say that it was an absolute pleasure to watch them interact with the documents.  I had a chance to talk with each student and assist them in formulating questions.  There was an energy in the room and we couldn’t be happier that so many students were visibly excited about the exercise.  This is what teaching is all about and this is how you get kids excited about history.  I’ve got the best job in the world.  What follows are some of the questions to help students get started:

  • What do you see?  List as many small and large elements in the broadside or artifact as you can.
  • What are the key features of the broadside?  Are they printed text or images or a combination of both?
  • What words strike you as most important?  How does the text highlight the importance of that word or words?
  • What colors, if any, are used?
  • What kind of typeface/font is used?  Is the print different sizes in places?
  • Does it tell us anything about who created the document and what kind of emotions it tries to elicit or engender?
  • What is the size of the document?
  • What kind of technology was used to create the artifact?  How labor-intensive was the process behind the artifact’s creation?
  • What is going on in American history at the time of this text?
  • What is the immediate historical context of the document/artifact?
  • Does 20 years of history on either side alter your understanding of the document?
  • What was the expected audience for this piece?  Specific or General?  How can you tell?

The final product will be a website the features the document in question.  Students must decide how to present both the document as well as their interpretation.  These are the experiences that matter.  We need to move away from measuring success simply in terms of what they know about American history.  Our job must be to connect them to that past and to help students to see themselves as products of the past.

If you are a teacher who lives in a college/university town I urge you to reach our to the archival staff.  Most universities encourage their staffs to engage in this kind of outreach.  We can teach history or we can teach them how to do history.

Ann DeWitt Is At It Again

It just continues to get more and more bizarre with each passing week.  Ann DeWitt promised to continue to develop her Black Confederate Soldiers website and she does not disappoint.  She recently added a section on the pension records of Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee.   Nowhere does she inform her reader that these pensions were given to former slaves – a fact obscured by the black individual holding a Confederate flag.  But wait, it gets much better.  Check out DeWitt’s description of body servants:

So what is the definition of a body servant?  A body servant is a gentleman’s gentleman.  These African-American men, whether freedmen or slaves, dedicated their lives to the service of men who in some form or fashion shaped the United States of America.  In 21st century vernacular the role is analogous to a position known as an executive assistant—a position today that requires a college Bachelors Degree or equivalent level experience.  Ask any salesman. You cannot secure an appointment with a senior executive without getting approval from his or her  executive assistant.

I deplore slavery. However, my point is that these body servants did break ground in establishing the importance of the role in 21st century context.  Body servants were trusted advisers and confidants to Confederate Generals such as Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest to name a few.  As an example, capitalist Nathan Bedford Forrest was the most revered as well as loathed Confederate General because Nathan Bedford Forrest in the end was respected by both black and white southern men who served under his leadership.  Look at the official Confederate Tennessee Pension records.  Forrest even had an “escort cavalry,” which in today’s terms we call an entourage.  Even President Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, travels with a staff of 500 people.

Here is DeWitt’s page on Alabama’s pension records:

The African-Americans, who served during the American Civil War from Alabama, served as drummers, musicians, laborers, carpenters and teamsters to name a few.  Alabama Department of Archives & History provides an Online Index with links to original pension applications.  Please note that the Alabama Department of Archives & History does not document if these African-Americans fought for the Union or the Confederate States Army. Some southerners who served in the United States Army continued to fight for the Union. Which begs the question, did some slaves go to war with their southern masters to fight for the Union?

I admit that I had a long day today, but can someone explain what DeWitt is asking in these final two sentences? I am assuming that the men listed on this page functioned as servants to soldiers in the Confederate army.

If that wasn’t enough, H.K. Edgerton is referred to as a “Human Rights Defender.” And, finally we have this creative interpretation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  Keep in mind that DeWitt intends this to be an educational site for teachers and students.  O.K. that’s enough crazy for one day.