Triumph, Not Trauma

There is an interesting article over at Psychology Today, if only because it takes a different perspective on the controversy surrounding Confederate History Month.  Molly Costelloe Fong suggests that Governor McDonnell’s proclamation may have certain psychological effects within the black community owing to the long-term legacy of slavery:

When one group deliberately inflicts suffering on “others” as through slavery, the victimized group suffers certain psychological effects: shame, humiliation, guilt, and a decreased ability to be assertive.  McDonnell’s blundering declaration reinforces shared mental images of Black oppression within our national psyche and will likely perpetuate feelings of victimization for African-Americans.

The author suggests that the governor’s proclamation may trigger those “unconscious” feelings of victimization and oppression:

When mourning is unfinished business — the trauma is handed down to future generations. This is done through stories, feelings, and unconscious behaviors that “deposit” images of an injured self into one’s children and other descendants.  In these ways, a younger generation is asked to perform certain unresolved psychological tasks. “Confederate History Month” may also contribute to the perpetuation of historic trauma across generations.

Since I am not a psychologist I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the assumptions at work in these short passages.  On the fact of it it looks like an incredibly weak argument.  My real interest, however, is with the picture of black history that is implicit in this piece.  At first I thought I was reading something out of Stanley Elkins’s thought-provoking study of slavery which uses the structure of the concentration camp system to understand the relationship between slave and master along with its psychological consequences for its victims.

Few people will deny that the horrors of slavery had both short- and long-term consequences for the African-American community. I am not so sure that they can be reduced in the way that Fong asserts, but I must assume that her analysis fits in somewhere within the overall analysis.  The problem for this author is the tendency to interpret the response within the black community to the governor’s proclamation as somehow stemming from the experience of slavery, which no one today experienced first-hand.  It also portrays black Americans as victims and their collective story as a history of victimization.  Historians who have written about American slavery since Elkins have tended to move away from such a narrative to one that explores the myriad ways in which slaves and free blacks struggled to shape their own lives within the confinements of terrorism and legal discrimination through much of the twentieth century.  What we have here in Dr. Fong’s analysis is a short description of how she views black history; I would dare say that her limited understanding of this collective story has been made to fit into her psychological analysis.

What Dr. Fong has missed is the extent to which the reaction of the black community and the subsequent apology and amendment by Gov. McDonnell reflects a story of triumph and perseverance and not some lingering collective trauma.  There was some anger expressed by certain individuals (Roland Martin), but for the most part I read what I consider to be fairly moderate reactions.  Very few people suggested that Confederate soldiers ought to be dropped from any public commemoration; rather, African Americans argued that the Confederate soldier does not encompass the entire story of the war in Virginia.  In short, African Americans have stated openly and forcefully that they do not share the governor’s vision of how to remember and commemorate the Civil War in Virginia.  As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, it is a response that was not possible just a few decades ago.  That it is possible now – on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial – can be traced to the sacrifices and determination of African Americans since the Civil War who were determined to force the United States to live up to its ideals of freedom and equality.  Since the 1960s that has translated into increased involvement on all levels of government and it is that involvement that was at work last week in the wake of the governor’s announcement.

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Sons of Confederate Veterans Respond to Governor McDonnell

Brooks Simpson came across the Virginia SCV’s response to Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month proclamation today while teaching his course on research methods.  I recommend that you read the entire post, but here is the SCV’s proclamation for your consideration.  Brooks has already pointed out the false claim that Ulysses S. Grant and his wife owned slaves until the adoption of the 13th amendment.  Have fun with locating the other mistakes and the distortions.  What I find truly bizarre is why the SCV feels a need to reference Lincoln on race as well as the Emancipation Proclamation.  They have nothing to do with the governor’s proclamation or amendment to it.  The governor’s amendment pointed out that slavery was a cause of the war and that it cannot be ignored in trying to understand the scope of the conflict.  I think this reflects just how defensive the SCV has become, but it also reflects an intellectual bankruptcy that should be apparent to anyone who has reads serious Civil War history.  More importantly, it suggests to me that the SCV is not going to be a significant player in influencing Virginia’s remembrance through the sesquicentennial.  Nice try guys, but the sooner you come to term with the fact that we no longer live in 1961 the better off you will be.

The Virginia Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans statement regarding the Confederate History Month Proclamation as issued by Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell, TO WIT:

WHEREAS, Governor McDonnell declared the Month of April to be Confederate History Month in the Commonwealth of Virginia at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; and

WHEREAS, governors of Virginia have issued proclamations for diverse groups and individuals; and

WHEREAS, Members of the Democratic Party and its leadership, including former Governor Douglas Wilder, have repeatedly made statements in regards to the proclamation that the only reason that Confederate soldiers took to the field of battle was to defend the institution of slavery; and

WHEREAS, President Abraham Lincoln stated “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races” and further stated at the outset of the crisis that “I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists,” and “my paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union;” and

WHEREAS, The Commonwealth of Virginia seceded from the Union not in the defense of slavery, but only after President Lincoln called for troops to make war against the lower Southern States; and

WHEREAS, The Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave in any slave state that had remained loyal to the Union during the War Between the States, nor did it free any slave in the District of Columbia or any part of the Confederacy which was occupied and controlled by the U.S. military; and

WHEREAS, The Commonwealth of Virginia was cleaved in two by an executive order of President Lincoln, creating the State of West Virginia which was admitted to the Union as a slave state in 1863; and

WHEREAS, General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife held slaves until forced to release them with the adoption of the 13th Amendment after the war and when questioned as to why he had done so, Grant replied because “good help is hard to find;” and

WHEREAS, Governor McDonnell altered the original Confederate History Month Proclamation to include a clause which states that the Civil War was fought solely over the existence of slavery despite numerous contrary arguments and a host of other social, moral, political, and economic factors.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT:

THE VIRGINIA DIVISION, SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS, does hereby commend Governor Robert F. McDonnell for the issuance of the Confederate History Month proclamation; and

THE VIRGINIA DIVISION, does hereby absolutely refute the claim that Confederate soldiers went to the field of battle for the sole purpose of preserving slavery as an intellectually dishonest argument; and

THE VIRGINIA DIVISION does not endorse any statement that the Confederacy existed entirely for the defense of slavery and considers such statements to be a detriment to the memory of the many Virginians who gave their lives to defend against the illegal federal invasion of the Commonwealth of Virginia in a long and bloody war.

ADOPTED this 9th day of April, 2010.  Attest: John Sawyer, Division Commander

9th day of April, 2010.  Attest: John Sawyer, Division Commander

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A Few Minutes With David Blight

Many of you know that I am a huge fan of David Blight’s scholarship.  Race and Reunion was the book that set me off on my own research projects as well as in shaping the overall theme of this site.  Since reading it I’ve come to question parts of Blight’s thesis as a result of studying the work of others and as a result of my own research on the memory of the battle of the Crater.  This recent interview touches on a number of issues related to Civil War memory that are relevant to the ongoing debate about Confederate History Month as well as broader questions of remembrance.  After yesterday’s post I thought it might be nice to introduce a little thoughtfulness to the discussion.

[Click here for Part 2]

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Mainstream Media Tackles Confederate History Month = Fail

Thankfully the media circus is beginning to die down over last week’s Confederate History Month proclamation.  I ended up watching more of the “debate” on the major news channels than I care to admit.  It was downright painful to watch.  The most disappointing aspect of it all was the almost complete absence of any professional historians.  You would think that the major networks could have mustered up at least one legitimate historian.  The closest I saw was a half-way decent interview that Rachel Maddow conducted with Patricia Harris-Lacewell, who teaches politics and African American Studies at Princeton.  Unfortunately, the professor’s distinction between two southern pasts didn’t quite address all of the salient issues involved.

More often than not the audience was treated to the same talking heads who clearly do not understand the relevant history.  CNN’s Roland Martin had a field day with this issue, which included a lively debate with Brag Bowling.  No surprise that Bowling was at times inarticulate, but Martin’s comparison of Confederate soldiers with Nazis and suggestion that they were “domestic terrorists” shut the door on any chance of rational debate.  You can read Martin’s recent essay comparing Confederates with terrorists on the CNN site.  It is one of the most incoherent arguments that I’ve seen in a long time; I would love for someone to explain it to me.  Finally, check out Martin in this little clip with Republican adviser Mary Matalin, who retreats to the old saw that most white southerners were not slaveowners and that most northerners were not abolitionists.

Next, we head on over to Hardball where we find Pat Buchanan and Chris Matthews in full combat.  Neither of these guys is capable of doing much more than jabbing back and forth at one another and Buchanan’s constant referencing of the Founding Fathers as slaveowners makes little sense.  Also on MSNBC is something called the Dylan Rattigan Show.  I have no idea who he is nor can I identify the guests beyond their names.  Regardless, there is almost nothing worth repeating from this interview.  Finally, I share with you a real doozy of an interview with the chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Jeff Davis.  Davis does a fabulous job towing the SCV party line and we learn from the woman conducting the interview that there were 500,000 slaves in West Virginia.  Oh boy.

It’s hard to believe that with the resources available to these “news” outlets that this was the best they could do in communicating much needed information to the general public.  I am tired of hearing those cries about how little our students understand about this nation’s history.  If the rest of the nation’s understanding of the past is anything like what was presented as news on this issue over the past week than our children are the least of our problems.  In the end our mainstream news reflects our mainstream culture.

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Was the Civil War Punishment From God?

I got a kick out of reading Richard Williams’s response to my post.  I’m not going to respond to the content other than to say that my “policing” of the blogosphere extends no further than his own.  Sometimes I wonder whether he reads his own blog.

What I do want to comment on is a point made by Williams early on concerning the role of God in bringing about the Civil War:

I believe that God allowed the Civil War to occur due to the SIN OF SLAVERY and punished both sections of the Nation for their involvement in that evil.

The problem with any analysis of such a view hinges on how we interpret the word, “allowed”.  It could mean that God caused the Civil War as a way to punish the nation or it could suggest that God failed to intervene and allowed Americans on both sides to butcher one another as punishment.  Either way on this view African Americans were expendable as white America worked out its moral kinks with the full understanding and blessing of God.  That seems to be just a bit problematic.

If we stick to the second reading of ‘allowed’ we ought to be able to ask why God failed to intervene earlier in human affairs.  In other words, why did God allow the situation to spiral out of control to a point where Americans were willing to kill one another?  Why not intervene on the smallest of scales to prevent the introduction of slavery in the early 17th century?  [Come to think of it has God ever intervened in American history?]  It clearly would have lowered the overall suffering of scores of Africans and African Americans and it may have prevented the forming of a slave nation in 1787 and a civil war in 1861.  On this second reading it also looks like we must acknowledge the centrality of slavery to the Civil War.  In fact, it looks like we must indeed view the goals of the Confederacy as a Lost Cause given that God must have known that the war would end slavery since it was allowed to take place and God certainly would not have permitted bloodshed on such a scale to end with slavery intact.  So much for all those prayers from Confederates pleading for God to deliver a victory.  It was never going to happen.

We can also interpret ‘allowed’ along causal lines as described above.  Questions persist for this interpretation as well.  First, why did it take God so long to punish the nation for slavery?  Couldn’t such an act have been carried out before so many Africans had been kidnapped and brought to the United States, not to mention the rest of the western hemisphere?  And where does this leave African Americans?  I suspect that some in the black community may be wondering why so many of their ancestors had to be sacrificed just to teach white America a lesson between 1861 and 1865.  It also seems problematic that God waited to punish the nation after one entire section had abolished the institution.  Of course, we could focus on the extent to which the North was involved in this hideous practice as late as 1861, but there was plenty of time for God to punish the nation at a time when every state included the practice.

Of course, I could go on and on, but what’s the point.  Actually, I agree on a certain level with Williams that the war was punishment; however, we don’t need to bring in the mysterious workings of divine intervention or contemplate the moral profile of God to make the point.  The Civil War was the result of Americans’ inability to work through very difficult problems that plagued the nation from the beginning.  Americans at different times and places made decisions and these decisions had consequences.  By 1861 the nation was split regionally between slave and non-slave states.  “And then the war came.”

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