Old South v. New South?

45856914Can someone please send me directions to the cultural war between the Old South and the New.  Sorry, but interviewing the commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans concerning plans to spread Confederate culture to every municipality in the country and including an image of some dude wearing a Confederate flag jacket as part of the 2006 Redneck Games doesn’t cut it.  How many people do you think Charles McMichael speaks for?  My guess is that the number doesn’t even appear on the radar screen.  Luckily, the reporter included an interview with a reputable historian:

Commemoration of the Confederacy as a noble cause began shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865, said Jonathan Sarris, associate professor of history at North Carolina Wesleyan College. The multicultural angle is an effort to appear more inclusive, he said, but it ignores the facts.

“To say that it is not racist but about multiculturalism is an attempt to adopt a modern mind-set,” Sarris said. “You can call it a victory for the forces of multiculturalism when even the defendants of the Confederacy feel they have to pay some lip service to the idea of tolerance.”

Sarris is absolutely right. [By the way, I highly recommend his recent study, A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South]  The fact that the SCV has pushed toward emphasizing the multicultural “appeal” of the Confederacy is a sufficient indicator that even they have left the realm of the past for a mythical one that allows for continued identification and celebration.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the SCV’s emphasis on their multicultural heritage makes them the hippies of Confederate remembrance.  Sadder yet is the reduction of Confederate history and symbolism to the kinds of games pictured above: bobbing for pigs feet, hub cap hurling and the Redneck mud pit belly flop contest.  Yeah, I’m sure that’s exactly how their Confederate ancestors hoped to be remembered.

There is no war over how to remember the Confederacy nor is there a cultural war between two Souths.  Sure, you can find pockets of partisanship here and there, but do we really believe that a substantial portion of the nation is aware of any of this or feels as if it has a stake in the outcome?

Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial is Off and Running

2While other states are still in the beginning stages of organizing sesquicentennial commissions Virginia is getting ready to host a major event on Wednesday, April 29 at the University of Richmond’s Robins Center.  This is the first of a series of Signature Conferences that will be held throughout the sesquicentennial.  This first conference is titled, “America on the Eve of the Civil War” and will include four sessions, which will place participants in a position where they must take stock of the nation following John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and anticipate its consequences as a presidential election loomes on the horizon.  The participants make up a who’s who list of Civil War historians.  They include, among others, David Blight, Gary Gallagher, Manisha Sinha, Nelson Lankford, Charles Dew, and Ed Ayers.  Well over 1,700 people are registered to date, coming from all over Virginia plus 23 other states.  Registration is still open, though I urge you to reserve a seat now as it looks like it will eventually sell out.

I will be live blogging throughout the day.  In fact, I will be located in a special section with the rest of the media – should be a blast.  In addition to blogging, I will be hosting a luncheon for educators, the goal being to give teachers a chance to network and discuss the session topics.  I do hope that additional states can muster the political will and organize commemorative committees to better our understanding of this crucial period in American history.  For now, sit back and watch as Virginia sets the standard.

Update: The Q&A sections of the panels will include questions submitted electronically. It looks like you will be able to submit a question to me through the blog that I can relay to the Question Manager. I will provide more details as we get closer to the conference.

“The History Boys”

Imake my acting debut this year in our school’s student production of “The History Boys.” I’ve been given the role of headmaster.  The story is set in a private school in England in the mid-1980s and follows a small group of history pupils who are preparing for their entrance exams for admission to Oxford and Cambridge.  The boys must navigate through the contrasting teaching styles of Irwin, Hector, and Ms. Lintott as well as their contrasting views on the lessons of literature and history.  Along the way the students work to come to terms with their own sexuality as well as the intentions and deceitfulness of the faculty.  One of my favorite moments in the film takes place as the boys are preparing for their college interviews.  In frustration, Ms. Lintott shares her own gendered interpretation of the lessons of history and the “ineptitude” of men.  She is followed by Rudge who reduces the complexity of the past down to the simple thought that history is “one fucking thing after another.”

I am thoroughly enjoying my introduction to the world of acting.  In fact, it is exhilarating!

Secessionists Eat Bad Steaks and Talk Disunion

1p08-bannerIam sorry to have missed yesterday’s meeting of the newest chapter of the League of the South, which has been organized in Anniston, Alabama.  The John C. Calhoun Chapter held their first meeting yesterday at the local Western Sizzlin’ where the organization’s national president, Michael Hill, railed against the abuses of the federal goverment.  I can’t stop laughing as I imagine Hill addressing an audience that is continually making its way to the buffet bar to load up on as much bad steak as possible for $5.95.  To be honest, I am not so much interested in what was said as I am in the total cholesterol level of the group.

Alabama Honors Reconstruction Era Lawmakers

From the Associated Press:

The Alabama Legislature has passed a resolution honoring black lawmakers who served during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. The resolution by Democratic Rep. Alvin Holmes of Montgomery says black Alabama residents played an integral part in the Legislature from 1868 to 1878. At the height of Reconstruction in 1874, there were 33 blacks in the Legislature.  Holmes’ resolution received final approval Thursday when the House went along with changes made by the Senate. The resolution now goes to Gov. Bob Riley for his approval.  The resolution calls for the names of the black lawmakers to be placed on plaques located in the rotunda of the state Capitol, on the grounds outside the Capitol and inside the entrance to the Alabama Statehouse.

John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)

cimg0234Today one of the truly gifted historians died at the age of 94.  John Hope Franklin, however, was always more than a historian.  He understood that the present and the past are closely interwoven and that the study of history is always the first step to addressing present injustices.  Duke University has set up a webpage to commemorate the life of John Hope Franklin.

My wife and I were lucky enough to meet Dr. Franklin last summer at a slave family reunion at Montpelier.  Simply put, Dr. Franklin is one of my intellectual heroes.  His career embodies a strong commitment to racial justice through activism and scholarship.  It would be more accurate to say that his scholarship is in fact a form of activism, and at 94 he was still going strong.  I especially enjoyed listening to him discuss why it is so important to tell the story of slavery as part of American history and the perils of ignoring or forgetting the past.  I like to think that my own research on Civil War memory is in a way a form of activism.  I to believe that it is important for a nation to confront its collective past in all of its richness, which includes both moments of great achievement as well as disappointment.  And I am convinced that one can keep this moral goal in mind without it impinging or threatening the integrity of scholarship.  The highlight of the day was having the chance to talk with him in person.  I truly felt like I was talking with one of the great Americans of the twentieth century and I don’t mind saying that I was just a little star struck.

All I can say is, thank you Dr. Franklin.  We will miss you.

White Southerners Have Always Loved Lincoln

Barry SchwartzIhighly recommend Barry Schwartz’s new book, Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  There is an interesting section on the image of Lincoln during the Depression, which is a moment where, according to Schwartz his reputation had peaked only to decline following WWII.  Schwartz not only surveys popular or institutional representations of Lincoln, but also tries to uncover the views of ordinary Americans.  One of the more interesting sections is his analysis of how white Southerners viewed Lincoln from the turn of the twentieth century through the New Deal.  Along the way, Schwartz mentions Thomas Dixon, D.W. Griffith, and Mary R.S. Andrews and a host of lesser-known writers.

I learned that on February 12, 1928, the Virginia House of Delegates rose for the first time in respect for Lincoln’s memory and adjourned “in honor of…the martyred President of the United States, whose death was a distinct blow to the South, resulting in a national calamity.”  Not surprisingly, a number of public figures, including Lyon G. Tyler (son of of the president) and Reverend Giles B. Cook (Lee’s staff) offered a request to “to Repeal the Resolution of respect for Abraham Lincoln, the Barbarian…” and an eleven-page resolution.  At least one newspaper editor encouraged its readers to “put aside old animosities.”

What I found most interesting was a 1929 survey of 4,658 boys and girls in Alabama living in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham done by David Spence Hill.  Hill asked the following: Of all persons whom you have heard, or read about, or seen, whom would you most care to be like or resemble”?  One third of the boys and 60% of the girls named a relative or personal acquaintance; however, when it came to historic and public figures their answers were quite telling.  Of the boys, 26% chose Washington while both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee came away with 5% each.  The girls also overwhelmingly chose Washington, but Lincoln earned 3% while Lee only earned 2%.  Schwartz’s analysis of the data is worth repeating in full:

Hill’s survey shows Lincoln’s prestige to have been feeble among school children, but he also documents the decline of the Confederate tradition.  That Lincoln and Lee are named by virtually the same small percentage of respondents is surprising, given the belief about the South’s lingering resentments.  No longer can negative Southern attitudes toward Lincoln be attributed to nostalgia for the Confederacy and its heroes.  Moreover, Alabama children were discovering ideals in the present as well as the past.  Boys ranked Charles Lindbergh (22 percent) just below George Washington.  Girls also mentioned Lindbergh, along with film stars Clara Bow, Billie Dove, and Ruth Elder.  Not the Confederate hero but George Washington and contemporary entertainers were competing against Abraham Lincoln for Southern children’s attention and respect. (p. 55-56)

One of the most popular publications of Confederate nostalgia was Tyler’s Quarterly Magazine and in 1939 one of its contributors complained that “praises for Lincoln emanate in almost equal fervor from practically every section of America.”  Not too long ago newspapers inquired as to why Southern states were not taking part in Lincoln Bicentennial events.  Of course, anyone who bothered to look would have noticed that there are numerous events throughout the South which acknowledge in one way or another his importance to American history.  In fact, Lincoln is getting much more attention than both Lee and Jefferson Davis.  My guess is that the author of the piece was driven more by popular perception than any serious understanding of Lincoln’s place in our national memory.  One of the reasons why I find the study of memory to be so intriguing is that it has the potential to surprise.  I am constantly struck by the extent to which our assumptions about the past or the ways in which previous generations interpreted the past deviate from our own.  We should be careful not to use those who came before as a means to our own ends.  So, if you are a white Southerner who respects and admires Lincoln, it turns out that you are in very good company.