Last night I traveled with 40 students and faculty to see Archbishop Desmond Tutu accept the Mahatma Gandhi Global Nonviolence Award from James Madison University. Roughly 40 students decided that listening to Archbishop Tutu was more important than anything else they had planned for a Friday night. I am impressed and proud of these students. We had a great time. As he spoke about the possibilities of peace in the world and a belief in the ultimate triumph of good over evil I sat transfixed. It wasn’t simply the power of his words, but the combination of the words along with a career spent promoting justice in South Africa and around the world that gave his message such meaning. One can’t help but draw a comparison with the evangelical nutjobs that infect our televisions. He was also very funny and incredibly humble. The archbishop even did a little dance on stage after he was given an honorary doctorate from the university. All in all it was a wonderful evening.
It’s Friday afternoon and I am sitting in my office waiting for the bus that will take me and 40 students to Harrisonburg where we will attend an awards event for Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I picked up Micki McElya’s new book, Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America (Harvard University Press, 2007) and am making my way through the introduction. I came across this interesting passage:
The myth of the faithful slave lingers because so many white Americans have wished to live in a world in which African Americans are not angry over past and present injustices, a world in which white people were and are not complicit, in which the injustices themselves–of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing structural racism–seem not to exist at all. The mammy figure affirmed these wishes. The narrative of the faithful slave is deeply rooted in the American racial imagination. It is a story of our national past and political future that blurs the lines between myth and memory, guilt and justice, stereotype and individuality, commodity and humanity. (pp. 3-4)
I had a really good time last night in Lexington, Virginia where I presented a talk to the Rockbridge Civil War Roundtable. The meeting took place in the Preston Library on the campus of the Virginia Military Institute in a room filled with wonderful oil paintings of past superintendents. It was a perfect day to drive to Lexington; the sky was clear and I had enough time to take some photos of the W&L campus along with the cemetery where Jackson is buried. My topic was, of course, the Crater and memory – specifically the ways Confederates and white Southerners remembered or failed to remember the presence of USCTs throughout the postwar period. The audience gave me their full attention and the Q&A lasted for a good 30 minutes followed by individual discussions with those who chose to hang around. I had the benefit of a full screen for my slides which the audience found to be very helpful.
Awhile back I expressed some frustration surrounding a couple of experiences where the audience expressed open hostility to my presentation. I understand the frustration or difficulty that some face when asked to grapple with questions of memory and race. The hostility that I experienced, however, was not a function of some disagreement with my reasoning, but with the topic itself. At one point I was seriously contemplating not speaking to roundtables altogether. It didn’t seem worth it to drive long distances for little if no money and have to drive back feeling rejected. I’m glad that I decided against that. What I am finding is that a good number of people appreciate being challenged or introduced to new ideas. I read Eric Wittenberg’s recent post on roundtables and I appreciate his concerns, but for me the motivation to speak has nothing at all to do with whether it provides an opportunity to sell books, magazines or anything else for that matter. That’s not to say that I believe it to be inappropriate; I actually don’t have an opinion on the matter and I see nothing necessarily wrong with selling books. What I am saying is that the decision to address an audience ultimately comes down to a belief that one has something interesting or relevant to share. I view speaking engagements and even this blog as an extension of my career as a teacher. Perhaps I am painting myself a pompous ass, but I think if we are really honest with ourselves we must acknowledge that any decision to write for publication, blogging, or speaking in public is in large part an extension of a belief that others stand to benefit from what we have to say.
My goals are very simple when I accept an invitation to speak at a roundtable. I hope to give my audience something to think about. Whether they agree or disagree is almost irrelevant. They should walk out of the room with a new question or perspective to consider. I look for the same thing whenever I attend a conference panel or roundtable talk. Please don’t bore me with the same tired stories over and over. Challenge my fundamental beliefs about the past and force me to step back and think critically. I even appreciate it when I am made to feel uncomfortable; I’ve found that most of our attachment to the broadest assumptions regarding ourselves and the world is based more on a need to feel secure rather than serious reflection. My worst fear is that I end my life with the same beliefs about myself and the world around me that I now hold.
Perhaps I still need to be awakened from my dogmatic slumbers.
I had a few minutes to kill this morning and noticed the companion volume to the movie Gettysburg, which includes paintings by Mort Kunstler and text by James McPherson. The foreword is written by Martin Sheen who played R.E. Lee in the movie. Here is a brief passage from Sheen that beautifully captures popular perception of the war:
If we look at this horrific conflict in the conventional retelling, the truisms of Northern industrialism attempting to impose an egalitarian ideal upon Southern agrarianism, of plantation feudalism protecting its privilege, of the test whether or not a voluntary political marriage of states could end in divorce–all these apply.
But Gettysburg leaves those questions to the history books: right and wrong, good and evil, are not the concern here, nor are the political distinctions. The focus is on the people who faced each other on the battlefield for three long days of brutal combat in July 1863. From generals to infantry volunteers, the human beings who fought loyally and valiantly for Union and Confederacy–this is their story. How the great battle that consumed thousands of American lives was won, and lost, because of chance, and the skill or ineptitude of men, not causes. Gettysburg is the human story behind the great battle.
Sheen’s Civil War and his understanding of the battle of Gettysburg in particular reflects the influence of the legacy of reunion that allowed white Northerners and Southerners to transcend or bridge their differences by the turn of the twentieth century. It’s no accident that battlefields proved to be so attractive for reunions between one-time enemies;they provided a space in which the broader questions of cause could be set aside.
The problem with Sheen’s characterization is that the movie does present the battle as an ideological struggle, albeit a rather simple one. Characters on both sides are given plenty of time to present their justification for the war and instill meaning into the very ground that they are fighting over. Chamberlain does this before the engagement at Little Round Top and Armistead does so before “Pickett’s Charge.” Yes, their respective views are presented in the broadest of terms and have a tendency to cloud more specific political and ideological differences, but they are there included in the film. It gives the movie a certain level of sappiness that is exacerbated by Ron Maxwell in Gods and Generals.
Sheen is correct that the movie ignores the political views of the enlisted men. The problem is that leaving those questions to the history books distorts the very history that the movie attempts to conveys. We have little trouble assuming that ordinary Americans during the Revolution could be motivated to enlist and persevere because of the broadest of political principles, but for some reason we find it difficult to interpret the Civil War as a political contest that was fought out on various battlefields. This is not an isolated oversight on the part of the general public; the historian Bell I. Wiley also downplayed politics when writing about Civil War soldiers during the period following WWII. In the last few years, however, historians such as Earl Hess, James McPherson, and Chandra Manning have added a great deal to our understanding of the political views of the common soldier. It is unlikely, however, that these interpretations will be embraced by the general public to any great extent. I believe the difficulty has everything to do with our own tendency to want to steer clear of the issues of race and slavery.
It seems strange to even suggest that any understanding of a Civil War battle is possible by ignoring “right and wrong”, “good and bad” and other “political distinctions.” Of course, it is the historian’s responsibility to flesh out what these terms mean in all of their complexity. We are taught in our history survey courses that the 1830s involved a dramatic shift on the local and state levels in the involvement of average Americans in their political system. Americans no longer deferred to their betters and everyone was now a gentleman. If we accept some version of this story it seems reasonable to expect that ordinary Americans on both the home front and in the ranks would have taken a great interest in the political events of the day.
Given Martin Sheen’s political activism one has to wonder if he really understands what he is saying.
I plan on discussing this letter that Lincoln wrote to William Herndon on February 15, 1848 on President Polk and the Mexican-American War. Anyone interested in placing a bet on how long it takes one of my students to bring up George Bush and Iraq?
If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, "I see no probability of the British invading us" but he will say to you "be silent; I see it, if you don’t."
I am looking forward to this discussion.