A Ubiquitous Symbol

Anyone who follows news stories involving the Confederate knows all too well that they have been on the rise lately.  I’ve been hard pressed to think of a reason as to why this is so.  It’s not as if there has been a sharp increase in the number of people undertaking the serious study of American history who also want to advertise this in public.  [As an undergraduate I use to walk around campus with a copy of Plato's Republic (cover facing outward) just to let people know that I was a philosophy major.]

John Crisp offers one answer in an editorial that references two Texas boys who are currently involved in court cases over whether they can wear the Confederate flag as a belt buckle and on a backpack in school.

I suspect that at least some of this interest is perpetuated by the Internet, where sites trafficking in Confederate symbolism have proliferated. Let’s face it: the Confederate battle flag is a handsome banner whose connection to a very dramatic period in our history is attractive. Generally, the preservation of heritage is desirable. But it’s impossible to glean merely the good out of a given set of symbols; they often have another set of less attractive meanings that can’t be eliminated.

In the attempt to control them, however, many of the Confederate Web sites traffic in ideas, as well as in flags and lapel pins. You can buy books like “The South Was Right.” You can discover that Abraham Lincoln was actually a white supremacist. You can learn that, really, in many respects blacks were actually better off before emancipation. It’s not hard to see why the ideas connected to the symbols that many want to preserve make some of our fellow black citizens extremely uncomfortable.

Crisp may have a point.  Perhaps all that is going on here is increased marketing along with saavy kids who know how to surf the web.  More than likely they have no idea of the history behind their symbol of choice apart from the misinformation that is attached to it on the respective website.  I sometimes think that it is part of a larger conspiracy on the part of certain organizations to bring these types of cases to court (LOL).

One-Year Blogiversary

One year ago this week (November 8, 2005 to be exact)  I started Civil War Memory with the following post:

Thanks for stopping by. I have been quite impressed with the Civil War
blogs hosted by Dimitri Rotov and Eric Wittenberg. I hope this site
will compliment and/or add to the growing e-dialogue on the Civil War.
While I am not a professional historian (in other words, I do not hold
a Ph.D), I have published Civil War related articles in both academic
and popular publications. I am interested primarily in Civil War memory
or the evolution of our perceptions surrounding fundamental themes of
the war, including slavery and emancipation. Such issues continue to
challenge our assumptions of what the war was about; this can be seen
in the debates over the National Park Service’s decision to revise its
battlefield interpretations and the public display of the Confederate
battle flag.

I am also a high school history teacher who teaches a class on the
Civil War. My site will also be used to raise issues related to the
teaching of the Civil War in the classroom.

Civil War Memory has remained fairly consistent in terms of this initial proposal.  The site now includes 534 posts, 449 comments (since transitioning to Typepad back in April) and somewhere around 37,000 hits.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my experience in the blogosphere over the past year.  The first post was only a sketch of what I hoped to accomplish; in large part the goal of the site has evolved in unexpected ways since last November.  A number of writing and speaking opportunities have come my way and scores of people are now familiar with my research on memory and the Crater as well as my activities in the classroom.  The most pleasant surprise has been the broad range of people that this site continues to attract.  There seems to be something for the professionally trained historian as well as for the Civil War enthusiast.  It has been a real joy to be able to communicate with some of the most talented Civil War historians currently working in the field.

I still have my concerns.  Sometimes I worry that I post too often and this often leads to entries that are poorly written.  I am reminded of Caleb McDaniel’s site which includes some of the best history blogging out there.  He didn’t post often, but when he did it demanded a critical eye and a good deal of thought.  This is something that I will no doubt continue to struggle with, but I have to admit to enjoying the pace of a regularly updated blog.  I hope to include more guest posts in the coming year.  I’ve thought about inviting a few people to join me here on a regular basis, but I like having control and I don’t want to risk losing the narrow focus of the blog which many readers no doubt value.

In the end, I truly hope that this blog has given you something to think about.  Thanks for stopping by.

Genovese In The Classroom

Today my AP students read and discussed a short excerpt from Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaveholders Made. This is the second year that I’ve used this text in the classroom and it is a real challenge for high school students.  Since Eric Foner discusses paternalism in his textbook the selection from Genovese gives students a much richer insight into interpretations that take seriously the process by which both slaveholders and slaves responded to one another and in turn created their communities.  I give the students three questions to consider while they read: (1) How did slaves respond to the paternalism of their owners? (2) In what ways did slaves and slave-owners create a distinct community; what is Genovese’s evidence? (3) What preconceptions about slavery is Genovese challenging? 

I am still surprised by how the students respond to this text.  A few have no idea what he is getting at, but those students who spend the necessary time walk away with a radically different understanding of how slavery functioned in the antebellum South. 

Here ares some passages that the class is asked to focus on:

Cruel, unjust, exploitative, oppressive, slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism while creating an organic relationship so complex and ambivalent that neither could express the simplest human feelings without reference to the other.

A paternalism accepted by both masters and slaves–but with radically different interpretations–afforded a fragile bridge across the intolerable contradictions inherent in a society based on racism, slavery, and class exploitation that had to depend on the willing reproduction and productivity of its victims. For the slaveholders paternalism represented an attempt to overcome the fundamental contradiction in slavery: the impossibility of the slaves’ ever becoming the things they were supposed to be.  Paternalism defined the involuntary labor of the slaves as a legitimate return to their masters for protection and direction. But, the masters’ need to see their slaves as acquiescent human beings constituted a moral victory for the slaves themselves.  Paternalism’s insistence upon mutual obligations–duties, responsibilities, and ultimately even rights–implicitly recognized the slaves’ humanity.

The humanity of the slave implied his action, and his action implied his will.  Hegel was therefore right in arguing that slavery constituted an outrage, for, in effect, it has always rested on the falsehood that one man could become an extension of another’s will. If one man could so transform himself, he could do it only by an act of that very will supposedly being surrendered, and he would remain so only while he himself chose to.  The clumsy attempt of the slaveholders to invoke a religious sanction did not extricate them from this contradiction. The Christian tradition, from the early debates over the implications of original sin through the attempts of Hobbes and others to secularize the problem, could not rationally defend the idea of permanent and total submission rooted in a temporarily precise surrender of will.  The idea of man’s surrender to God cannot be equated with the idea of man’s surrender to man, but even if it could, the problem would remain.

Overall the class went well.  We talked about the attempt to portray the slaves as agents in the way they acknowledged the paternalism of their owners and acted to use it to their advantage.  This is an important space that Genovese develops and I tried to get my students to see it by commenting on the broader historiographical depiction of slaves.  Some of them commented that they really enjoyed reading it and I suspect that this has much to do with his emphasis on a new question.  My students are "trained" to think of slavery as involving a power relation that is one-sided.  Slave-holders acted on their slaves.  Within this interpretation slaves are rendered invisible or were acted upon. 

I understand and agree with some of the criticisms of the book.  Yes, he does jump from the Lower South to the Upper South and the 18th to the 19th century all in one paragraph.  Yet, there is something aesthetic about Roll, Jordan, Roll.  Every time I go back to it I pull something new out of his interpretation.  The dynamic between the slave-holder and slave is such an interesting historical turn that continues to drive much of what is published.  I guess this is what goes into a real classic.

Evangelical Self-Righteousness On The Defensive

I have to admit that there is something satisfying in the recent scandals involving conservative politicians and evangelical preachers.  We’ve all heard of Marc Foley’s problems.  I should point out that the problem is not that he is gay, but that he harassed children and marketed himself as someone who promoted conservative "family values" – whatever that means.  A few weeks ago we learned that the Bush administration doesn’t really take their conservative Christian base seriously and now we have the revelation that Ted Haggard was in a relationship with a male prostitute.  These stories point to the dangers of mixing politics and religion.  Given that most of these people believe that the Founding Fathers intended to create a Christian nation perhaps they should go back to the debate surrounding the establishment clause.  Turns out that many of the people who pushed for the separation of church and state were people from within the church and they did so with the belief that it was religion that needed to be protected from the dirt of politics.  And isn’t this exactly what we are now seeing?