The Real Price Of Forgetting The Past

My classes are now exploring the origins of slavery in the colonies.  We are examining specifically the process by which Virginia evolved from a society with slaves to a slave society.  Here in Virginia this involves the fairly sharp transition from indentured servants to black slaves in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, which took place in 1676.  I make it a point to emphasize the fact that the study of black history and slavery has a relatively short past that goes back to the 1960′s.  Students are asked to think of reasons as to why this is the case.  Most do not have a frame of reference, but once in awhile a student will focus in on access to education for black Americans and the introduction of African-American scholars and programs in black history.  The focus on slavery in their textbooks is an even more recent phenomenon.  This is important since it drives home the various factors that determine which groups are emphasized in their textbooks and why.  It is easy from this perspective to appreciate the dangers and consequences of intentionally ignoring large sections of the past.

But what are those consequences?  Let me mention one example that I came across a few months back and even briefly blogged about it at the time.  The story is related to the issue of black Confederates and one of its most fervent advocates.   His name is H. K. Edgerton and what makes him so interesting is that he is African-American.  Now, before I continue I should point out that I have never met this individual nor do I claim to have any knowledge about his motivation.  Here is a brief biography of Edgerton from the Southern Poverty Law Center:

H.K. Edgerton speaks wistfully of the “sense of family” that bound blacks and whites under slavery. There was great “love between the African who was here in the Southland and his master,” he says.  Despite its poor reviews, Edgerton concludes, slavery served as an “institution of learning” for blacks. Edgerton sounds a lot like other apologists for slavery — many of whom, like him, pledge allegiance to the Confederate battle flag and the movement around it. But he stands out from this crowd in some significant ways.  For starters, he’s black.  And Edgerton is also the former president of the Asheville, N.C., branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — a group that fellow neo-Confederate Arthur Ravenal, a white South Carolina state senator, described this year as the “National Association of Retarded People.”  Edgerton sees no contradictions here. In an interview with the Intelligence Report, he insisted that he’s doing his part to “correct the lies” when he suggests that “it was better to be an African in the Southland as a slave than to be free in Africa.” He’s speaking as a “favored son of the South,” he said, when he addresses Confederate flag rallies from North Carolina to Georgia to Texas.  In a lily-white movement that most blacks find deeply offensive, Edgerton seems to feel quite at home. And as he dances to the tune of “Dixie” — sometimes quite literally — he helps gives the cause the appearance of legitimacy.  It is a gloss that frequently racist neo-Confederate groups desperately need in order to maintain the idea that theirs is a movement that celebrates “heritage, not hate.”

In 2002 Edgerton walked 1,300 miles from Asheville, North Carolina to Austin, Texas in support of Southern Heritage. Edgerton can also be seen on products such as t-shirts sold by Dixie Outfitters, which I find absolutely baffling.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what Edgerton’s ardent support of a narrow Southern/Confederate past means in light of my comments at the beginning of this post.  Perhaps his support of the idea of black Confederates can be explained by some deep need to identify with and locate a place for himself within the Southern past.  [Notice once again how quickly the Southern past reduces to the four years of the Confederacy.]  Of course, one could identify with any number of regions and/or times in that past, but it is no surprise that the Civil War looms large here.  After all it comes pre-packaged with stories of battlefield heroics and sacrifice that have proven attractive to so many – especially men.

What I find so depressing at the root of all of this is the apparent desperation on the part of Edgerton to find a home in the past through a white narrative of the Civil War that tends to ignore both the role of slavery as its cause and the importance of emancipation followed by the continued struggles for basic civil rights by African Americans after the Civil War.  It’s as if those who push the black Confederate story are only willing to acknowledge black agency if it somehow conforms in a way that supports their own agenda.  From what we know tens of thousands of black slaves risked their lives by running away from their farms and plantations towards Union lines.  If that isn’t a story that begs for some kind of personal identification I don’t know what is.  Why doesn’t Edgerton march across the South with that message?  If our broader national narrative is about the struggle to realize our founding principles as contained in the Declaration of Independence than the story of African Americans has much to teach us.

Edgerton’s overly zealous identification can be seen as evidence that black Americans have a deep need to connect with the American past.  But if that past has been sharply edited and controlled by one race as a means to maintain a racial hierarchy than is it any surprise that Edgerton is willing to interact with white Southerners who, for a number of reasons, are pushing the wild conclusion that large numbers of black Southerners fought in Confederate armies?  I wonder whether he was taught about the multiple and meaningful ways in which slaves and other free black Americans influenced the outcome of the Civil War and added to our national narrative.  Is glory and admiration really only to be found in a story that is so far-fetched that only a small handful of people support?

When I teach about the Civil War I try to bring as much agency to the actions of African Americans as possible. The reason, of course, is that most of my students know next to nothing about African-American history and at times that story is absolutely crucial to understanding how the nation evolved along racial, political, and economic lines.  The other reason is that there is a great deal to be proud of and to identify with and to hold up for its moral value.

Bob Dylan’s Civil War

I can’t believe that it took me so long to discover the music of Bob Dylan.  The recent Martin Scorsese Moderntimescvr200 documentary No Direction Home which aired on PBS, along with my colleague John Amos, served as the trigger.  I’ve been hooked ever since.  The most recent release – titled "Modern Times" – is absolutely brilliant.  It is hard to believe that Dylan is still able to produce high-quality and thoughtful music.  Today’s New York Times reports that Dylan seems to have "borrowed" some of his lyrics from Southern poet Henry Timrod:

Henry Timrod was born in 1828 and was a private tutor on plantations before the Civil War started. He tried to sign up for the Confederate Army but was unable to serve in the field because he suffered from tuberculosis. He worked as an editor for a daily paper in Columbia, S.C., and began writing poems about the war and how it affected the residents of the South. He also wrote love poems and ruminations on nature. During his lifetime he published only one volume of poetry. Among his most famous poems were “Ode Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina 1866,” and “Ethnogenesis.”

Mr. Dylan has long been interested in the Civil War: in “Chronicles: Vol. 1,” Mr. Dylan’s autobiography, published by Simon & Schuster in 2004, he writes about spending time in the New York Times combing through microfilm copies of newspapers published from 1855 to 1865. “I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone,” Mr. Dylan wrote.

I just purchased tickets to see Dylan in Fairfax, Virginia in November.  Although I’ve heard that his voice is not what it used to be live, it will be enough to be in the same room with a real American icon.  Go out and pick up his latest release.  You won’t be disappointed. 

Harvard Ends Early Admissions (and I couldn’t be happier)

Yesterday Harvard University announced that it would end its policy of early admissions.  The primary reason has to do with the advantage that the policy gives to certain socio-economic groups.  From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

With its announcement, Harvard joined a host of critics who have long claimed
that early admissions work to the disadvantage of lower-income students, who are
seen as less likely to be familiar with the often-arcane requirements of
applying early.

If in fact the studies are true then this for me would constitute a sufficient reason to end the policy.  That said, I am pleased to see Harvard making this move for another reason.  I’ve been teaching high school for the past eight years and during that time I’ve watched as students have become much more paranoid and fearful about the college admissions process.  Now I should say that this is coming from someone who was not overly obsessed in any way about college.  In fact, I spent the first two years after high school in a local community college, which turned out to be the appropriate decision. 

College admission has become much more competitive over the past few years and this has translated into a great deal of stress for my students.  Junior year can be a miserable experience if the student is feeling pressure from home or elsewhere to see college or admission to a specific college as the final goal.  Please understand that I am not suggesting that students should not take college admission seriously and I am not even suggesting that they should not care about the process; my concern is that we have placed too much weight on getting in and not enough on the intrinsic value of a high school education.   

Early admission only adds to this problem.  I have students at the beginning of their junior year who are already missing class for college visits.  Are you kidding me? I wrote around ten recommendation letters towards the end of the spring semester and at least five more called me at home over the summer. The most disturbing part is that for the first time I am hearing freshman talking about the process and stressing about the importance of getting into the right school.  There is something about all of this that really rubs me the wrong way.   I wish we would take better care of our youth.

Connecting With Confederate Dead

Last Friday I took my Civil War class on a little field trip over to a cemetery at the University of Virginia.  The cemetery contains the remains of roughly 1,900 Confederate soldiers who died in one of the hospitals here In Charlottesville during the war.  It was a perfect day for a walk.  The cemetery contains a statue of a Confederate soldier that sits atop a pedestal which includes the names of the men by state and regiment.  The cemetery itself is a bit deceiving as there are only a small number of headstones spread around the field.  It is difficult to explain why specific stones were placed, but my guess is that at some point after the war either individual families or organizations raised the funds for the marker.  The funds for the statue (which was forged in New York) and pedestal were raised by the Ladies Memorial Association and dedicated in 1893.

I gathered the class around the statue, provided a bit of background of the site and then passed out a sheet with a few questions.  Students were expected to spend some time to think about each question and choose an individual marker for further reflection.

Question 1. In your opinion, what was the intention of the sculptor of the monument; what message was he trying to convey?  Do you think he was successful?  Why or why not?  What features of the monument stand out?  Be specific.  Student Response: “He was trying to give the Confederate soldiers their own share of glory. Fate he said, did not grant them victory – it is a distinction between ‘they gave up on their cause, their side’ and ‘they were beaten honorably’ – he succeeds in giving the confederates honor, from the inscription to the proud soldier on top of the monument.

2. What name would you give to this monument?  Explain. Student Response: “Eternal Glory,” “Courageous Confederate,” “Honorable Confederate,” “The Last Stand”

3. Find one of the smaller grave markers.  Based on the information given, what can you infer about the indivudial buried?  What additional questions would you like to have answered?  Student Response: (1)”John Barlow died at age 33.  At that age he probably had a family. I wonder if is family has ever visited him.” (2) “He was clearly an old man when he died, and his old age may have contributed to the injuries he sustained on the battlefield.  I would be interested to know why he fought at such an old age.” [Thomas Jefferson Caulley was 60 when he died]

4. How do you feel about what you have seen? Student Response: (1) “Conflict between feeling really reverent for the dead soldiers and knowing that they fought for the Confederacy. Most of the soldiers are so young.” (2) “I feel like I have alot more respect for those who fought bravely for what they believed in.” (3) “Kind of weird that I am standing on hundreds of people who died in the Civil War.  I caught myself picturing the people.”  (4) “It makes the war really come to life.  Many people died for the cause.”

My hope is that this exercise at least presents an opportunity for students to empathize with some aspect of the site.  At one point I asked the students to join me in one corner of the cemetery to talk about one particular gravestone.  It is the marker for Private John L. Lanford who served in Co. K, 5th South Carolina Infantry.  He was only 16 when he was wounded at First Bull Run and brought to Charlottesville.  The age is significant given that most of my students are older.  We spent some time thinking about this young man’s life and they shared their own thoughts about what it might have been like to be alone and far from home.

The last question above is meant to force students to feel as oppose to thinking about the past.  I don’t think we emphasize the emotions enough in the classroom, including our ability to sympathize and empathize.  [Hugo Schwyzer blogged about the place of the emotions in his classroom.]  Part of this is the strict distinction that many maintain between the emotions and reason.  The emotions tend to be downplayed as states that happen to us rather than something we control.  On my view this is a false dichotomy, at least that is what cognitive scientists have been telling us in recent years  The emotions include significant content and provide relevant information for serious reflection about the past.

Providing these experiences for students is important as it is more likely to lead to a long-term interest in the subject compared with life in the classroom.  It also allows them to build an emotional connection to the past.  And its a pretty cool way to spend time with a bunch of interesting kids.

My Classroom

Cimg0081_1I brought my digital camera to school on Friday for a field trip with my Civil War class to a Confederate cemetery over at the University of Virgina.  [A post on that trip will be forthcoming shortly.]  Here are a couple of pictures of my classroom which I thought I might share given the amount of time I spend here during the school year.  Cimg0080I’ve worked hard on my room over the past few years trying to create an environment that is both welcoming and pleasant to learn in.  My desks are arranged in such a way that allows each student to see everyone else and allows me to move easily from side to side.  It also works well for lecturing as well as directing a student-led discussion.  My room contains numerous book shelves.  Students are of course welcome to sign-out any title, but their presence is also intended to send a message about the importance of serious study and learning.  The projector which sits in the middle of the room is used on a daily basis.  I can connect my laptop and project any kind of image on the white board which is ideal as it allows the Cimg0082teacher or student to mark important objects or words on the board with an erasable marker.  I am notorious for taking famous images of people and coloring their faces with sharp eyebrows and other markings; you can do wonders with Ben Franklin’s face.  In the photo to the right you will notice a cabinet which contains 16 laptop computers.  They were ordered last year for my Civil War research seminar but are now being used in all my classes.  Finally, there is my office.  It is a spacious setting which allows for student meetings and more importantly provides a nice quiet space when I am not teaching.  As you can see I’ve got just a few Troiani prints hanging on the wall.