“Unwinding” Racism

Every Wednesday our school holds what we call "Community Forum."  It lasts for about 20 minutes and allows students to share their thoughts about issues related to school and beyond.  Students are asked to stand when they speak and identify themselves to the rest of the Upper School.  Faculty are also encouraged to take part.  Most of the issues are raised by a small committee of students.  Last week they decided to tackle the issue of race.  We decided to show scenes from the move Crash and to break up into smaller groups to discuss it.  We showed the movie last Wednesday and today broke up into small groups this morning for a 25-minute discussion. 

I was with a group of about 15 students.  It will come as no surprise when I say that these discussions are difficult to get off the ground.  Many students feel defensive or uncomfortable while others struggle for the right language.  We are a small private school that is predominantly white and upper middle to upper class. 

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of our discussion.  While we did not spend much time talking about the movie we did talk about the way race shapes our individual perceptions and its manifestations in the Charlottesville area.  Not everyone talked, but enough students shared their ideas.  One student in particular, who was a student in my AP American History course last year, made some very interesting points.  She admitted to being aware of the ways race has shaped American history and her local community, but wondered how we might begin to "unwind race."  For some reason this has stuck with me the entire day.  It’s perfect.  Most people in the group were willing to admit that we learn to see our world through the lens of race and this lends itself to the idea of being wound-up in it

I guess the main reason I like it so much is that it helps explain why I am so interested in the history of race in this country.  I grew up just outside of Atlantic City, New Jersey.  As some of you may know Atlantic City is on an island along with the smaller towns of Ventnor, Margate, and Longport.  I grew up in Ventnor.  While Atlantic City was predominantly black my town along with the two others was white.  What I still find hard to believe is that up until I attended high school I never really interacted with black people.  My parents took me and my brother to the boardwalk and the amusement piers, but I don’t remember that many black families.  And all of this took place on an island in southern New Jersey.

My own critical approach to the study of how race has shaped American history has in large part been part of a personal process of trying to "unwind" race from my own personal history.   In the end it comes back to a kind of childhood curiosity or sense of wonder about the racial dynamics of my own home and how I was wound without even knowing it at an early age.   

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Daily Press Reviews American Civil War Museum at Tredegar

There is a fairly lengthy review of the ACW Museum at Tredegar in the Virginia Daily Press written by Jacqueline Trescott.  There are a few interviews, one of which is with Raymond Boone who is the editor of the Richmond Free Press:

"This is ridiculous. Number one, it puts villains on the same plane as American heroes, Lincoln and Douglass," says Raymond Boone, editor and publisher of the Richmond Free Press. "When you start celebrating the Confederacy, you are talking about terrorists. It is normal to celebrate a just cause. It is abnormal to celebrate a losing and unjust cause."

I would venture to guess that Boone has not seen the new exhibit.  As a result we could dismiss Boone’s criticism as overly emotional; this however would be a mistake.  What it suggests is that African Americans remain very defensive and suspicious of how the Civil War has been and continues to be interpreted.  As I’ve said a number of times, the ACW Museum at Tredegar has done a wonderful job of putting slavery and the African-American experience back where it belongs within the broad narrative.  Still, the ACW Museum is going to need to do a great deal of outreach to bring African Americans to the museum.  Fortunately, their exhibit offers a rich spectrum of possibilities.

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Richmond Daily Dispatch Now Online

The Richmond Daily Dispatch is now accessible on-line.  The work has been overseen by University of Richmond History Professor Robert Kenzer and Librarian James Gwin.  The project was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  Two years ago I took part in a day-long meeting with roughly 50 other historians and teachers to discuss the direction of the project; it is nice to see it come to fruition.  Plans also call for the digitizing of the Richmond census which will make this an even more useful research tool.  From the Richmond-Time Dispatch article:

The Daily Dispatch, one of four predecessors of The Times-Dispatch, was
chosen because its circulation was equal to those of all other Richmond papers
combined, it was independent of any political party and it was able to continue
publishing throughout the war.  It also contained news from the entire East Coast, reprinting articles from
distant newspapers and even the letters of captured Union soldiers.

Plans also include digitizing the Richmond census and linking to other databases that contain relevant material.  I’ve already used this in class and the search engine works well so check it out.   

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George Bernard: 12th Virginia Infantry

A few years ago a collection of papers belonging to George Bernard was uncovered.  I remember hearing about it from someone down at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park, but at the time it was not known who had discovered the papers or what was being done with them.  The collection looks to be a set of talks along the lines of his 1892 War Talks of Confederate Veterans – perhaps a second volume.  Well, yesterday I was contacted by an individual who is organizing the material for publication.  I have yet to speak to him, but I have to say that this is very exciting news for those of us interested in Mahone’s division and specifically the Crater.

War Talks is one of the most important sources on the Crater.  The book is essentially a collection of talks presented to the A.P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans in Petersburg, Virginia along with various appendices of newspaper clippings about various battles.  The section on the Crater easily comprises the largest section of the book.  In 2003 Morningside Press issued a reprint of the book.  Unfortunately, the reprintlacks an introduction which is absolutely necessary if one is to understand Bernard’s goal.  The book’s publication in 1892 followed very intense debate among Mahone’s veterans surrounding his role at the Crater.  Mahone’s foray into politics and his leadership of the Readjuster Party split his former command, including David Weisiger who commanded the Virginia brigade at the battle and later became one of his most vociferous critics.  Many of Mahone’s critics argued that he was not with his men on the field and that he did not order the famous counterattack.  Bernard’s main goal was to show that Mahone was in fact on the battlefield on July 30 1864 and gave the order to charge the Federals who were hugging a perimeter not much larger than the outline of the Crater itself.  In addition to debate among Virginia’s veterans there was also an on-going debate between veterans from Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia over who could claim responsibility for victory at the crater.  [My forthcoming essay in The View From the Ground analyzes this debate along with Bernard's account.]  Bernard’s War Talks focused on solidifying the victory for Mahone’s Virginia brigade.  While he acknowledged the presence of the Alabama and Georgia brigades, according to Bernard, the charge of the Virginians was responsible for retaking the Crater.  Without any background surrounding these debates it is impossible to understand why Bernard chose to concentrate on these specific themes of the battle.

The book proved to be very influential in organizing the 1937 Crater reenactment.  Douglas S. Freeman used it for his narrative that accompanied the event and the National Park Service used War Talks for their battlefield markers.  I look forward to learning what exactly is contained in this collection of papers, whether they were being organized by Bernard for publication and when. 

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Historians Write, But Does Anyone Listen?

Thanks to Brian Dirck over at A Lincoln Blog for providing a link to Ed Ayers’s thought-provoking review of Nicholas Lemann’s book, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.  Ayers raises a number of interesting questions about our popular perceptions of Reconstruction and the general publics failure to take into account the significant interpretive developments that have taken place since the end of World War II.  From the review:

Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War tells a story we keep trying to forget: White Southerners used every kind of violence at their command to destroy Reconstruction after the Civil War. Beguiled and benumbed by Gone With the Wind, many white Americans still imagine Reconstruction as a crime against the white South, marked by the sins of the carpetbaggers and the corruption of the Reconstruction governments. It is good to have this stubborn fable of Reconstruction refuted by a gifted and respected writer. It is good that it received a front-page New York Times review with a striking graphic of a Confederate battle flag in which the stars have been replaced by bullet holes. May it be widely read.

I disagree with Ayers that this is a story that we "keep trying to forget" since most Americans – and even those who consider themselves to be "Civil War buffs" have never known anything else.  Just the other day I came across a post from a fellow blogger who referenced the same overly simplistic view of Reconstruction even as he sets his sights on researching a crucial aspect of that period.  No one has done more to package the best of recent historical scholarship into books that have wide appeal.  But let’s face it Reconstruction is much too difficult for most white Americans to grasp.  I see this every year when I teach this subject.  Feelings of guilt are strong and for those more focused on the war itself, Reconstruction fails to provide anything approaching the glory of the battlefield.  So, what are we left with but talk of "scalawags" and "carpetbaggers" and a set of simplistic assumptions that assumes a unified white South and obedient former slaves.  The overarching problem for most casual observers of the period is that Reconstruction seems to challenge an overly optimistic view of American history that assumes continual progress.  Forget that this was a period where African Americans voted, were elected to office, and were able to pass legislation that often benefited poor southern whites for the first time.

Ayers also briefly comments on the failure of academic historians to compete with popular writers such as Lemann:

That is too bad, for the writing of history has never been richer, deeper, or more inventive than it is today, and historians have never been bolder in tackling new topics in new ways than they have been in the last two generations. The writing in many academic books is as good as the best nonfiction. These books have made a place for the people who have been left out of the best-selling histories, and they are the driving force behind the most innovative historical documentaries on television; they help shape the next generation of history, driving innovation and creativity; they are debated in fervent discussions on campuses across the country and around the world. But they remain part of a secret conversation and do not make a public mark as books.

Anyone familiar with recent titles authored by professional historians can sympathize with Ayers.  It is safe to assume that Ayers hoped to crack this barrier with his most recent book, In The Presence of Mine Enemies, though it is unclear to what extent he achieved this goal.  Academics have to take some responsibility for this failure and for the general public perceptions of the Ivory Tower.  In the end, however, Ayers’s observations have little to do with popular v. academic history, but with a general lack of interest in reading serious history that challenges some of our basic assumptions from this period.  It comes down to education and the teachers who man the trenches day in and day out. 

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