I watched just about all of last night’s opening segment of Ken Burns’s The War and have to say that I am a little disappointed and doubt that the rest of the series will hold my attention. What struck me as a glaring oversight was the absence of any internal debate within the country about war before the attack at Pearl Harbor. Where was Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee? It’s surprising because Burns addressed the long- and short-term causes of the Civil War even if the interpretation was at times convoluted. Apart from a few short clips of Axis aggression there is no sense of what the war is about beyond those interviewed who attempt to convey some sense of immediacy to what is transpiring far away. There has to be some balance between the localized perspective of participants from around the country and a more sophisticated (however difficult it may be to convey in a documentary) understanding of world affairs.
At times I felt I was watching the film version of "The Greatest Generation". Perhaps the concern is that the introduction of political debate will minimize the theme of sacrifice and heroism that Burns so clearly hopes to convey. Yes, Burns does address the racial divide and it will be interesting to see how this theme is followed through the war and beyond. After all, the "Greatest Generation" was also the generation that expected black Americans to return to the status quo following Japan’s surrender in 1945.
We here at Civil War Memory are pleased to learn that this site is still one of the top 5 military history blogs. In fact, according to a survey by Brett Holman of Airminded, we are number 2 positioned just behind Mark Grimsley’s Blog Them Out Of the Stone Age. The results shouldn’t be taken too seriously as the rankings are based on Technorati’s ranking (remember the lower the number the better); in addition, Holman utilizes the categories as determined by HNN’s extensive history blogroll.
While I am pleased with the results of the poll I’m not so sure that I consider this site to be a military history blog. I don’t talk much about military history in the traditional sense and most of my posts reference topics in popular culture, memory, and race. Of course, I am very interested in the military aspects of the war and have spent a great deal of time reading up on the subject. I believe it to be a significant sign of progress that over the past few decades one can be considered a Civil War historian without necessarily focusing on military affairs. The journal Civil War History has it about right in terms of the time frame and topics that articles address.
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.