We have a front-row seat at American history, with a debt we can never repay no matter our achievements. We are like refugees, not from another country but from another time, carrying memories that propel us forward. – Dumas
Yesterday I posted a video on the Civil War Memory Facebook page about the recent controversy in Jacksonville, Florida concerning Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. The short documentary tells the story of the steps that one local community college professor took to change the name of the school. The center of the story is Professor Steve Stoll, who encouraged a couple of his students to take on the project to fulfill a class requirement. While Stoll claims that at first he simply threw out the idea of doing a survey of the community on the possibility of a name change, his reaction following the school board’s vote [14:30] suggests that he had much more invested in this project. It became more of a personal crusade as opposed to an academic exercise and one which I find troubling.
The documentary provides more evidence that we are moving beyond the old battle lines of north v. south and white v. black regarding our attitudes toward the symbolism of the Civil War. Even though the school community is predominantly black they voted not to change the name, not because they revere Forrest, but because they have other things on their mind [[9:30]. In contrast to Stoll’s agenda and the vote taking by the school board the perspective of the students suggests that these kids are not internalizing these old feuds as part of their own self-identity. In short, memory of Forrest is a battle ground that engages their parents and grandparents. The kids have moved on. [This is an aspect of the story involving the black college students in South Carolina who flew at Confederate battle flag in his window that was missed as well in all the coverage.]
These stories are neither defeats for those who are still fighting these battles nor are they victories for those who style themselves as defenders of Southern Heritage; rather, they point to the extent to which each generation re-negotiates its relationship to the past.
It’s nice to see that Ta-Nahesi Coates’s contribution to the The Atlantic’s special Civil War issue is getting so much attention. It nicely sums up why I am now a regular reader of his blog and why last week I went to meet him in person at MIT. Coates’s essay is a very personal and thoughtful reflection on why the African American community appears to have lost interest in the Civil War. The essay tracks the gaping hole in his personal memory of the Civil War as a child to his discovery of it later in life and his subsequent reading of a wide range of primary and secondary sources.
Coates locates a collective lack of interest among African Americans in a narrative that has become all too familiar. Popularized by David Blight in Race and Reunion, this narrative traces a gradual embrace of reconciliation among white Americans by the turn of the twentieth century, an acceptance of the Lost Cause view of the war, and ending with the tragic loss of of what Blight describes as an “Emancipationist” view of the war. From there Coates jumps briefly to the Civil Rights Era and later to such popular interpretations of the war such as Gone With the Wind, Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the war and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary.
There is much to ponder within this framework, but it only gets us so far to understanding what many people working in the public history sector are reflecting on as well. As I read Coates’s essay part of the problem seems to be in the assumption that the process of reunions gradual ascendency functioned to cut off African Americans from memory of the Civil War only to have it re-emerge on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The danger here is that Coates runs the risk of painting a picture of blacks as emasculated from history and I know that this is not his intention.
The vast majority of black Confederate accounts on the Internet follow a well-worn narrative. First, we are somehow to believe that servants/slaves volunteered to accompany their owners to war and in doing so solidified a bond of friendship and a commitment to the achievement of Confederate independence. Many of these postwar accounts offer rich descriptions of servants who rush onto a battlefield to rescue their wounded master or secure the dead body for the long trip home. These stories were and continue to be told by whites as a way to minimize the horrors of slavery and as a vindication of the Confederate cause. African Americans almost never come out from under the shadow of white storytellers. To put it another way, African Americans remain an extension of the white storyteller’s will or as part of his chosen memory of the past. It should come as no surprise then that many of these accounts paint a picture of peaceful relations between former master and slave following the end of the war. We see this clearly in the case of Silas and Andrew Chandler. Even Andrew Chandler Battiale, who appeared on the Antiques Road Show for an appraisal of the famous tintype suggested such a relationship: “The men grew up together; they worked the fields together, and continued to live closely throughout the rest of their lives.”
If I were heading back into the classroom to teach my course on the Civil War and historical memory I would begin by showing this video from the Virginia Historical Society’s exhibit, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia. If you haven’t seen it you are missing one of the more innovative exhibits to emerge early on for the Civil War 150th. The choice of Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of the “Star Spangled Banner” is the perfect accompaniment for this collage of images that covers both the short- and long-term consequences of the Civil War.
Teachers can use this video to explore how images, text, and music come together to form a historical narrative. Encourage students to critique the video by pointing out strengths and weaknesses. Which images are out of place or missing? What other musical choices could be utilized as well as choice of text?