The heritage syndrome, if I may call it that, almost seems to be a predictable but certainly a non-conspiratorial response–an impulse to remember what is attractive or flattering and to ignore all the rest. Heritage is composed of those aspects of history that we cherish and affirm. As an alternative to history, heritage accentuates the positive but sifts away what is problematic. One consequence is that the very pervasiveness of heritage as a phenomenon produces a beguiling sense of serenity about the well-being of history–that is, a false consciousness that historical knowledge and understanding are alive and well in the United States.
Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, p. 626
To understand something historically is to be aware of its complexity, to have sufficient detachment to see it from multiple perspectives, to accept the ambiguities, including moral ambiguities, of protagonists’ motives and behavior.
Things have been a bit slow around here this week owing to the amount of time I’ve spent preparing our house to be sold. I have to say that it was at times difficult going through my library and making the tough decisions as to what to keep and what to discard.
One of my readers tipped me off to this video from the 2011 auditions for “American Idol.”
Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from one of Professor Edward C. Smith’s current students. Professor Smith teaches at American University and on occasion has been a vocal advocate of the black Confederate narrative. He was featured not too long ago in a post that included an excerpt of a speech he gave on the subject to a group of Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1993. This video is available for purchase through the SCV and is one of the earliest references I can find. The student left two comments and they are quite revealing:
This is interesting to me because of the drama of late in Virginia concerning inclusion of black Confederates in history textbooks. I am also taking classes with Ed Smith at American University in DC, who is considered an authority on black Confederates (though honestly, his research methods are a little sketchy). If you have not yet met Ed Smith, you definitely should. Not only is he a fountain of knowledge, but just an interesting person in general. He is not reachable my email though, so how to get in touch with him is something you’d have to explore….
Indeed, Prof. Smith is not a historian in the traditional sense. I would say he is more of a folklorist than anything. He has no formal post-secondary education, but knows a lot about a lot of things through experience. He’s not an academic though, and I think that’s what messes things up. People assume he is an academic, but in reality he’s more of a grandfather type. You might learn a lot from your grandfather but you’re probably not going to be able to source him in a thesis. For example, he’s sent me on a wild goose chase looking for letters that, if they exist, will be extremely historically valuable. But so far I can’t find them, though he swears they’re there. Basically… Ed Smith is a great guy, you can learn a lot of interesting stuff from him, but his historical work is not academic. Still, if you ever have a chance to hang out with him, you definitely should.
Professor Smith’s profile page at AU does not include any references to post-secondary education. [Note: Smith is in the Anthropology Department at AU.] That’s not such a concern to me. What does concern me is that he is often touted as an expert on black Confederates even though he has not published a single peer-reviewed article on the subject. Professor Smith sounds like an interesting person. Indeed, I found a number of thought provoking essays while searching for information about Smith. I appreciate that this student was able to convey her admiration for her teacher without losing sight of perceived shortcomings.
Whatever his areas of expertise might be, the subject of how how African Americans were mobilized by the Confederacy is clearly not one of them.
Last Friday I spent the afternoon with Gilles Biassette, who writes for La Croix in France. He spent a few days in the United States talking with people about the Civil War Sesquicentennial. We talked about a wide range of topics as we walked through Lee and Jackson Parks, the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia and the campus itself. Gilles asked excellent question and I even had the chance to ask him about historical memory in France. Of course, there is always the concern that a reporter will butcher what I have to say, but I think it turned out really well. It seems appropriate that a French publication would express interest in our Civil War given that Europe closely monitored the events of 1861-65.
Mais cette passion américaine n’est pas que militaire. Comme l’atteste le nouveau musée de Gettysburg.
Ils l’ont refait il y a quelques années, explique Kevin Levin, professeur à Charlottesville et auteur d’un blog très riche sur la guerre de Sécession et sur son héritage, Civil War Memory. Avant, il y avait des murs couverts d’armes, et le reste tournait autour des mouvements de troupes… Maintenant, il n’y a plus qu’un échantillon de la collection d’armes du musée. À la place, une excellente exposition sur l’esclavage, le rôle des femmes, les conditions de vie à l’époque. Ce qui n’a pas plu à tout le monde ! Des gens ont râlé, disant qu’un musée sur une bataille, c’est fait pour parler de la guerre, pas de l’esclavage….
L’image d’un Sud esclavagiste combattant au nom de la liberté a de quoi faire bondir… « Ce type d’argument est repris par ceux qui veulent minorer le problème de l’esclavage, poursuit Kevin Levin. On entend même, depuis quelques années, certains prétendus historiens assurer que des Noirs se sont battus côte à côte avec les Blancs dans l’armée sudiste. Mais il n’y a absolument aucun élément qui prouve ceci ! Ce qu’on sait, en revanche, c’est que certains militaires étaient partis se battre avec leurs esclaves, présents sur le front pour accomplir leur travail d’esclaves….
La guerre de Sécession est toujours une passion américaine, précise Kevin Levin. Mais cet intérêt est beaucoup plus émotionnel qu’intellectuel : cette guerre permet surtout aux Américains d’établir un lien avec leurs ancêtres, de ressentir le passé.