I don’t mind admitting that I am a sucker for the recent string of television shows that trace the family histories of our favorite celebrities. They perform an important function within the muck and mire that is popular entertainment. Most importantly, they present the study of history as an exciting process that often leads to meaningful self discovery. This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows Vanessa Williams as she searches for information about her great-great grandfather, who served in the USCTs during the Civil War. Williams also learns that an ancestor served in the Tennessee legislature in the 1880s and even introduced legislation mandating public education. All in all we have here another strong emancipationist narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction that has made it into our mainstream culture.
We are likely to see more of these black Confederate stories throughout Black History Month. This one is a perfect example of the confusion and inconsistency that often accompanies these stories. You can clearly discern both the narrative of a slave and a soldier at work here with no sense that they are mutually exclusive. Mary Crockett presents her great-grandfather, Richard Quarls, as both a Civil War veteran and as a slave. The reporter tells us that although he was forced into the army as a slave he wore the Confederate uniform. The uniform is typically referenced as evidence that the individual in question was considered something other than a slave. In addition, his pension is shown, which leads one to believe that he served in a Confederate unit as a soldier as opposed to being attached to a soldier/officer as a servant. In this case the pension that Quarls received was for his work as a slave and not as a soldier. Once again we can thank the Sons of Confederate Veterans for distorting this story for their own purposes by placing a marker that suggests that Quarls was a soldier. Ms. Crockett is absolutely right when she points out that her family’s history is complex. It’s also an important story and at this point in time we should try to get right.
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A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by Clay Risen of the New York Times to talk about what it might take to make their Civil War blog, Disunion, more appealing to teachers. I’ve been reading it for some time and I am thoroughly enjoying both the range of writers and subject matter discussed. Disunion recently won the 2010 Cliopatria Award for best series of posts. We had a nice talk and by the end of our conversation I suggested that an editorial on the recent black Confederate/4th grade history textbook controversy here in Virginia might be worth writing. I wasn’t so much interested in rehashing the historical debate about black Confederates since that has been done to death. Unfortunately, what has been left out entirely from the debate is the fact that the error came about as a result of the author’s failure to understand how to search and assess Online information. It goes without saying that I am honored to published in the New York Times. Click through to the NYTs and the comments which follow.
Note: Here is a link to a short update on the Washington Post’s blog. I will keep an eye out for some video of the news conference. As of Wednesday morning I can’t find a single Online article from a Richmond newspaper or anything else for that matter. Did anyone even show up to this news conference?
The inauguration of Governor Robert McDonnell
There is something quite pathetic about the Sons of Confederate Veterans holding a press conference to denounce Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and former Senator George Allen for what they perceive as violations of Confederate heritage. As many of you are aware this battle between the SCV and the governor started last spring over the latter’s handling of Confederate History Month. I am not going to rehash that debate in this post so I encourage you to go through my old posts if interested.
Their argument is nothing new: Civil War history has become overly politicized and taken hostage by liberal academics and other illegitimate groups that have prevented the SCV from acknowledging and commemorating their ancestors. These groups have successfully lobbied the governor to shun the SCV and their history as well as the roughly “2 million Virginia citizens [who] can trace their ancestry to a soldier who fought in the Confederate army” – the implication being that if you are descended from a Confederate soldier you automatically subscribe to the SCV’s preferred view. Such a view paints the SCV as the victims of a conspiracy or even as modern day warriors defending a lost cause. We are to believe that past celebrations of Confederate leaders and their cause from the late nineteenth century onward somehow fell outside of politics. Continue reading →
The other day I mentioned that a professor at Rice University used a few of my old posts on black Confederates as a way to focus his students on how Americans remember the war. I thoroughly enjoyed the thoughtful comments of the students, many of which suggest that proponents of this particular narrative have a broader goal of embracing Confederate history – heritage without having to deal with the tough problems of race and slavery. I think there is some truth to this, but I wouldn’t propose it as anything approaching a generalization or even as a sufficient condition.
Second, many of you suggested that remembering the Civil War in a particular way fills certain needs people have–to absolve themselves or their ancestors of guilt, for example, or distance themselves from racism. This made me wonder (and some of you alluded to this): if remembering the Civil War as a conflict that was not meets certain psychological or cultural needs for the people doing the remembering, how does depicting the Civil War as a conflict that was about slavery, or even a war to end slavery, influence the identities or satisfy the needs of people who remember it that way?
It seems like an appropriate question given the slave auction reenactment that took place this morning on the steps of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis. Here is a very interesting interview with Angela desilva, who took part in the reenactment. [Click here for some powerful photographs from the event.] She offers a very personal response to Professor McDaniel’s question, but one that must acknowledge from a distance given my lack of any ancestral connection with slavery.
So, what needs does remembering a war to end slavery satisfy? That’s a tough question and one that I don’t think I can answer right now. I am tempted to suggest that it satisfies my need to know what happened and why, but that sounds shallow and could easily be suggested by those who minimize or reject the importance of slavery. I’m sure others will opine that my radical liberal beliefs have left me feeling guilty or that such an interpretation fits into my view of the United States as fundamentally flawed. Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not it.
Perhaps it relates to my Jewish upbringing. Although I am no longer a practicing Jew I do believe that my strong belief that we have an obligation to remember flows from my experience in Hebrew School during my formative years. It goes without saying that the Holocaust looms large in the lives of most Jews. But this doesn’t fully satisfy either. After all, I can remember the harsh reality of slavery without focusing on the Civil War. In other words, I still don’t know what needs of mine are satisfied by remembering a war to end slavery.