The Occupy Movement has not been on my radar much since it took to the streets on September 17, 2011. I’ve found it difficult to identify with their stated goals and tactics, though I certainly sympathize with the frustration expressed over the economic direction of the country. Today I learned that earlier this week the Occupy Movement in New York City marked the 300th anniversary of the city’s first slave market, which happened to be located on Wall Street near Pearl and Water. On the face of it you may not see anything suspicious; after all, it looks like they are encouraging the community and the nation to remember an aspect of the city’s past that is all too often ignored. The organization, including Chris Cobb and a small group of mainly white protesters along with City Council member Jumaane Williams have organized a petition to place historic markers to commemorate the neighborhood’s ties to the history of slavery.
While there doesn’t seem to be anything problematic, if you listen closely there is actually something quite disturbing about the way in which the Occupy Movement has chosen to frame this lesson in history and memory. Here is a short excerpt from the Huffington Post:
Cobb, who is white, said he sees clear connections between Wall Street’s role as an engine of the slave trade, the public’s ignorance of that history and what he describes as corporate America’s current exploitation of poor and middle-class workers. As Occupy Wall Street protesters have been evicted form public spaces across the country, the movement has shifted from static occupations to sporadic actions. Those efforts include occupying vacant and foreclosed homes, as well as attempts to shut down ports and to call attention to the situation of workers inside such esteemed intuitions as the auction house Sotheby’s.
“We were in the theory phase before the raid [on Zuccotti Park]. Now we are in the action phase, responding to the theory we were talking about,” Cobb said. Cobb sees the move to recognize and mark the slave market space as a natural next step in the effort to expose the evils of economic inequality. “It’s hard to talk about race with white people in general, because there are a lot of misunderstandings,” said Cobb. “But I think there is a place where a conversation can begin, and that is with fairness. It’s only fair that there be some recognition here.”
My concern is with the way in which the history of slavery and the slave trade in New York City is being connected to the agenda and economic outlook of the Occupy Movement. The petition itself says very little about the history that they wish to mark, but it is the close comparison made between the economic hardships that too many Americans are currently facing and slavery itself that is truly disturbing. We can certainly draw connections between Wall Street, the slave trade, the public’s ignorance, and the current economic hardships faced by middle-class workers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will learn anything interesting. In fact, I would suggest that such vague comparisons have little to do with history at all.
Joyce Ehrlinger, E. Ashby Plant, Richard P. Eibach, Corey J. Columb, Joanna L. Goplen, Jonathan W. Kunstman, David A. Butz, “How Exposure to the Confederate Flag Affects Willingness to Vote for Barack Obama,” Political Pyschology (February 2011): 131-46.
Abstract: Leading up to the 2008 U.S. election, pundits wondered whether Whites, particularly in Southern states, were ready to vote for a Black president. The present paper explores how a common Southern symbol—the Confederate flag—impacted willingness to vote for Barack Obama. We predicted that exposure to the Confederate flag would activate negativity toward Blacks and result in lowered willingness to vote for Obama. As predicted, participants primed with the Confederate flag reported less willingness to vote for Obama than those primed with a neutral symbol. The flag did not affect willingness to vote for White candidates. In a second study, participants primed with the Confederate flag evaluated a hypothetical Black target more negatively than controls. These results suggest that exposure to the Confederate flag results in more negative judgments of Black targets. As such, the prevalence of this flag in the South may have contributed to a reticence for some to vote for Obama because of his race. [Read the Entire Article]
Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about the intersection of 9-11 and Civil War remembrance. It started with a post on the subject and that led to two newspaper interviews. An Associated Press article on 9-11 that I was recently interviewed for gave me the opportunity to explore the subject a bit further. It will be published at some point soon. A couple of days ago I decided to write it up as an editorial and the History News Network agreed to run it. You can read it here if interested. Thanks again to HNN for agreeing to publish it. My thoughts are with the families and friends of those who were lost on 9-11.
Earlier today I spent some time with an Associated Press writer discussing connections between Civil War remembrance and the upcoming anniversary of 9-11. I tried to outline some of the shifts that have taken place in our collective memory of the Civil War and suggested that our national memory of 9-11 will likely follow these patterns. We are still early on in that initial stage of historical memory where narratives emphasize heroism and tend to be shaped by those who have a personal connection to the event itself. In this case I’ve suggested that it is the families of 9-11 victims that will continue to exercise a great deal of influence on how the rest of us remember and commemorate that day. As we move further from the tragedy of that day, however, we will become more removed and more likely to assume a more “objective” perspective – one that carefully considers both causes and consequences. That will take some time and probably will not blossom for another generation. It is inevitable
That heroic/moral narrative continues to linger 150 years after the Civil War among folks who imagine themselves as caretakers of a distant past, but I would suggest that in a few short years its most visual incarnations will be even more of a rare occurrence. This last generation that continues to preserve its ceremonial symbols were reared on the Civil War Centennial, but there is no indication that the sesquicentennial will leave us with the same level of enthusiasm. This generation is the last one to have any direct connection with the veterans themselves. You can also see this impending shift in the profile of Civil War Roundtables. I suspect that most of them will be a distant memory in the not too distant future unless there is a major influx of younger blood into leadership positions. This shift is taking place in both the North and South.
There is no need to pronounce judgment on this or dwell on what will be lost or gained by such a change. What will continue to dissipate is the tendency among some to see the war as lacking closure. I suspect that the Civil War will continue to exercise a strong hold on our imaginations.
Karl S. Betts was the first executive director of the Civil War Centennial Commission and a successful Kansas-born businessman. His goals were first and foremost to fashion a centennial celebration that would attract patriotic audiences and steer clear of issues related to race. This meant battle reenactments and parades. Most of the sesquicentennial commissions, including Virginia, have decided to steer clear of reenactments. As I understand it, that decision has to do with not wanting to be perceived as celebrating what was a destructive and costly war as well as wanting to focus on more substantive and educational projects.