Category Archives: Current Affairs

What Would An Obama Presidency Mean To Civil War Memory?

This post originally ran in April 2007.  Given last night’s primary results in Indiana and North Carolina I thought it might be an opportune moment to share it once again.

One of my readers recently pointed out that the Civil War Sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president.  How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances?  My friendly emailer asks:

As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from now?  And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate legacy be revealed to be?

The more I think about it the more it becomes apparent that an Obama presidency could reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement.  We’ve already seen how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions.  This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963.  The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative.  Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War.  Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others.   It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president.  In short, the "emancipationist legacy" of the Civil War would return to center stage. It does have the potential of becoming overly celebratory and I would resist this urge for the sake of maintaining the focus on better understanding the relevant history.

Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the "emptiness" referred to in connection with "Confederate heritage" is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors.  I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember.  It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative.  It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South.  More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy.  In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.

More to the point, the attention among professional historians in recent years to better understanding the ways in which slavery shaped the Confederate experience will potentially occupy a central place in future narratives that purport to explain the historical background of a black president.  We will be forced to acknowledge secession and the Confederacy as an attempt to maintain slavery and a racial hierarchy and not simply as a constitutional right or a defense of hearth and home; both points figure prominently in our collective memory while race and slavery linger on the fringes.  Of course, understanding the Civil War years does not in any way come close to defining the black experience in America nor does an emphasis on the American South.  What it does do, however, is highlight the importance that was attached to emancipation both during the war and in the decades to follow before it was overshadowed by reunion, reconciliation and Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth century.

This post is not meant in any way as a justification for a vote for Barak Obama.  The election of a black president would be an important milestone for this country, but in our attempt to understand how we as a nation arrived at this point it also has the potential of radically shifting the way we think about our collective past.

Getting Right With Wright

The commentary in the mainstream media surrounding the sermons of Jeremiah Wright and what it means in terms of Barack Obama’s vision of American have been sickening to say the least.  We rarely get any serious discussion, just the same few tapes played in an endless loop.  Worse yet most conservative commentators, who have taken the lead in beating this story to death, rarely tell their viewers the rationale behind it all.  In other words, they never quite get to the conclusion that lingers in the background which is the assumption that Obama holds the same views as expressed in those short snippets.  What I find so depressing is the fact that if Obama had been a member of a church that did little or nothing in the form of community outreach and included a reserved pastor there would be no problem at all.  I admit to finding it hard to believe that Obama was not aware of Wright’s occasional outbursts, but to reduce his church membership to these clips and ignore all of the work that he engaged in through this institution seems to me to be unfair.  All of this comes down to the question of whether Obama shares Wright’s vision of America.  And if the answer is no than what is all of this really about?    Ultimately, this comes down to our inability as a nation to talk openly and honestly about the history of racism and its continued effects within the black community.  That is why it was so nice to see someone on television last night actually say something thoughtful.  No surprise that it was Bill Moyers.  I’ve included his commentary in its entirety.

I once asked a reporter back from Vietnam, “Who’s telling the truth over there?” Everyone he said. Everyone sees what’s happening through the lens of their own experience.” That’s how people see Jeremiah Wright. In my conversation with him on this broadcast a week ago and in his dramatic public appearances since, he revealed himself to be far more complex than the sound bites that propelled him onto the public stage. Over 2000 of you have written me about him, and your opinions vary widely. Some sting: “Jeremiah Wright is nothing more than a race-hustling, American hating radical,” one viewer wrote. A “nut
case,” said another. Others were far more were sympathetic to him.

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Update re: Jeremiah Wright

Thanks to historian and blogger Ed Blum for his thought-provoking post, “God Damn America” in Black and White which can be read over at HNN.  This was just the kind of historical context that I was looking for and I may even follow up on some of the suggestions for further reading:

“What is striking, historically, is that there is nothing new in Wright’s sermon and how often African American perspectives on so-called American Christian nationalism are ignored. It seems that each year, at least a handful of books come out trying to discern whether the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Most recently, this can be seen in Steven Waldman’s Liberating the Founders.But so often historians have approached the topic from the perspective of elite whites, and not the people who were building the nation from its foundation, hoeing the fields and raising the cotton, washing the clothes and preparing the meals. (One exception to this is David Howard-Pitney’s wonderful The African-American Jeremiad.) If we look closely at African American perspectives of Christian nationalism, we find Reverend Wright firmly in a long oppositional and rhetorical tradition.”

Thanks Ed.

Update: I picked up this comment from the comments section over at Religion in American History:

“What drives me crazy is how this could have been avoided so easily if Wright was the slightest bit media-savvy. Had he merely controlled his tongue and limited himself to advocating an attack on Iran to encourage massive worldwide Muslim attacks leading to a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of end-times and bringing about Armageddon and the summary slaughter of every Jew, Muslim, Catholic, and non-believer on the planet while rapturing him and his flock up to heaven, then followed it up by denouncing Catholics as cult members and blaming Hurricane Katrina on gay people, this story wouldn’t be metastasizing like this. One five minute milquetoast repudiation by Obama and it would all be behind him.  But what does Wright do instead? He spews this vile ‘God damn America’ bile. What a psycho.”

Are Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Words Really Offensive?

Ralph Luker has generated a great deal of heat in response to his post on Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s controversial statements about race and the federal government.  The point of Ralph’s post, as I understood it, was to provide both a religious and political context for Wright’s words and not necessarily to condemn or praise.  I’ve read excerpts from Wright’s statements and for the most part I haven’t given it a second thought.  As far as I am concerned this is just another example of our obsession with religion and politics.  Frankly, apart from the obvious exceptions where radical religious views are detrimental to maintaining a free society I don’t care about any given politician’s religious convictions.  I’ve lived through enough cases of self-righteous Republicans and Democrats touting their religious credentials in my face only to see them fall flat on their face in disgrace.  In the present case we are not even talking about Obama’s personal beliefs. 

I’ve heard from the mainstream media, which means that I haven’t heard much that is constructive or that reflects how this is playing out in various sections of the country.  I admit a certain amount of ignorance when it comes to understanding the history of the jeremiad tradition or the theological assumptions within liberation theology, which partly explains my reluctance to comment on this matter beyond simply not caring.  More importantly, however I am unfamiliar with the spectrum of cultures that define the history of the black church.  I say this in light of Ralph’s piece and an article by Gwen Robinson:

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