Memory Study Wins Human Rights Award

I recently tapped Micki McElya’s Clinging to Mammy: the Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America as the "Best Myth Buster of 2007."  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and plan to introduce the subject to my Women’s History course this spring.  McElya’s work on the changing image of Mammy has been awarded the 2007 Myers Center Outstanding Book Awards Advancing Human Rights:

Clinging to Mammy" was among 10 works awarded the 2007 Myers Center
Outstanding Book Awards Advancing Human Rights. The Boston-based
Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights
recognizes books "that extend our understanding of the root causes of
bigotry and the range of options we as humans have in constructing
alternative ways to share power," according to a press release….

In her book, McElya explores the power and influence of the seemingly
ubiquitous "Mammy" as she appears in films, songs and literature. The
book uncovers the character’s true extent as a myth and social presence
ranging from advertising to the grocery store including even child
custody cases, white women’s minstrelsy, activism, anti-lynching
campaigns and the Civil Rights Movement.

The book follows the
image of "Mammy" from 1893 through the 1960s as it transformed
individuals and public expectations of blacks, McElya said. It tells
the story of Nancy Green, a working black woman in Chicago, how she
became the symbol of Aunt Jemima and toured around the country many
years and was not even remembered as Nancy Green in her eulogies, she

Over at Civil Warriors Brooks Simpson asks how far historians should go to correct misrepresentations of the historical record.  McElya’s scholarship takes this one step further by challenging the deeply-ingrained perceptions of race and gender that are often reinforced within the marketplace as in the case of Aunt Jemima.  I applaud and encourage historians whose work addresses social/political/racial issues without sacrificing the analytical skill and striving towards objectivity that defines the best in historical studies.  If we are socially and historically constructed than it is at times useful to be reminded to step back to ponder the cultural girders.

Ken Burns Marathon

Yesterday I returned from two days in Richmond with a fellow historian to begin work on our Ken Burns project.  We are writing a book that is centered around the script of the Civil War series.  Our plan is to edit the entire script for publication along with an extensive introduction that places Burns’s interpretation within the historiography of the last 20 years.  In addition, we will be including extensive tables that address such issues as the number of words spoken by the talking heads and the amount of time spent on various subjects and themes.  The book will hopefully be ready for the twentieth anniversary of the release of the series in 2010 and should be attractive to general readers, scholars, and teachers. 

We spent the last two days viewing the entire series and checking the script against the spoken word on the video itself.  Burns donated a number of scripts and other records to the University of North Carolina’s Southern Historical Collection (Florentine Films Archives Inventory).  It was incredibly draining as we had to fit in 12 hours of video in two days and leave enough time to discuss various issues that will be addressed in the annotations and in our introduction.  We are going to identify the sources for all of the historical references, which should not be too difficult, as well as specific factual claims made by the talking heads and the narrator. The tedious part will be the identification of every visual used in the film; Episode 1 includes 365 images alone. 

I’ve never viewed the entire documentary in its entirety in this way and I suspect that most people have not.  After all, who has 12 spare hours these days?  I have to say, however, that viewing it in this way has given me a very different perspective on the interpretation as a whole.  In short, I am much more impressed with it.  Burns addresses a wide range of topics and he does so in a very sophisticated way.  For example, the theme of emancipation and the role of African Americans in bringing it about is much more apparent than if you were to only view specific sections, which I am no doubt guilty of doing. As an example of popular memory of the war Burns is well ahead of the curve.  This is not to deny that there are no interpretive issues that need to be addressed and many of them were analyzed in a book edited by Robert Brent Toplin.  Eric Foner does an excellent job of analyzing the reconciliationist theme of the film which the documentary clearly leans towards.  Foner’s concern is that the emphasis on emancipation ignores the extent to which African Americans struggled both during Reconstruction and in the years to follow.  I’ve noticed a similar tendency in the past, but this time around I concentrated much more on the script and not as much on the images which in this case includes extensive video of both the 50th and 75th anniversaries of Gettysburg.  Those images of the veterans in various acts of friendship and camaraderie works to drive home the theme of reconciliation.  The absence of any substantial commentary on politics and ideology is striking.  While I understand that Burns did not want to address Reconstruction in his film he could and should have spent some time on wartime Reconstruction, including Abraham Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan and Wade-Davis Bill – at least as much time as he spent on "shoddy." 

Finally, having the script in hand places the talking heads in their proper perspective.  It is easy to magnify the importance of individuals like Shelby Foote who – depending on your perspective – either makes or breaks the series.  While I find him to be a colorful character much of what he says falls flat in terms of its scholarly import.  One wonders whether Foote has any conception that not all "southerners" were white.  Barbara Fields, Stephen Oates, and James Symington are much more impressive.  Following along with the script, however, reveals how little they actually contribute to the overall interpretation and this is one place where our tables will be useful.  Shelby Foote makes 97 appearances throughout the 9 episodes for a total of 7,771 words (71.6% of all words spoken by talking heads) while Barbara Fields comes in a distant second with 12 appearance throughout for a total of 1,109 words (10.26% of all words spoken by talking heads).  So, compared with the other talking heads Foote’s impact is apparent; however, taken together and compared with the overall narrative by David McCullough the amount of time devoted to the commentators is minimal.  Again, this emerges much more clearly when following the script.

Viewing the film in its entirety has made me much more sensitive to Burns as a documentarian than as a historian which he consistently maintains that he is not.  In fact, I need to read much more on the process and, more specifically, how Burns goes about constructing films.  I guess the historian in me is overly sensitive to distinctions as well as a certain analytical style. You can expect to hear much more about this project in the months to come.

WARNING: Viewing The Civil War in its entirety and in a short space of time can lead to the narration of dreams in the voice of David McCullough.

Getting to Know Virginia’s SOL’s

For a couple reasons that I will not go into I’ve been exploring Virginia’s SOL’s for the survey course in American history.  My specific focus has been the period between 1850 and 1880, though I did spend a little time exploring the late colonial period through the Revolution.  I tend to think that the SOL’s are more a reflection of a lack of talented history teachers in the public schools rather than an external set of standards imposed.  This is unfortunate for those history teachers trained in the field and quite capable of developing their own curriculum that have the potential of going beyond the basic requirements of the SOL’s. That said, after perusing the outline for the American history course I have to admit that it’s not all a disaster.  For those of you unfamiliar with Virginia’s SOL’s you should first know that the outline of the course is divided into four columns which are headed from right to left: "Essential Understandings" (EU), "Essential Questions" (EQ), Essential Knowledge" (EK), and "Essential Skills" (ES).  I like the progression from the abstract in the far left column to concrete skill-based requirements which ideally will demonstrate some mastery of an abstract idea and essential facts.  Essential skills tend to revolve around geography, sequencing events, and analysis of primary and secondary sources, and the appreciation of multiple perspectives in history.   This is essentially my course in a nutshell.

Where my course differs, however, is in the content.  I can’t help but think that some of the SOL content is politically motivated or simply the result of compromises made between various interest groups.  The result is a confused overview of the Civil War era that, if followed carefully, must leave some teachers (and students) confused.  Here are a few examples that I find particularly troubling.  One of the things that struck me is the extent to which the SOL’s bounce back and forth between citing regional differences over the proper interpretation of the Constitution or states rights v. federal government, and slavery.  Both positions are expressed but there is never a point in the outline where a coherent statement is expressed.  As EK students are to acknowledge that "Northerners believed that slavery should be abolished for moral reasons."  More interesting is the choice to use Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee as examples of differing views on the respective powers of the states and federal government.  Why Lee is chosen is beyond me given that he was not a political thinker or responsible for a cogent statement about this nature of the federal government.  One of the EQ’s asks students to explain, "How Lincoln’s view of the nature of the Union differ[ed] from Lee’s."  Why not use Jefferson Davis or some other southern politician?  When did Lee become a significant commentator on the nature of the constitution? 

Moving to the war years students must be able to identify the following leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, "Stonewall" Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglas.  While I have little quarrel with the list I do wonder why Jackson is elevated to the level of Douglas, Davis, and Lincoln.  I am not denying that it is not worth studying the life of Jackson, but is he that important to understanding the evolution of the war in Virginia and elsewhere?  Yes, the teacher can mention that he performed extremely well in battle and that he was a religious zealot, but how exactly does that get him to the top of the heap?  I don’t get it.  During the two weeks my AP classes have spent on the Civil War I may have mentioned Jackson twice and both time briefly.  There are way more important people that need to be understood.  Under EK Jackson is described as a "talented" Confederate general.

Given my recent emphasis on black Confederates you will be happy to know that "African Americans fought in both the Union and Confederate armies."  This has to be one of the most confused set of bullet points that I’ve even seen.  There is no explanation beyond this which is incredibly disturbing.  I have to wonder what your average teacher does with this information without any familiarity with the literature on the subject.  One has to imagine that in classes throughout Virginia students are finishing the year with the belief that the experiences of blacks in both armies was comparable.  It then goes on to say that "The Confederacy often used slaves as naval crew members and soldiers."  One of the bullet points notes that "African American soldiers were discriminated against and served in segregated units under the command of white officers."  Unfortunately, given the earlier bullet point that blacks served as soldiers in both armies it is impossible to know which army is being cited.  Perhaps they were fully integrated in Confederate armies and years ahead of the U.S. Army. (LOL) [While we’re at it let’s go ahead and teach Intelligent Design in their biology classes and get it over with.]

Finally, Virginia’s students learn that "Reconstruction policies were harsh and created problems in the South."  By what standards are federal policies to be considered harsh?  And for whom were they harsh?  Did 4 million black southerners respond to federal policies as their white neighbors?  Well, I think that’s about enough for now.

An Open Post to Keith Poulter

In a recent issue of North and South magazine (Vol. 10, No. 2) which featured an article by Bruce Levine on so-called black Confederates, editor Keith Poulter issued a challenge.  "If there is anyone out there who still believes in legions of black Confederates," writes Poulter, "I invite them to write in, spelling out their grounds for that belief, and their grounds for dismissing the statements of Confederate leaders to the contrary."  The last two issues of the magazine have included a number of letters-to-the-editor and this one in particular takes the cake.  According to this reader, "The records prove…that Georgia raised six regiments of slaves, a total of 5,000 men, designated as the First through Sixth Georgia Colored Volunteers."  A bit further into the letter the author admits that there is "not a single word of documentation of these gallant men, who resisted the War of Northern Aggression.  Yankee revisionists and p.c. historians refuse to admit that the total lack of records proves the existence of black Confederate soldiers."  Now that is a keeper for classroom use on how not to engage in historical reasoning.  With this logic we could demonstrate that every color in the rainbow was represented in Confederate ranks.  What I don’t understand is why Poulter thought it necessary to publish such a ridiculous letter.  I understand that this section of a publication is reserved for readers’ letters, but this silliness only exacerbates the problem by implicitly sanctioning such a view as worth considering. 

More troubling, however, is that in the most recent issue Poulter announced that the author of one of the letters will be contributing an essay which supposedly will demonstrate that roughly 3,870 "Afro-Confederates" from Virginia served openly in Confederate ranks.  Jack Maples will be working with his "genealogist friend" to bring this new evidence to light in the face of denials by "mainstream historians."  They are utilizing the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census reports along with pension records and muster rolls for their research.  Let’s hope they spend sufficient time defining their terms.  In other words, what they need to flesh out is the complexity of race relations before the war and how the contingency of war altered the slave-master relationship.  We need to move beyond questions of loyalty to a more sophisticated perspective that first explores the many reasons why blacks were present with Confederate armies.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe this kind of analysis is forthcoming from Maples and his co-researcher.  Maples is the author of Reconstructed Yankee which tells the story of Caleb and Tom Parker:

Civil War expert Maples tells the fictionalized tale of two North
Carolina friends, one white and one black, who fought together during
that war. Set in 1862, the story follows Caleb Parker, a free person of
color living in the Confederacy, and his best friend, Tom Parker, a
white man, as they join the Union militia and set out on their civil
war adventure. After serving for a time in the army and witnessing the
atrocities perpetrated by the Union side, the two decide to switch
allegiances and join the Confederate Army, where things quickly go from
bad to worse. After the war and Tom’s death during a particularly harsh
battle, Caleb returns to North Carolina and Reconstruction, a world
that has been made unbearable for the newly freed black populace. Caleb
then heads for upstate New York, where he is ultimately disappointed to
find the same racism problems he thought he’d left behind.

In a nutshell: North bad, South good.  If this isn’t enough you may want to take a look at Mr. Maples lecturing a crowd about the loyalty of southern blacks during the war.  What I don’t understand is if all of these black southerners were so loyal to the various southern states and Confederacy during the war than why did it take so long for black Americans to get basic civil rights in many of these places?  How did white southerners justify a system of Jim Crow in the face of such broad-based participation and devotion to the cause? Of course, northern blacks faced discrimination well into the twentieth century, but the argument – as I understand it – suggests that the balance of loyalty was in favor of the Confederacy and not the Union.  Didn’t their love and devotion to their masters and the Confederacy at least justify the right to vote and take part in our democratic system? 

Perhaps there is reason to be optimistic that the research of Mr. Maples and his co-researcher will tell us something new about this divisive topic.  My only concern demand as a loyal reader of N&S is that Keith Poulter ensure that their research meets the stringent requirements that his magazine has upheld from the beginning. 

I for one will cancel my subscription immediately if those standards are not upheld.

Three WHITE Teens Arrested For Vandalizing Confederate Statue in Montgomery: (Is this still a hate crime?)

A few weeks ago I commented on the assumptions being made about the individual[s] responsible for painting a Confederate statue in Montgomery, Alabama in black-face.  Not surprisingly, editorials made it clear that many assumed the perpetrators must be black given the details of the defacement.  Here is what I stated in that earlier post:

On the other hand, what both statements have in common is the implicit
assumption that the perpetrators are black.  Now if I were a betting
man I probably would agree, but it is worth asking whether that
assumption tells us more about ourselves than anything about this
particular crime.  It could very well be white southerners that are
responsible for this incident, and it may also be the case that they
are making the very same point that might motivate black southerners.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans offered a reward for any tips that may lead to an arrest and apparently it paid off.  Assuming this leads to charges and a conviction I will be interested to see if anyone takes the opportunity to comment on the racial component of this incident.  I am curious as to how the Sons of Confederate Veterans, specifically, will attempt to explain the motivation of these young white men. Perhaps they can schedule H.K. Edgerton for a series of public talks and visits to local public schools.  Meanwhile, the restoration of the monument continues.