I know many of my most loyal readers are still struggling to come to terms with having their favorite black Confederate outed as a slave. So, just to show them that there are no hard feelings and in the spirit of the Christmas season I wanted to share at least one sighting of a black Confederate that is sure to stir their Lost Cause shaped hearts. They Are Out There.
The following documentary by filmmaker Shukree Tilghman will air on New Hampshire Public Television on February 12, 2012. It looks to be pretty interesting. Watch the trailer for some truly bizarre claims made by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. My personal favorite: “After the war there was a major move to squash Confederate history.” Only someone completely ignorant to the trajectory of Civil War memory could make such a ridiculous claim.
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I came across a playful, but thoughtful comment this morning from one of Ta-Nahesi Coates’s readers, who goes by the name, Alabama_Girl. Here is an excerpt from the comment:
The other day I went through the last books left on the shelves of my parents home and there was one about Stonewall Jackson. Now, as a child I loved that story. Shot by mistake, the brilliant soldier whose death might have turned things? I found it fascinating as a child, not yet delving into the cause of the battle or his beliefs. And Southerners know how to spin a
tell[tale]. There’s a reason those live while tales of Grant languish. As an adult, I have to look at the cause he was fighting for, so was his death a sad thing, or thank you Baby Jesus that the dude died.
I love the way her story transitions from the child’s fascination with a key element of the Lost Cause narrative to a more mature reflection that acknowledges that the war was about something and that it mattered who was victorious. Substitute any high level Confederate officer and you arrive at what I take to be her conclusion: “thank you Baby Jesus that the dude died.” It’s not about celebrating any one individual’s death, but it is a simple acknowledgment that ‘death happens’ in war and that it matters who dies. In the case of Jackson’s death it reflects the obvious point that the right side won the Civil War given the consequences of a Confederate victory.
It’s nice to see that Ta-Nahesi Coates’s contribution to the The Atlantic’s special Civil War issue is getting so much attention. It nicely sums up why I am now a regular reader of his blog and why last week I went to meet him in person at MIT. Coates’s essay is a very personal and thoughtful reflection on why the African American community appears to have lost interest in the Civil War. The essay tracks the gaping hole in his personal memory of the Civil War as a child to his discovery of it later in life and his subsequent reading of a wide range of primary and secondary sources.
Coates locates a collective lack of interest among African Americans in a narrative that has become all too familiar. Popularized by David Blight in Race and Reunion, this narrative traces a gradual embrace of reconciliation among white Americans by the turn of the twentieth century, an acceptance of the Lost Cause view of the war, and ending with the tragic loss of of what Blight describes as an “Emancipationist” view of the war. From there Coates jumps briefly to the Civil Rights Era and later to such popular interpretations of the war such as Gone With the Wind, Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the war and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary.
There is much to ponder within this framework, but it only gets us so far to understanding what many people working in the public history sector are reflecting on as well. As I read Coates’s essay part of the problem seems to be in the assumption that the process of reunions gradual ascendency functioned to cut off African Americans from memory of the Civil War only to have it re-emerge on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The danger here is that Coates runs the risk of painting a picture of blacks as emasculated from history and I know that this is not his intention.