Hillary Clinton on Lincoln, the Civil War and Reconstruction

Last night at the Democratic Town Hall Meeting in Iowa Hillary Clinton offered up a reminder of why a solid grasp of Reconstruction is essential to our understanding of American history. While the 150th anniversary of the Civil War received a great deal of attention from historic sites, museums and a host of educational institutions, very little is being done to commemorate Reconstruction. Continue reading “Hillary Clinton on Lincoln, the Civil War and Reconstruction”

How “Finding Your Roots” Manipulates the Past

Last night I caught part of Season 3 of Finding Your Roots, which included an episode about Keenen Ivory Wayans. The recent controversy involving Henry Louis Gates and Ben Affleck left me wondering if any substantial changes would be made to the show. It didn’t take long to answer.

FYR is pretty good at “finding” people, but at times they do an absolutely horrendous job of interpreting what they find. A case in point is Gates’s interaction with Wayans in locating and interpreting the life of Ben, an ancestor, who was the slave of South Carolina Governor John L. Manning. Continue reading “How “Finding Your Roots” Manipulates the Past”

Did White Northerners Abandon Reconstruction?

Update: After you finish reading this post check out Brooks Simpson’s thoughtful response to Gordon-Reed’s essay.

One of the most common tropes embraced in reference to the post- Civil War period is the idea of a ‘white Northern retreat from Reconstruction.’  For many, the shift occurred during the mid to late 1870s for a number of reasons, including the threat of labor strikes, the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny or the realization that the South’s racial problems could only be solved locally. Reconstruction’s abandonment followed significant gains on the civil rights front from the passage of three constitutional amendments to military intervention that led to black political action. The white North’s abandonment of Reconstruction points inextricably to missed opportunities and our own inability to deal honestly with deep racial problems. Continue reading “Did White Northerners Abandon Reconstruction?”

The Ghosts of Civil War Memory

Tales From the Haunted SouthI am just about finished reading Tiya Miles’s new book, Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era, published by UNC Press. Miles explores the current craze and popularity of ghost stories at historic sites, specifically those involving slaves in places like Savannah and New Orleans. Here is a short passage that beautifully captures the central theme of the book:

In crafting and hearing stories of haunting, we conjure up and simultaneously contain the collective memories that threaten us. Ghost stories index disturbing historical happenings that have often been excluded from conscious social memory, but they also limit the full recognition of those very happenings. Because modern culture dismisses the possibility of ghosts (even while many people hold personal faith in the reality of haunting), ghost stories are taken lightly, in jest, and are viewed as primitive or playful. Revelations of historical import embedded in ghost stories are therefore dismissed as unreal. Ghost stories as a form of historical narrative therefore do double work: they call to mind disturbing historical knowledge that we feel compelled to face, but they also contain the threat of that knowledge by marking it as unbelievable. This process of pushing back and calling forth a memory might be described as “unsuccessful repression” in psychoanalytical literary and cultural studies. Literature scholar Renee Bergland explains the understanding of hauntings as repression in this way: “The entire dynamic of ghosts and hauntings, as we understand it today, is a dynamic of unsuccessful repression.  Ghosts are things that we try to bury, but that refuse to stay buried. They are our fears and our horrors, disembodied, but made inescapable by their very bodilessness.” Just as hauntings are about the return of the past, or time “out of joint,” ghost stories are a controlled cultural medium for recognizing trouble in that past, for acknowledging the complexities and injustices of history that haunt the periphery of public life and leave a lingering imprint on social relations. (pp. 15-16)

At first I had trouble understanding why Miles is interested in ghosts, but having recently read her previous book, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, it occurred to me that there is a great deal of overlap between ghost stories about slavery at historical sites and the challenges that public historians face in interpreting this history for the general public. The book is well worth your time and is a quick read.

Op-Ed on Black Confederates at History News Network

Last week Rick Shenkman asked me to write an Op-Ed on the myth of the black Confederate soldier for History News Network, which I was happy to do. I decided to structure it around a recent post that highlights a simply and important point that I’ve made numerous times. In all the years that I have researched this topic, I have yet to find a single piece of wartime evidence from a Confederate soldier, civilian or politician (before March 1865) that acknowledges that black men were serving as soldiers. In fact, on numerous occasions Confederates denied their existence when confronted by stories to the contrary. Continue reading “Op-Ed on Black Confederates at History News Network”