Last Saturday Megan Kate Nelson, my wife and I went to see Suzan Lori Parks’s three-act play, “Father Comes Home From the Wars.” I don’t want to give too much away about the plot beyond the fact that the central character is a slave, who at the beginning of the first act struggles with whether he is going to go off to war with his master/Confederate colonel. Oh, and the slave, whose name is Hero, is also donning a Confederate uniform.
Following the show we enjoyed a talkback with members of the cast. Unfortunately, we missed another post-production discussion the following day with Parks, along with Henry Louis Gates and Eric Foner. The discussion kicked off with some thoughts about the current debate about black Confederates.
On one level the focus of the discussion was unfortunate. At no time is Hero’s struggle about whether he can support or serve the Confederacy and the decision has nothing to do with him serving as a soldier. Rather, it serves as the foundation for his relationship with his master, which evolves significantly during the show. It’s confusing, in part, because Hero wears a uniform, but we know of a number of slaves, including, most famously, Silas Chandler, who were outfitted in military dress. The opening act offers an opportunity to explore the complexity of the master-slave relationship and not that of the relationship between slaves and the Confederacy. Continue reading →
One hundred and fifty years ago Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment and paved the way for ratification by the states. With a roll call and signatures roughly 240 years of slavery ended and yet as a nation we do nothing to publicly acknowledge this milestone. It’s striking given our collective embrace of a narrative that places the United States at the forefront of freedom. Even Steven Spielberg’s celebratory narrative about the build-up to this very moment in Lincoln has done little to increase awareness and interest. Why do we look beyond this moment?
I don’t have any firm answers, but the tension I often feel in my own teaching of this important event perhaps offers a few clues. On the one hand there is something quite remarkable about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. You would have been hard pressed to find Americans in 1861 predicting the end of slavery and that same year Congress passed a never-ratified amendment protecting slavery from future amendments. Lincoln backed it. Even in 1862 it is easy to imagine how a military victory might have resulted in a reunited Union with slavery largely intact. From this vantage point the end of slavery in 1865 appears to be nothing less than an achievement. Continue reading →
Anyone who has followed this blog for any amount of time likely has a sense of the importance that I attach to the myth of the black Confederate soldier. It is, by far, the most popular topic on this site. Over the years I have had to deal with a wide range of reactions from fellow historians. There are those who have supported my efforts, those who look on in confusion and those who betray an air of condescension – as if I have descended into a circus show. In the last few months I have written very little about this subject. There have been a couple of stories out of North Carolina, but other than that the media attention has died down.
In any case, the question scholars should be asking is why this issue cannot be put to rest? To use Megan Kate Nelson’s meme, why are scholarly bloggers on the American Civil War repeatedly condemned to “freak out” from time to time over black Confederates? Why can provocateurs like John Stauffer use the issue (repeatedly) to draw attention to themselves? Why has this myth that substantial numbers of African Americans fought for the Confederacy gained such cultural power in the early 21st-century United States? Why are responsible scholars unable to say, “Enough already” and move on to more productive issues? And if we cannot say “enough already” why can’t we shift the debate to analyzing the cultural power of the myth? Much the same way professional historians refused to enter the morass of who shot John F. Kennedy, but instead analyzed the cultural power of the various conspiracy theories. That is the modest proposal this scholar and blogger would like to make regarding “black Confederates” since it is obvious that the power to suppress this myth is beyond academia’s power. So maybe we need to be asking why it has that power? And not freak out. Enough already.
First, why is this specific debate not worthy of the attention of academic historians specifically? To say that academics do not have the “power to suppress this myth” is not only a non-starter (since academics can’t suppress any narrative that has gained cultural cache) it also fails to consider the positive impact that historians can and have had on this debate. Continue reading →
I was surprised to see that John Stauffer has once again decided to wade into the debate surrounding black Confederates. You may remember that back in 2011 Stauffer gave a talk at Harvard on the subject, which I attended. Though we had a spirited exchange, I left feeling incredibly disappointed with his overall argument. Earlier today Stauffer published in The Root what is essentially a slightly revised version of his 2011 talk.
Stauffer was generous enough to note that discussions about this subject have appeared on a fairly regular basis on this blog. Unfortunately, his link to this site does not go to a post that I wrote in response to his Harvard talk. To kick things off Stauffer criticizes folks like me, Brooks Simpson, James McPherson and Ta-Nehesi Coates for not taking the existence of black Confederates seriously. Other scholars such as Joseph Reidy, Juliet Walker, Henry Louis Gates and Ervin Jordan apparently have, though apart from a brief quote from Jordan’s book no attempt is made to lay out their arguments. Continue reading →
It’s an ideal reading for high school students. The argument is concise, easy to follow, and the subject matter couldn’t be more conducive to a seminar discussion. And we did, indeed, have a dynamite discussion earlier today. Students thought that Dew’s commissioners helped to answer an important question regarding why the Deep South states interpreted Lincoln’s election as an immediate threat. At the same time they struggled with the content of their speeches and editorials. As they discussed the article further I realized that the difficulty has to do with how history students tend to think about the institution of slavery. They think about it primarily in abstract terms with an understanding that life could be incredibly violent and sad. Few survey classes have the time to dig into the complexity of the master-slave relationship or examine the day-to-day lives of slaves. What they miss, unfortunately, is the extent to which slavery was intertwined with assumptions concerning race. Continue reading →