It’s difficult to tell whether much of anything is going to happen here in Virginia this weekend in acknowledgment of Lee-Jackson Day. Yes, there is the parade tomorrow in Lexington, but that’s not surprising given the fact that the city serves as their final resting place. It would be very strange indeed if the city didn’t mark the day with a public celebration, especially one organized by the SCV. Given the apparent lack of interest, perhaps we need a new holiday. So, which Virginians do you believe deserve his or her own day as a state holiday? Don’t be shy.
I’ve been giving this some thought, not so much in the context of a state holiday, but in reference to our collective memory here in the good state of Virginia. We have such a rich history here and there are plenty of important and obscure individuals who deserve to be remembered in one way or another. It seems to me that the one glaring omission is the lack of any kind of monument to Nat Turner. That’s right, I said Nat Turner. I’m not suggesting that what is needed is something overtly celebratory, but some kind of acknowledgment of his role in Virginia history and the broader civil rights movement. The fact that we still do not have a public site dedicated to Turner (even in Southampton County) tells us quite a bit about how we choose to remember our past. More specifically, it tells us what we as a community have difficulty coming to terms with. We will see this on Monday as the nation remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. Schools will perform the mandatory rituals and local news teams will cobble together the standard narrative that celebrates King’s commitment to non-violence and his role in singlehandedly bringing an end to racial injustice. Perhaps we will see a few hoses from Birmingham. The point is that most Americans would much rather celebrate the expansion of freedom in this country as emerging through non-violent means rather than through violence.
Turner raises all of these issues and more. Can you imagine a Nat Turner day here in Virginia?
Update: Thanks to everyone who stopped by today. Friday is usually slow around here, but yesterday’s- and especially today’s posts clearly made an impact. My stats counter went through the roof. There is something quite powerful about blogging. On this Lee-Jackson Day I managed to steer at least a small portion of the public discussion in the direction of another Virginian who I believe deserves to be acknowledged in a more public way. [Please keep in mind the nature of a blog post. Most of my posts reflect topics that I think about over time and rarely reflect conclusions that are set in stone. Please feel free to challenge me and offer a different perspective. I have nothing to lose, but ideas that I had not considered.] A number of Yahoo groups picked up the post as well as the Civil War Talk Forum. Even my friend in Fredericksburg, who never fails to point out how unimportant I am, chose to link to one of my comments. It’s a sign of just how unimportant I am that he would devote his blog to me on this Lee-Jackson Day. I am truly blessed with so many devoted readers.
Looks like anti-Neo-Confederate crusader, Edward Sebesta, is getting a head start on this year’s petition requesting that President Obama not send a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery. I covered this in some detail on the blog and was very open in my opposition to such a petition. [You can read my commentary here and here.] To sum up, I didn’t see how a petition (written by Sebesta and James Loewen) against the laying of a wreath would lead to anything approaching a constructive and meaningful dialog about the Civil War, race, and memory. More importantly, it all but ignored the fact that we now have a president in office who is ideally suited to encourage and/or lead such a discussion.
Sebesta seems quite pleased with the impact of the petition, though I believe he exaggerates its affect. First, let me be clear that I agree with Sebesta’s general assessment of the problem with the Confederate monument at Arlington. It perpetuates a number of myths about slavery and black Confederates. The monument was dedicated at the height of Jim Crow and ought to be seen as one of the clearest expressions of the Lost Cause memory of the Civil War. While we may agree on interpretation we disagree on how best to engage the general public regarding such sensitive issues. Continue reading “Edward Sebesta v. Barack Obama and the Battle for Civil War Memory”→
I don’t know how I failed to comment on this, but the discussion early on in the interview is important. It is unusual to hear two African-American men talk about the importance of the Civil War as one of the most important democratizing events in American history. Of course, Coates is referring to the end of slavery and the service of black men in the United States army. It’s not that he acknowledges the history as much as that he acknowledges its importance within the sweep of the nation’s history rather than simply within the context of African-American history. Seems to me that this is an important mental step. In a recent post I offered a bit of advice on the shared goal of making the Civil War Sesquicentennial attractive to African Americans. I still maintain that this is going to be difficult given what I perceive to be a disconnect between the African-American community and the history of the Civil War or at least the suspicion among black Americans that the Lost Cause will continue to define public commemorations. It would be interesting to hear what Coates and Smith have to say about this challenge.
I have become a big fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s column over at Atlantic Monthly, especially his thoughts about what the Civil War means to a young African American male. [See here, here, and here] I’ve met Frank Smith a couple of times over the past few years, most recently in 2007, when I interviewed him as part of my research on black memory of the Crater. Mr. Smith has been involved in D.C. politics over the past few decades, but he is perhaps best known for helping to bring about a monument to United States Colored Troops in the city. He also established a museum a few blocks from the monument, which explores the history and contributions of black soldiers to the Civil War.
I just love the way they shrug off talk about black Confederates. We could take issue with Smith’s claim that no free black Southerners managed to join the army, but there is something refreshing about watching these two men discuss a subject that they understand.
This year is the 70th anniversary of Gone With the Wind and this week my Civil War Memory class will watch it. Depending on how they respond to it we may even watch it in its entirety. There are so many thought provoking scenes, which will allow us to address a number of interpretive threads that have been passed down in our collective memory. With Birth of a Nation already under their belt they will also be able to begin to track certain themes in popular culture during the first part of the twentieth century.
In addition to viewing the movie, students will have to write an analytical review that addresses questions that I have provided. This time around they will also have to spend some time on one of our school’s databases that includes newspapers from around the country. They will have to integrate reviews and editorials into their essays. We will start with the following blog post from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to get the juices flowing.