Rapper 50 Cent and MTV recently revealed a clip from his upcoming Rock Doc titled “50 Cent: The Origin of Me,” which features 50 Cent traveling to Edgefield, South Carolina, in search of his roots. In one clip, the rapper encounters an elderly woman, who explains the significance of the Confederate Flag to 50 Cent, who appears visibly irritated with the conversation. “People really don’t understand what’s going on at that period of time,” the elderly woman told 50 Cent. “Black citizens in this country really needs to study the history, because it’s just as much the black ancestry as it is the White ancestry.” Despite 50’s explanation for the Confederate flag being seen as racist and why it offends many people, the woman acted as though there were no valid reasons for taking offense to it, saying that it has to do with black ancestry as well as white ancestry. “She’s offering her truth- what‚ she’s accepted as the truth based on information given to her, but I don’t agree with it,” 50 Cent said.
I recently re-read Philip D. Dillard’s essay, “What Price Must We Pay for Victory?: View on Arming Slaves from Lynchburg, Virginia and Galveston, Texas, which appeared in a collection of essays honoring the career of Emory Thomas. Dillard argues that the slave enlistment debate was shaped by a localities proximity to Union military threats. While Lynchburg was forced to deal with a Union advance in the Shenandoah Valley by late 1864, Galveston remained relatively isolated from the threat of war. Dillard reminds us that sentiment in connection with the enlistment debate was shaped directly by the perceived threat to slavery. Residents of Lynchburg eventually came to grudgingly endorse a resolution supporting enlistment while Galveston’s location allowed its residents to consider the threat to slavery and the racial hierarchy in isolation from the threat of war.
One editorial in the Galveston News authored by “Pelican Private” who was stationed in the Galveston defenses caught my attention:
The discussion is untimely and fraught with evil; it engenders panic when there is no danger. Shall we sell slavery, the legacy of our fathers–a legacy halloed by the best blood of the Caucassian race–to purchase independence: Go to the red fields of Manassas, Sharpsburg and Shiloh…and tell their whitened bones that you are so base, so low, so abject that you are ready to abandon the cause for which they fell.
I have no idea whether this individual was a slaveholder, but I don’t think it matters. What I find interesting in the account is the difficulty involved in imagining slaves as soldiers. While the residents of Lynchburg eventually endorsed such an idea we ought not to make the mistake of assuming that supporters eagerly embraced the measure. In fact, that it came so late in the war suggests just how committed white southerners were to a slave society. It also reflects their commitment to the concept of the citizen-soldier. White southerners were obligated to serve their nation because of their status as free men. Slaves were not simply property, they were not citizens of the country. Pelican’s editorial must be understood, in part, as a plea to maintain the status of all white men.
This is an interesting little report on the commemorative events surrounding the sesquicentennial of Fort Sumter. A number of people are interviewed, but what I find so interesting is the difference in tone between NPS interpreter, Michael Allen and the Kennedy brothers (aka the Civil War’s Statler and Waldorf), who identify themselves as “Southern Historians.” I just love that reference. It has nothing to do with regional identification because if it did they would have to include hundreds of historians who were all born and raised in the South. I live in the South. Am I a Southern Historian in their eyes? You get my point. No, that identification marks a certain way of looking at the history of the South and its tone is overly defensive and presentist – a perspective that I suspect does not reflect the views of most white and black southerners. The language used reflects very little interest in the nineteenth century itself. Just listen to these two describe the federal government as tariff and money obsessed and intent on going around the world to oppress innocent people at the point of a bloody bayonet.
You certainly leave with a sense of their emotional connection to the issue, but it’s not much of an explanation.
The bigger problem here is that the media’s insistence on interviewing people like the Kennedy brothers reinforces the assumption that this is the Southern view of the war. They may be entertaining and they may refer to themselves as Southern historians, but they do not speak for the South.
This last trimester I am working closely with a very talented senior, who is experimenting with historical fiction set during the Civil War. The story is set in Virginia and told through the eyes of a young Virginia girl. We decided that it might be helpful to base the story on some primary sources so today the two of us headed on over to the Special Collections Department at the University of Virginia. We decided to take a look at Sara Ann Graves Strickler’s wartime diary, which is incredibly rich. I’ve known about the diary for some time, but this was my first opportunity to read it for myself. It was a real treat having the opportunity to share that inexpressible joy that comes with holding an important piece of history. As I like to say, in those brief moments time collapses. We took turns reading random entries to one another and looking to see if Sara addressed specific events during the war. Diaries such as Sara’s get us up close to individual lives and force us to confront the contingency that defined their lives and many of the same hopes, dreams, and fears that animate our own. For my student that connection was reinforced in a shared interest in the French language and literature, the references of which were sprinkled throughout the diary.
MEMPHIS DAILY APPEAL [MEMPHIS, TN], May 14, 1861, p. 3, c. 2
Our Free Colored Men–What Shall Be Done With Them?–Editors Appeal: The proposition of the committee of safety, to enlist companies of our free colored men, is not relished by our citizens generally; and the question comes up, “what must be done with them?” Let me suggest to that committee that they confer with Major-General Pillow as to the policy of placing four or five of our free negroes in each company from Memphis, for cooking, washing, etc. That is their post, one of inferiority, not of citizen soldiers. They understand that sort of work better than any boys who are called to do battle. Let them be made useful in that way.