Virginia Delegates Commemorate Confederate History Month…

but probably not in the way that the Sons of Confederate Veterans intended.

Today members of the Virginia Assembly in Richmond wore arm bands to commemorate the sacrifices of Virginia’s slaves.  From the Virginia Politics Blog:

The move was prompted by McDonnell’s proclamation declaring April Confederate History Month. When first issued, the proclamation did not include reference to slavery. McDonnell has subsequently apologized repeatedly for what he called a “major omission” and amended the proclamation to include reference to slavery as an abomination and the cause of the Civil War.

“This is why I can celebrate Confederate History Month,” said Del. Jeion A. Ward (D-Hampton). “I am celebrating the thousands of African slaves brought to this Commonwealth for forced labor and in spite of societal restrictions and countless tribulations, they became some of the most learned men of all time. Yes, they found a way out of no way.”

“I celebrate because they endured unimaginable pain and suffering… I celebrate those who escaped slavery only to return to help others escape, like Harriet Tubman and her underground railroad. She made 13 missions to help rescue other slaves. It is for her I celebrate. I celebrate them all because finally they were able to find a way out of now way. So today I and some of my colleagues wear this black ribbon as a symbol of our profound sadness for the horrors our ancestor faced and had to endure under the institution of slavery. But we also join in are celebrating with you because they finally found a way out.”

At Ward’s motion, the House of Delegates also agreed that they will adjourn today “in the honor and memory of the thousands of slaves who played an important role in the building of the wealth of the commonwealth and for those who called Virginia their home.” The House regularly adjourns in memory of prominent Americans or Virginians. The House agreed it will also today adjourn in memory of civil rights leader Dorothy Height.

How Out Of Touch Is Governor Robert McDonnell?

Come to the former capital of the Confederacy this weekend to find out.  This weekend Richmond commemorates Emancipation Day with a wide range of events sponsored by the city’s history museums and other institutions.  What follows is an email that I received from the Online and Social Media Organizer at the University of Richmond.  I hope to be in Richmond this weekend.

I am sending this information to you as your readers may be interested in a Civil War commemoration coming up this Saturday. With Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent omission of slavery in his Confederate History Month proclamation (which he later corrected), the City of Richmond’s commemoration of the Civil War & Emancipation Day points the discussion of Civil War history in a direction of inclusivity.

As Gov. McDonnell’s proclamation struck a chord in this nation, I hope you will blog about Richmond’s initiative to move the conversation about the Civil War in a more comprehensive direction. [I trust that I’ve done just that.]

The need to tell a more accurate and inclusive story about the Civil War has led to an initiative in the City of Richmond, Va., to explore the Civil War from a more comprehensive perspective, through Civil War and Emancipation Day, a commemoration of the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves in America. The event will be held in downtown Richmond at The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar and Shockoe Bottom on April 17, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, and 15 sites will offer exhibits, activities, performances, discussions, tours and other events.

As there is a clear need in Richmond, Virginia and the United States to include more information about the different perspectives of the Civil War – such as the suffering and triumph of African Americans during one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history – The Future of Richmond’s Past has organized the commemoration to present a more truthful, comprehensive perspective of the Civil War. Slavery will be addressed in addition to Confederate history.

For more info on Richmond’s Civil War & Emancipation Day, visit the event page on Facebook: http://ow.ly/1xsmC.

Visit The Future of Richmond’s Past on Facebook: http://ow.ly/1xsic or the website at http://www.futureofrichmondspast.org.

I thank you for your time.

[Click here for more information on the post image.]

Triumph, Not Trauma

There is an interesting article over at Psychology Today, if only because it takes a different perspective on the controversy surrounding Confederate History Month.  Molly Costelloe Fong suggests that Governor McDonnell’s proclamation may have certain psychological effects within the black community owing to the long-term legacy of slavery:

When one group deliberately inflicts suffering on “others” as through slavery, the victimized group suffers certain psychological effects: shame, humiliation, guilt, and a decreased ability to be assertive.  McDonnell’s blundering declaration reinforces shared mental images of Black oppression within our national psyche and will likely perpetuate feelings of victimization for African-Americans.

The author suggests that the governor’s proclamation may trigger those “unconscious” feelings of victimization and oppression:

When mourning is unfinished business — the trauma is handed down to future generations. This is done through stories, feelings, and unconscious behaviors that “deposit” images of an injured self into one’s children and other descendants.  In these ways, a younger generation is asked to perform certain unresolved psychological tasks. “Confederate History Month” may also contribute to the perpetuation of historic trauma across generations.

Since I am not a psychologist I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the assumptions at work in these short passages.  On the fact of it it looks like an incredibly weak argument.  My real interest, however, is with the picture of black history that is implicit in this piece.  At first I thought I was reading something out of Stanley Elkins’s thought-provoking study of slavery which uses the structure of the concentration camp system to understand the relationship between slave and master along with its psychological consequences for its victims.

Few people will deny that the horrors of slavery had both short- and long-term consequences for the African-American community. I am not so sure that they can be reduced in the way that Fong asserts, but I must assume that her analysis fits in somewhere within the overall analysis.  The problem for this author is the tendency to interpret the response within the black community to the governor’s proclamation as somehow stemming from the experience of slavery, which no one today experienced first-hand.  It also portrays black Americans as victims and their collective story as a history of victimization.  Historians who have written about American slavery since Elkins have tended to move away from such a narrative to one that explores the myriad ways in which slaves and free blacks struggled to shape their own lives within the confinements of terrorism and legal discrimination through much of the twentieth century.  What we have here in Dr. Fong’s analysis is a short description of how she views black history; I would dare say that her limited understanding of this collective story has been made to fit into her psychological analysis.

What Dr. Fong has missed is the extent to which the reaction of the black community and the subsequent apology and amendment by Gov. McDonnell reflects a story of triumph and perseverance and not some lingering collective trauma.  There was some anger expressed by certain individuals (Roland Martin), but for the most part I read what I consider to be fairly moderate reactions.  Very few people suggested that Confederate soldiers ought to be dropped from any public commemoration; rather, African Americans argued that the Confederate soldier does not encompass the entire story of the war in Virginia.  In short, African Americans have stated openly and forcefully that they do not share the governor’s vision of how to remember and commemorate the Civil War in Virginia.  As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, it is a response that was not possible just a few decades ago.  That it is possible now – on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial – can be traced to the sacrifices and determination of African Americans since the Civil War who were determined to force the United States to live up to its ideals of freedom and equality.  Since the 1960s that has translated into increased involvement on all levels of government and it is that involvement that was at work last week in the wake of the governor’s announcement.

A Few Minutes With David Blight

Many of you know that I am a huge fan of David Blight’s scholarship.  Race and Reunion was the book that set me off on my own research projects as well as in shaping the overall theme of this site.  Since reading it I’ve come to question parts of Blight’s thesis as a result of studying the work of others and as a result of my own research on the memory of the battle of the Crater.  This recent interview touches on a number of issues related to Civil War memory that are relevant to the ongoing debate about Confederate History Month as well as broader questions of remembrance.  After yesterday’s post I thought it might be nice to introduce a little thoughtfulness to the discussion.

[Click here for Part 2]

Barack Obama, Bob McDonnell, and Civil War Memory

This post originally ran in April 2007.  I thought it might be worth re-posting given the recent debate here in Virginia and throughout the country over Confederate History Month.  I am wondering whether we are witnessing a decisive shift in our collective memory of the war?  Is the governor’s apology an indication that it is no longer possible to use the Lost Cause for political gain?

One of my readers recently pointed out that the Civil War Sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president.  How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances? My friendly emailer asks:

As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from now?  And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate legacy be revealed to be?

The more I think about it the more it becomes apparent that an Obama presidency could reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement.  We’ve already seen how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions.  This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963.  The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative.  Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War.  Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others.   It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president.  In short, the “emancipationist legacy” of the Civil War would return to center stage. It does have the potential of becoming overly celebratory and I would resist this urge for the sake of maintaining the focus on better understanding the relevant history.

Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the “emptiness” referred to in connection with “Confederate heritage” is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors.  I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember.  It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative.  It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South.  More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy.  In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.

More to the point, the attention among professional historians in recent years to better understanding the ways in which slavery shaped the Confederate experience will potentially occupy a central place in future narratives that purport to explain the historical background of a black president.  We will be forced to acknowledge secession and the Confederacy as an attempt to maintain slavery and a racial hierarchy and not simply as a constitutional right or a defense of hearth and home; both points figure prominently in our collective memory while race and slavery linger on the fringes.  Of course, understanding the Civil War years does not in any way come close to defining the black experience in America nor does an emphasis on the American South.  What it does do, however, is highlight the importance that was attached to emancipation both during the war and in the decades to follow before it was overshadowed by reunion, reconciliation and Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth century.

We shall see.