Tag Archives: Barack Obama

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.

 

Joe Wilson Comes From a Long Line of Crazies

Ever since South Carolina’s Rep. Joe Wilson insulted the president and his office during Wednesday’s Health Care speech, the newspapers can’t get enough of his connection with the Sons of Confederate Veterans as well as his outspoken support for the public display of the Confederate flag and “Confederate honor.”  Today’s NYT’s column by Maureen Dowd takes this news thread to drive home an essentially reductionist connection between Wilson’s nutty little outburst, his personal past, and the broader history of his home state of South Carolina:

The congressman, we learned, belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, led a 2000 campaign to keep the Confederate flag waving above South Carolina’s state Capitol and denounced as a “smear” the true claim of a black woman that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the ’48 segregationist candidate for president. [Therefore] Wilson clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber.

Others have tried to situate Wilson into a broader historical narrative that includes the likes of John Calhoun, Preston Brooks, and South Carolina’s own place in the story of secession, Civil War, and Massive Resistance.  These narrative memes are so predictable, but ultimately tell us next to nothing about what motivated Joe Wilson’s outburst.  Oh…I get it.  Because Calhoun, Brooks, and Thurmond are so easily lumped together in some vague reactionary category we might as well throw good old Wilson in there.  Dowd and others draw much too close of a connection between between Wilson’s past and the broader history of the state that he represents.  It’s almost silly that it even has to be pointed out.  SCV members are not necessarily card carrying racists; in fact, I read plenty of news reports of members who voted for Obama back in November.  It also doesn’t follow that those who identify with the Confederate past by flying a flag on private property are engaged in racial commentary or attempting to role back the clock to the Jim Crow Era.  How much do you think Dowd and others know about the SCV to be able to imply such a connection?  Please don’t get me wrong, this is not meant in any way as a public statement of support for the SCV or a signal that a Confederate flag is going up on my front porch.  I’ve made my position clear on both the SCV and the flag on this blog.

I get the sense that the many reports that have implied such connections present Americans with another opportunity to play with our Civil War memory.

 

Obama Reminds Alfalfa Club Members of Robert E. Lee

Last night Barack Obama attended the annual Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, D.C.  It’s one of those private/elitist dinners where members celebrate themselves and poke fun at one another.  Much is being made of the president’s comments in reference to the origin of the group and the timing of the dinner.  The organization was founded in 1913 and was meant to honor the life of Robert E. Lee.  On the face of it, not a big deal, but according to Tommy Christopher at the Political Machine the Lee connection has been almost entirely ignored by the press as well as by Obama’s White House Staff in the days leading up to the dinner.  Somehow word of this got to the president who chose to reference the connection in his opening remarks:

I am seriously glad to be here tonight at the annual Alfalfa dinner. I know that many you are aware that this dinner began almost one hundred years ago as a way to celebrate the birthday of General Robert E. Lee. If he were here with us tonight, the General would be 202 years old. And very confused.

No doubt, the reference garnered a laugh or two from the audience, but how many members scratched their heads in confusion?  Apparently, the connection with Lee has slackened in recent years according to a 2007 Washington Post article:

It is such an obscure factoid that an informal poll of some of last night’s revelers produced none who’d ever known this to be true — and who apparently would rather not have been asked, judging by the defensiveness that ensued.   “I don’t think that has any meaning today,” Sen. Norm Coleman (R- Minn.) said of the Confederate connection. “I will be sitting across the table from Kenneth Chenault, the African American chair of American Express.”   Jack Kemp hadn’t heard of the Confederate connection either.

The irony of our first black president reminding a predominantly white audience (I assume) of their connection to Robert E. Lee must be savoured like a fine wine.

 

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