It’s nice to see that Ta-Nahesi Coates’s contribution to the The Atlantic’s special Civil War issue is getting so much attention. It nicely sums up why I am now a regular reader of his blog and why last week I went to meet him in person at MIT. Coates’s essay is a very personal and thoughtful reflection on why the African American community appears to have lost interest in the Civil War. The essay tracks the gaping hole in his personal memory of the Civil War as a child to his discovery of it later in life and his subsequent reading of a wide range of primary and secondary sources.
Coates locates a collective lack of interest among African Americans in a narrative that has become all too familiar. Popularized by David Blight in Race and Reunion, this narrative traces a gradual embrace of reconciliation among white Americans by the turn of the twentieth century, an acceptance of the Lost Cause view of the war, and ending with the tragic loss of of what Blight describes as an “Emancipationist” view of the war. From there Coates jumps briefly to the Civil Rights Era and later to such popular interpretations of the war such as Gone With the Wind, Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the war and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary.
There is much to ponder within this framework, but it only gets us so far to understanding what many people working in the public history sector are reflecting on as well. As I read Coates’s essay part of the problem seems to be in the assumption that the process of reunions gradual ascendency functioned to cut off African Americans from memory of the Civil War only to have it re-emerge on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The danger here is that Coates runs the risk of painting a picture of blacks as emasculated from history and I know that this is not his intention.
White Youth Holding Confederate Flag During 1965 Selma March
Joyce Ehrlinger, E. Ashby Plant, Richard P. Eibach, Corey J. Columb, Joanna L. Goplen, Jonathan W. Kunstman, David A. Butz, “How Exposure to the Confederate Flag Affects Willingness to Vote for Barack Obama,” Political Pyschology (February 2011): 131-46.
Abstract: Leading up to the 2008 U.S. election, pundits wondered whether Whites, particularly in Southern states, were ready to vote for a Black president. The present paper explores how a common Southern symbol—the Confederate flag—impacted willingness to vote for Barack Obama. We predicted that exposure to the Confederate flag would activate negativity toward Blacks and result in lowered willingness to vote for Obama. As predicted, participants primed with the Confederate flag reported less willingness to vote for Obama than those primed with a neutral symbol. The flag did not affect willingness to vote for White candidates. In a second study, participants primed with the Confederate flag evaluated a hypothetical Black target more negatively than controls. These results suggest that exposure to the Confederate flag results in more negative judgments of Black targets. As such, the prevalence of this flag in the South may have contributed to a reticence for some to vote for Obama because of his race. [Read the Entire Article]
Fifty years ago Americans emerged from the Civil War Centennial with a collective narrative that fit neatly into a pervasive Cold War culture. Though slightly bloodied and bruised this narrative retained strong Lost Cause and reconciliationist themes even as the civil rights movement reminded the nation on a daily basis of the war’s “unfinished business”. Much of this can be explained by the limited numbers of voices that were heard during the centennial years as well as the influence of relatively few historical and cultural institutions. This lent itself to a narrative that emphasized consensus surrounding the fundamental questions of Civil War remembrance.
Anyone remotely interested in the Civil War Sesquicentennial can’t help but stand in awe of the work the Virginia commission has done to bring the war to the people of Virginia and the rest of the country. Right now a flatbed truck carrying a Civil War exhibit is traveling around the state and plans to visit every county by the end of its trip. The commission also put together a series of videos on the war in Virginia narrated by Professor James I. Robertson, which it has made available to the public schools. As of the writing of this post it has uploaded five of the modules to YouTube. Here is the first one, titled “The Coming Storm”. I highly recommend these videos for classroom use for both middle school and high school students.
If I were heading back into the classroom to teach my course on the Civil War and historical memory I would begin by showing this video from the Virginia Historical Society’s exhibit, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia. If you haven’t seen it you are missing one of the more innovative exhibits to emerge early on for the Civil War 150th. The choice of Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of the “Star Spangled Banner” is the perfect accompaniment for this collage of images that covers both the short- and long-term consequences of the Civil War.
Teachers can use this video to explore how images, text, and music come together to form a historical narrative. Encourage students to critique the video by pointing out strengths and weaknesses. Which images are out of place or missing? What other musical choices could be utilized as well as choice of text?