This performance from the cast of Lawrence Clayton’s production, “The Civil War” was taken from the 1999 Tony Awards. The show was nominated Best Musical and Best Musical Score. Even the Confederates are singing freedom by the end of the tune. It’s infectious.
Just returned from a weekend in Lake Placed, New York where I took part in a conference sponsored by a small grassroots organization called John Brown Lives! The conference brought together historians, teachers, students, and activists working to end modern day slave trafficking. It was an incredibly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating weekend. Many of you are no doubt aware that John Brown’s home and his burial site are in Lake Placid hence the name of the organization.
We talked mainly about the history and memory of emancipation from a number of different perspectives. David Blight talked about emancipation during the centennial and sesquicentennial; Margaret Washington focused on female abolitionists; and Franny Nudleman led a fascinating discussion about how the Emancipation Proclamation is discussed in history textbooks. I contributed by hosting a public screening of the movie Glory that was attended by roughly 100 people on Friday evening. We discussed how the movie depicts black soldiers as well as its interpretation of emancipation and the following day I led a discussion about specific scenes in the movie that went into much more detail.
The most interesting talk by far came from Ken Morris, who is the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and the co-founder of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation. Ken’s presentation on modern day slave trafficking and his current campaign called “100 Days to Freedom” was incredibly inspiring. You can learn more about it in this cute video that was produced by his two daughters. I encourage teachers to get their students involved. It’s an incredible way to bridge the present and the past in the classroom.
Since many of us stayed at a beautiful private home on the lake the conversations went well into the wee hours of the night. Needless to say I am very tired, but I return home energized and with the mental juices flowing. Thanks so much to Martha Swan, who invited me to take part this weekend.
I can’t tell you how often I receive emails from folks who believe that my blog reflects a personal assault against the Confederacy and all things southern. Yesterday I received the most bizarre email from a Frederick Douglass impersonator who took issue with my blog’s banner. I should point out that the banner was part of a redesign back in 2009 by a custom theme developer. I supplied the images of Lincoln, Lee, and Douglass.
Pray, tell me why the HELL is the great Frederick Douglass’ portrait positioned BEHIND the left shoulder of the traitor, CSA General Lee? Lee was not only a traitor but a flawed mistake prone popinjay who as a man and a military strategist and intellect would be on no par with Douglass…
I have portrayed Douglass since 197- and am now producing a series about him. I find your mural and the positioning of FD’s portrait to be distasteful and historically inaccurate! FD should be on more of a par with Lincoln. If any military commander should be there, it should be the supreme Union commander at the end of the war or a cabinet member. FD’s advice to Lincoln brought an end to the war and severed Lee’s armies in half…. Please remove one or the other. And if you keep FD, and decide not to anyone else there then place Douglass closer to Lincoln where he belongs… This was a war to end slavery and property in man… please respond…
I took the time to respond and encouraged this individual to spend some time with the content assuming that this would give him a very different perspective on what it is that I am doing here. That apparently did not work.
Thank you for returning with a response. I have spent plenty of time on your FB site. The banner is problematic for one who is the direct descendant of those who were held as slaves here in North America and who is from two root wings of a family of black people here on the American continent since 1730. Evidently, “Civil War Memory” is really about the greater glorification of the South’s aim in that war which was property in man. All over the South and in many parts of the midwest there are memorials to Confederate veterans and none (though one is planned somewhere in VA, I imagine!) to the slave or bondmen and women. Lee in front of FD on your banner IS an insult. I am sorry to see you won’t do anything about it.
Thanks to everyone who left a comment in response to my last post on David Blight. I wanted to take a few minutes to respond to Barbara Gannon’s comment, which I believe gets at something central to Blight’s overall approach to Civil War memory:
Blight’s explanation is popular because it is neat and satisfying. It posits memory as useful, and historians believe in useful memory. It makes us feel important. In his work, he suggests that forgetting emancipation and the failure to protect African American are somehow tied, in a cause and effect relationship. He posits history was useful to Southerners in this case. His implication, if memory had been right, and slavery remembered, it would have changed things, and been useful to African Americans. Its a real problem when people remember slavery in this era and this did not effect on the status of black Americans. My book and others coming up challenge his fundamental assertions, not minor points in his work. [my emphasis]
The topic of biography comes up at the very beginning of John Neff’s interview with Blight, which I think is key to any response to Barbara’s comment. Blight’s entry into Civil War memory comes before Race and Reunion (2001) in his collection of essays, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (1989). Douglass clearly sits at the center of how Blight sees memory unfolding during the postwar decades and its implications for African Americans. It is perhaps not a stretch to suggest that Blight has adopted Douglass’s own view of the moral and political implications of memory as his own, which he believes is important for the rest of us to reflect upon. This is the sense of ‘useful’ that I believe Barbara is getting at.
Barbara’s new book shows that GAR chapters were largely integrated and that African Americans managed to achieve positions of authority while John Neff argues that the Union dead and Lincoln’s assassination rendered reconciliation shallow and problematic. Both books, as well as others, challenge central claims made by Bight in Race and Reunion, but both books tackle narrower topics. We are still left with the brutal fact of Jim Crow and a world that Douglass saw crumbling around him by the end of his life. There is the question of how representative Douglass was to the African American community during the postwar period, but it seems to me his life is useful for reflecting on the connection between historical memory and political power and the larger historical shifts that took place, which tend to be where people find a deep sense of meaning.
Tomorrow my American Studies classes will begin to discuss Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it, but I still look forward to every opportunity to revisit this book. At some point I would like to teach an elective on the history of the nineteenth-century through a close examination of Douglass’s life. As I was making my way through chapter 3 [pp. 20-21] I came across one of my favorite passages in which Douglass explores the complexity of the master-slave relationship. In it he explains what appears to be the language of the loyal and contented slave.
It is partly in consequence of such facts, that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family. If they have anything to say of their masters, it is generally in their masters’ favor, especially when speaking to an untried man. I have been frequently asked, when a slave, if I had a kind master, and do not remember ever to have given a negative answer; nor did I, in pursuing this course, consider myself as uttering what was absolutely false; for I always measured the kindness of my master by the standard of kindness set up among slaveholders around us. Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true. Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. At the very same time, they mutually execrate their masters when viewed separately. It was so on our plantation. When Colonel Lloyd’s slaves met the slaves of Jacob Jepson, they seldom parted without a quarrel about their masters; Colonel Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr. Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, and most of a man. Colonel Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson. Mr. Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Colonel Lloyd. These quarrels would almost always end in a fight between the parties, and those that whipped were supposed to have gained the point at issue. They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!