“If I Had Known This It Would Have Taken Away the Inevitability That I Was Going to Be Nothing”

I am a big fan of Henry L. Gates’s African-American Lives Series which recently aired on PBS.  What I like about the series is that Gates did the necessary research on his subject’s families and followed the evidence where it took him.  The results surprised most of his subjects and challenged many of their prior assumptions about their family histories and the black experience in America more generally.  The emotional responses of his subjects followed the evidence and at times were quite powerful.  The viewer feels Chris Rock’s tears after learning that an ancestor fought with a USCT unit and we follow Don Cheadle as he struggles to understand how it was possible that his ancestors were owned by Native Americans.

This approach stands in sharp contrast to the way the Sons of Confederate Veterans handle black history and so-called black Confederates such as Weary Clyburn.  I keep coming back to the thought that was is most disturbing about the way the SCV interprets black history is that they do so in a way which satisfies their own agenda and accompanying emotional identification with the past.  In short, there is little evidence that they are interested in the history they cite and this is borne out in the overly simplistic stories which you can find in great abundance on their websites.   What I find even more disturbing and difficult to explain, however, is the involvement of African Americans themselves in reinforcing and spreading these stories.  I’ve commented extensively on H.K. Edgerton who is one of the best known modern-day black Confederates.  He is best known for his long marches across the South in Confederate uniform and carrying the battle flag.  Back in September 2006 I commented on this phenomenon which I believe has some relevance here.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what Edgerton’s ardent support of a narrow Southern/Confederate past means in light of my comments at the beginning of this post.  Perhaps his support of the idea of black Confederates can be explained by some deep need to identify with and locate a place for himself within the Southern past.  [Notice once again how quickly the Southern past reduces to the four years of the Confederacy.]  Of course, one could identify with any number of regions and/or times in that past, but it is no surprise that the Civil War looms large here.  After all it comes pre-packaged with stories of battlefield heroics and sacrifice that have proven attractive to so many – especially men.

What I find so depressing at the root of all of this is the apparent desperation on the part of Edgerton to find a home in the past through a white narrative of the Civil War that tends to ignore both the role of slavery as its cause and the importance of emancipation followed by the continued struggles for basic civil rights by African Americans after the Civil War.  It’s as if those who push the black Confederate story are only willing to acknowledge black agency if it somehow conforms in a way that supports their own agenda.  From what we know tens of thousands of black slaves risked their lives by running away from their farms and plantations towards Union lines.  If that isn’t a story that begs for some kind of personal identification I don’t know what is.  Why doesn’t Edgerton march across the South with that message?  If our broader national narrative is about the struggle to realize our founding principles as contained in the Declaration of Independence than the story of African Americans has much to teach us.

Edgerton’s overly zealous identification can be seen as evidence that black Americans have a deep need to connect with the American past.  But if that past has been sharply edited and controlled by one race as a means to maintain a racial hierarchy than is it any surprise that Edgerton is willing to interact with white Southerners who, for a number of reasons, are pushing the wild conclusion that large numbers of black Southerners fought in Confederate armies?  I wonder whether he was taught about the multiple and meaningful ways in which slaves and other free black Americans influenced the outcome of the Civil War and added to our national narrative.  Is glory and admiration really only to be found in a story that is so far-fetched that only a small handful of people support? When I teach about the Civil War I try to bring as much agency to the actions of African Americans as possible. The reason, of course, is that most of my students know next to nothing about African-American history and at times that story is absolutely crucial to understanding how the nation evolved along racial, political, and economic lines.  The other reason is that there is a great deal to be proud of and to identify with and to hold up for its moral value.

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4 comments… add one
  • Matt McKeon Jul 17, 2008 @ 20:07

    I think nine tenths of the “desire” to paste black faces in the Confederate scrapbook is on the part of whites, for their own purposes. I think African Americans are tired of the victim category in historical narratives, which is why Chris Rock was so moved by the ancestor who took up arms.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 17, 2008 @ 12:09

    HE, — I’ve used the series in the past and they work well in just the way you described.

    Larry, — That is exactly what I mean to say. Part of the story is absolutely related to the historiography of slavery and black history along with the pervasiveness of certain strands of thought that continue to define our memory of the war and many of our public spaces devoted to the past. In addition, as I stated in the post there is a strong desire on the part of African Americans to identify and feel a part of the history of the South. I see this in Edgerton and others, but it is unfortunate that that desire is so easily redirected in ways that have little to do with the past.

  • Larry Cebula Jul 17, 2008 @ 11:19

    Yes, that was an amazing series.

    I wonder if part of the appeal of the Black Confederate mythology to modern day blacks is that it allows their ancestors to be part of the club. The Lost Cause people have spent 150 years defining equating “the South” with the Confederacy, as if the four years of rebellion were the essence of 400 years of history. At the same time they have minimized any discussion of slavery. So where does that leave modern blacks in the American South? Their heritage is invisible and absent from the public square. A black confederate ancestor puts them back int eh story, however artificially.

    Or it might be simpler than that. It might just be that the neoConfederates bother to go and talk to people in the black community. Certainly some very fine white historians do as well, but others of us retreat to the more familiar world of documents and archives for our information.

  • The History Enthusiast Jul 17, 2008 @ 10:13

    I enjoy that series as well. I am hoping to teach a course here in the next few years about slavery in the Americas, and I think that some of these episodes might bring the story home for the students.

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