A Quick Response To Edward Sebesta

Henry L. Gates and Chris Rock

Edward Sebesta seems to think that there is a Neo-Confederate boogeyman lurking around every corner.  His reading of a post by Ta Nehisi-Coates on my recent visit to Harvard to listen to a talk on black Confederates by John Stauffer led him to post the following at H-Afro-American:

Henry Louis Gates is promoting the neo-Confederate nonsense of black Confederates at Harvard. You can read about it here.  I am not sure what else is happening at Harvard, perhaps the physics department is promoting the idea of caloric fluids, or the chemistry department is reviving the idea of phlogiston. Perhaps the biology department is going to be teaching creationism. Maybe the geology department is going for a six-day creation. The astronomy department might be re-considering Ptolomeic spheres.

I won’t go into how the overwhelming weight of historical evidence is against it. What I think is of importance is what this reveals about Henry Louis Gates. There is a current effort to get Confederates memorialized at Harvard. It might be that the rationalization will be that persons of African ancestry fought for the Confederacy so it is okay. That is the underlying point of this Black Confederate nonsense.

Sebesta’s attempt at humor only serves to highlight his ignorance about the presentation and Gates’s interest in the subject.  He doesn’t even seem to be aware that the talk was presented by John Stauffer.  Gates simply hosted the event.  I’ve already shared what I perceive to be some major problems with Stauffer’s presentation as well as Gates’s comments during the Q&A.  To assume that Gates is providing the “rationalization” to have Confederates memorialized at Harvard Memorial Hall, however, is patently absurd and irresponsible on his part.

For what it’s worth I will take a quick stab at trying to understand Gates’s interest in the subject.  A few weeks ago my wife and I caught one of Gates’s African American lives shows on PBS.  I don’t remember who he was with, but at one point Gates asked his guest how she felt about having an ancestor who owned slaves.  Of course, the woman was visibly shocked, but what I found interesting and just a bit disappointing was that Gates did not provide any context to understanding this seemingly strange situation.  Of course, it is possible that those scenes were edited out, but I’ve seen this more than once.

I think it is telling about what Gates is hoping to accomplish with these programs and that is to complicate our understanding of the past.  He wants us to embrace our family histories, but he also wants us to understand that our own understanding is often undercut by research.  Of course, these stories need to be placed in their proper context, but perhaps that takes away from the shock value that works so well with television.  Given this I am not surprised that Gates would be interested in hosting a talk on the subject of black Confederates.  One can easily imagine Gates asking a guest how he/she feels about having an ancestor who fought in the Confederate army.  A number of his comments, including the reminder that African Americans were just as complex as whites, clearly reflects this preoccupation with stories that force people to step back and reassess some of their fundamental assumptions about the past.

Contrary to Edward Sebesta, I would argue that this doesn’t make Gates a Neo-Confederate.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

19 comments… add one
  • HK Edgerton May 26, 2012 @ 5:07

    God bless intelligent and honorable people who recognize the contributions of the Black Confederate soldier and those of his family who loyally served and supported the South before during and after the War for Southern Independence. And further all Confederate soldiers should be memorialized in honor, and the integrity and honor of Southern people and their region of this country rightfully restored by those who submit history.

    • Kevin Levin May 26, 2012 @ 5:52

      Always nice to hear from you, HK.

  • James F. Epperson Sep 15, 2011 @ 9:51

    Ed claims to be fighting neo-Confederatism. But when someone asks for some documentary assistance in an aspect of that fight, Ed ignores the emails. There are lots of words to describe that behavior; “grossly impolite” is perhaps the most appropriate.

  • Edward H. Sebesta Sep 15, 2011 @ 5:54

    I didn’t say Louis Gates was a neo-Confederate, I said he was promoting the neo-Confederate nonsense of Black Confederates.

    Your post is inaccurate and needs correction. I don’t mind people criticizing what I said, but I don’t care for people criticizing what I didn’t say and people who allege I said things which I didn’t.

    You seem to be outraged that the discussion of the Civil War might be conducted outside the drawing room lead by self-appointed elitists like yourself and lead to loud voices at the dinner table. So this possiblity leads to false statements by myself. Alternatively, I think you are upset and this leads to sloppy reading or sloppy writing.

    When a person is misrepresented, it is slander.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2011 @ 6:00

      You implied much more than that in your little H-Net rant, which reminds me of why I no longer spend much time on those listservs. Let’s at least be honest, Ed. You drew a pretty close connection between Gates’s interest in this subject and the ongoing effort on the part of a select few to honor Harvard graduates who fought for the Confederacy. Perhaps you should take a bit more time to consider your word choice.

    • Andy Hall Sep 15, 2011 @ 6:08

      You seem to be outraged that the discussion of the Civil War might be conducted outside the drawing room lead by self-appointed elitists like yourself and lead to loud voices at the dinner table.

      Good lord, you sound just like Connie.

      • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2011 @ 6:24

        I just love the elitist reference. This guy is priceless. 🙂

    • Brooks D. Simpson Sep 15, 2011 @ 7:23

      Shut up, Ed. You’ve misrepresented what I’ve said in the past, and so by your own rules you’ve committed slander. So now we can call you Slanderin’ Ed Sebesta.

      It’s funny to hear you complain about self-appointed elitists, because that describes you. The harm you’ve done far outweighs whatever good some think you do. For you now to complain that what people say “leads to false statements by myself,” at least you’re admitting that you make false statements … you’re just not holding yourself responsible for them.

      Oh, are you going to say that isn’t what you meant? Well, Slanderin’ Ed, it’s what you said. Talk about “sloppy writing.”

  • Michaela Sep 14, 2011 @ 10:25

    I have no patience for Sebesta’s comments as they do not invite a serious discourse.
    On a slightly different note, it was Gates’ interview with Merryl Streep. He asked her if the just acquired knowledge about her ancestors had changed her life (to broadly paraphrase it). She answered it had not, but then she went more eloquently into depth how it interested her how people lived at the time, people who she was related to and how they dealt with their lives in the context of their time and social structure. I was thoroughly disappointed to see Gates just stare into the camera in response to her articulate answer (her answer exceeded what I am quoting here), meaning he did nothing to take that cue and delve into the historic circumstances and social hierarchy of her ancestors.
    The second interview we saw with the Black American poet, Elizabeth Alexander, was even more flat (if such is possible). Concluding that one could learn much more about her white ancestor than her black roots he failed completely to speak a little about how African American history first evolved, how many sources we have from the Antebellum period, such as few diaries and letters and what other sources (non-written, but verbally communicated stories) one can rely on. Also, there are interesting leads on mitochondrial DNA studies that help at least, while very broadly applied, to place one’s ancestors in geographic areas. One could then learn some cultural information from those studies. Worse, he lead her white ancestor line back to King John of England (12th century) and then to Charlemagne. Of course, you hit Charlemagne once you pass King John!! If you go back to anybody’s ancestor 25 generations, you damn well will find a royal. Because that is statistically extremely likely as much as it is extremely unlikely to find her roots going back to some Toubadour or peasant in the 12th century. The Gutenberg printing press does not show up until the 15th century and record keeping is a luxury of the noble and church clergy. You may find that Newt Gingrich is related to Julius Caesar or Caesar’s whore if you use Gates’ parameters. My point is that he is not providing any in depth information that may educate us about our past, but is louring people into “exciting evidence” of their genealogy, when this is, in fact, completely uninteresting. How about talking about how the African American family has been destroyed by more than a century of denying them an identity as a unit through slavery and economic hardship and how about talking about the role of women in history and how they were part of history, but never had a voice in the early years of this country.

    If we use our power as institutional scholars to speak, such as Gates does, we have an obligation to elevate the discussion we engage in to the level of education and critical information we were privileged to gain in academia. Most Americans are equally apt to learn, but are not in the financially fortunate situation to dwell on such issues in the safe comfort of an academic chair. However, they deserve the full analysis and information and not sensational flash cards.

    • Margaret D. Blough Sep 15, 2011 @ 8:21

      Michaela-Another prolific royal was King Charles II of England and Scotland. For a man who had no legitimate heirs, he more than made up with the massive numbers of offspring born, as the saying went, on the wrong side of the blanket. He acknowledged and even ennobled many of them. It’s not at all unusual, therefore, to find people of , especially, English descent, being descended from Charles II. It’s actually kind of hard to avoid.

      Some of it reminds me of a wonderful scene in the movie “Bull Durham”. The characters played by Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon are speaking of Sarandon’s character’s belief in reincarnation/past lives including for herself. Costner’s character’s response is to wonder why no one who “discovers” past lives ever seems to have been anything ordinary in those past lives.

      I think the odds of my having a slave owning ancestor are slim. My father’s German/Swiss ancestors arrived in the 1750s as part of the great Anabaptist/Pietist emigration to the sanctuary of the Quakers’ colony of Pennsylvania. These religious groups were among the very first to oppose slavery on religious grounds and to disfellow members who persisted in owning slaves. My mother’s parents were from long lines of working class Scots who arrived here in the 20th century (my grandmother was born in the US but her parents went back to Scotland when she was 8 & she didn’t return until she & my grandfather emigrated). However, when I read E. Porter Alexander’s wonderful private memoirs for his children (published long after his death by Gary Gallagher as “Fighting for the Confederacy”), I found myself really liking him. That made it even harder to reconcile when Alexander, a son of a plantation owner, would casually discuss buying, selling, and punishing slaves. If we could dismiss US slave owners as monsters, that would be easy. It is the profound moral dilemma of trying to confront how people who did their best by their standards to be decent human beings and believe in liberty could simultaneously accept or even advocate for chattel slavery

  • Ray O'Hara Sep 14, 2011 @ 10:03

    Ed Sebesta now that is a name I haven’t seen in a while.
    he used to post on the old ACWUSA news group with his anti-neo-confed positions.
    He is an extremist on the subject. While I am also anti-neo-confed Ed always went a bit to far afield for my taste. While his heart is in the right place extremism can hurt the very cause one is advocating for.

    As for Memorial Hall, unless they are going to remove the inscription ” DIED TO PRESERVE THE UNION” I don’t see it happening that people like States Rights Gist will get their names on the walls.
    That Confederates were left out wasn’t an oversight but a deliberate choice by those who got it built.

    • Andy Hall Sep 14, 2011 @ 10:21

      Ed always went a bit to far afield for my taste. While his heart is in the right place extremism can hurt the very cause one is advocating for.

      That seems to sum it up well. He makes a valuable contribution — esp. regarding the segregationist Citizens’ Councils of the 1950s and 60s — but he’s sometimes a bit too shrill for his own good.

    • Lyle Smith Sep 15, 2011 @ 3:04

      I think I’m with you on the Confederate names not being added to a monument dedicated by Union men for Federal men. They made it that way and it should probably be left that way.

      However, I would support a memorial to the Harvard graduates that died during the Civil War for the Confederacy. It’s good to self-reflect on one’s history; Harvard was a place where slaveholders had their children educated and therefore was a university that ultimately produced Confederate soldiers. Harvard probably should remember that.

  • James F. Epperson Sep 14, 2011 @ 8:03

    Sebesta thinks everyone is a neo-Confederate. He has referred to Bud Robertson in those terms.

    • Margaret D. Blough Sep 15, 2011 @ 8:02

      The idea that Bud Robertson is a neo-Confederate is absurd. He has firmly and unequivocally stated that but for slavery, secession would not have been attempted, and, but for secession, there would not have been a Civil War. He is a careful scholar. My big problem with his work is that, IMHO, he has succumbed to one of the prime risks for any biographer. He fell in love with his subject, Stonewall Jackson. When his biography of Jackson came out, I looked for his treatment of two of the most controversial episodes of Jackson’s career: his pre-CW vendetta against his commander over rumors that the commander was sleeping with a servant and the Richard Garnett matter (I was careful to use nothing that involved James Longstreet to avoid tripping over my own likes). He presented the episodes fully, but he rationalized behavior on Jackson’s part that was staggeringly vicious.

      • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2011 @ 8:10

        You should go check out Ed’s most recent post in which he accuses the Museum of the Confederacy of furthering the Neo-Confederate agenda. I may comment on this tomorrow. What nonsense.

        • Margaret D. Blough Sep 15, 2011 @ 8:34

          Didn’t the MOC have a ground-breaking exhibition on slavery?

  • Donald Shaffer Sep 14, 2011 @ 7:56

    Hi Kevin. You’ve got a point, but so has Sebesta, despite his silly sarcasm. By not confronting neo-Confederate beliefs about black Confederate soldiers on his PBS show and giving John Stauffer a soap box for thoughts on the issue, Skip Gates (unintentionally I think) is giving neo-Confederate ideas a credibility they don’t deserve. That this is occurring at Harvard of all places is almost surreal.


    • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2011 @ 8:05

      Thanks for the comment, Don. My problem with Sebesta’s post is that he seems to think Gates is intentionally promoting “Neo-Confederate” propaganda. Stauffer’s presentation was not without its problems, but that has nothing to do with Gates’s supposed agenda. Sebesta’s connection of Gates to a small fringe movement’s interest in adding the names of students who fought for the Confederacy to Memorial Hall sends it way off the deep end. It is irresponsible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *