Last Saturday Megan Kate Nelson, my wife and I went to see Suzan Lori Parks’s three-act play, “Father Comes Home From the Wars.” I don’t want to give too much away about the plot beyond the fact that the central character is a slave, who at the beginning of the first act struggles with whether he is going to go off to war with his master/Confederate colonel. Oh, and the slave, whose name is Hero, is also donning a Confederate uniform.
Following the show we enjoyed a talkback with members of the cast. Unfortunately, we missed another post-production discussion the following day with Parks, along with Henry Louis Gates and Eric Foner. The discussion kicked off with some thoughts about the current debate about black Confederates.
On one level the focus of the discussion was unfortunate. At no time is Hero’s struggle about whether he can support or serve the Confederacy and the decision has nothing to do with him serving as a soldier. Rather, it serves as the foundation for his relationship with his master, which evolves significantly during the show. It’s confusing, in part, because Hero wears a uniform, but we know of a number of slaves, including, most famously, Silas Chandler, who were outfitted in military dress. The opening act offers an opportunity to explore the complexity of the master-slave relationship and not that of the relationship between slaves and the Confederacy.
But what is even more disappointing is Gates’s sloppiness when discussing this subject. [Begin the video at the 7:00 minute mark.] He begins by reflecting on the difficulties that many of his white/liberal academic colleagues have when writing about certain aspects of the slave experience. According to Gates scholars that fall into this category often “censor” themselves or hide rather than admit of certain uncomfortable truths. What a bizarre claim given the historiography of slavery. One of those uncomfortable truths is that a few thousand slaves fought willingly as soldiers for the Confederacy. I find such an argument to be the height of irresponsibility. What’s to prevent anyone from dismissing Gates’s understanding of the past as that of a black/liberal academic? If you can’t keep the discussion on the level of interpretation and evidence than don’t say anything at all.
The only evidence/interpretation that Gates can cite is the recent essay in the Root by John Stauffer, which has been thoroughly discredited [and here and here]. It not only misses the mark, it’s an example of very poor scholarship. Eric Foner does a good job of pushing back, though I suspect he could have offered a much stronger response.
Why do I get so incensed when it comes such statements, you ask? Because I strongly believe that public intellectuals like Gates have a responsibility to their audiences. Relying on generalizations about any individual[s] political or racial profile as a substitute for real arguments is not only lazy, it’s a form of manipulation. If Gates wants to be taken seriously on this subject he ought to put down his microphone and even walk away for a season or two from his television shows and do some research.