The coverage of the ongoing controversy surrounding Confederate monuments in connection to the 1-year anniversary of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville has been incredibly disappointing. With few exceptions the reporting has done little more than reinforce overly simplistic generalizations about the history and current state of this debate.
A new documentary hosted by NBC’s Trymaine Lee and the New York Times’ John Eligon is a wonderful example of this flawed approach.
In their attempt to “understand hate, heritage, and the legacy of the Confederacy” Trymaine and Eligon travel to Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama. Certainly the places they chose to visit are appropriate, but they end up interviewing older white men, such as Bertram Hayes-Davis, who continue to admire the likes of Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest and who believe that slavery wasn’t so bad.
You can read John Eligon’s op-ed in The New York Times, which closely follows the narrative in the documentary above.
According to Gordon Cotton, who is 82-years old, his great-great grandmother and owned 30 slaves, “provided clothing and food and medical care. She had one who made baskets, and she always bought his baskets.” Cotton describes Jefferson Davis as a “hero.”
Between Eligon’s op-ed and the documentary we learn next to nothing about how white southerners today view the history and memory of the Confederacy as well as their monuments. Readers and viewers are introduced to the last of an old guard that grew up at a time when the Lost Cause was the dominant narrative of the Civil War.
In focusing on this narrow and increasingly irrelevant group of white southerners we learn nothing that helps to explain why we are even having this debate about how to remember and commemorate the Civil War. There is nothing that acknowledges the growing generational divide that has shaped this debate or the increased ethnic diversity that now defines much of the South. Finally, there is no indication that the location of Confederate monuments outside the former Confederacy has also sparked fierce debate. In other words, this is not solely a regional issue.
Most importantly, it reinforces the false assumption that this is a debate that can be drawn solely along racial lines.
Interviewing a couple of “Unreconstructed” and elderly white men not only tells us next to nothing about the current debate, it grossly distorts it.