A “Kanyefication of one of our most enduring national myths”

kanye-west

Writing at the Los Angeles Times, historian Kevin Waite connects Kanye West’s comments about slaves choosing slavery with Lost Cause myths about slavery.  Here is a taste:

Yet there’s an uncomfortable truth in West’s comment. Ill-informed though his views may be, they align alarmingly well with popular interpretations of American history.

The claim that slaves somehow consented to their own enslavement is a Kanyefication of one of our most enduring national myths. Depicted in fiction, film and even statuary, the “loyal slave” has persisted for more than a century and a half. The trope buttresses the so-called Lost Cause school of history, an intellectual movement celebrating the plantation South and exonerating it from any blame for the Civil War. Instead, that cataclysm is charged to the North, which destroyed a civilization that benefited masters and slaves alike — so goes the logic of Lost Cause propagandists.

Read the entire piece here.

Someone Give the Governor of Alabama a History Lesson

We need historians more than ever.  Yesterday Kay Ivey, the Republican governor of Alabama, released this campaign ad:

Ivey says “we can’t change or erase our history.”  She is correct.  But just because a particular community has a past doesn’t necessary mean that the celebration of that past is the best way forward.  Sometimes our encounters with the past should shame us.

She adds: “To get where we are going, we need to understand where we’ve been.”  Again, this is true.  But I don’t think she means that we need to “understand where we’ve been” because “where we’ve been” was racist and because it was racist we must repudiate it. Let’s remember that we are talking about monuments to white racists here.  Ivey is telling us that the best way for Alabama to move forward is to celebrate a history of slavery, racism, Jim Crow, and segregation.  Ivey’s usable past is a past of white supremacy.

After the ad was criticized, Ivey defended it.  According to The Hill, she called out “folks in Washington” and “out of state liberals” for trying to take away Alabama’s Confederate monuments.

Here we go again with the “outside agitators” coming into racist Alabama and trying to change their precious way life.  This is what they said about the so-called “carpetbaggers in the 1860s and 1870s and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1950s and 1960s.

Someone get Governor Ivey a copy of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Edward Ayers on Confederate Monuments

Ed+Ayers+color+compressed

Last weekend Edward Ayers gave a stirring and inspiration presidential address at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento. (See our coverage here). The title was “Everyone Their Own Historian.”  I was not in Sacramento for the conference, but I followed along eagerly as Liz Covart of “Ben Franklin’s World” fame live-tweeted:

Over at Salon, Chauncey Devega interviews Ayers about Trump, Confederate monuments, and Civil War history.  Here is a taste:

The Republican Party is in many ways the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South updated for the 21st century. There has long been a neo-Confederate element in the post-civil rights era Republican Party. With Trump’s election they have fully empowered. And in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, we actually saw the president of the United States, suggesting that there are “some very fine people” among neo-Nazis and white supremacists. How do you make sense of this?

I was in Charlottesville that day. I was going to teach a class that afternoon at the University of Virginia. I would start by explaining how there are people who turn to the symbols of the Confederacy as a native, indigenous rebellion against the power of the federal government. That appeals to a lot of people. But when you see that Confederate flag being mingled with Nazi flags, suddenly that claim upon an indigenous, pure and non-racialized argument about politics and “traditions” is gone. It has been forever entangled with white supremacy.

You might be surprised by the number of people who will come up to me after I give a lecture and tell me, “Slavery was wrong, I would never defend it. But the fact is that Robert E. Lee was a fine man and he was fighting for his home, right? He was fighting for what he thought was right.” You hear that a lot. It makes you realize all the evasions that are built into this defense of the Confederacy.

We have all these formulas that people use to say that they are proud of their ancestors. For example, he was a “good” slaveholder. Two, he didn’t really believe in slavery. Three, he wanted to get rid of slavery. Four, most white Southerners weren’t slaveholders so they could not have been fighting for slavery, and so forth. I listen to these folks and I then say, yes, let’s think about this. Let’s forget about whatever you might think about the character or identity of Robert E. Lee. What if the Confederacy had won? What if those men on horseback had actually accomplished what they set out to do? They would have created a nation explicitly based on perpetual bondage that would have been the fourth-richest economy in the world with a monopoly over the single most valuable commodity in the world. How would world history have been different? Other parts of the world would have looked to the South and said, “Ah, the path to the future leads through slavery.”

If you try to argue with them on the same ground that they form the question on, you will have a hard time persuading them. But it’s also the case that white Northerners and Westerners have a smug belief in the inevitable end of American slavery that is not warranted either.

Read the entire interview here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Enrico Dal Lago

9781107038424_1Enrico Dal Lago is Professor of American History at National University of Ireland Galway. This interview is based on his new book, Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy?

EDL: I was always fascinated by the historical parallelisms between the United States and Italy in terms of having a comparable past of difference and conflict between the north and the south of the country. My first book – Agrarian Elites: American Slaveholders and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815-1861 (LSU Press, 2005) – was a comparison between the propertied classes of the two southern regions of the United States and Italy, and other scholars, notably Don Doyle, have also written about parallelisms between the U.S. South and southern Italy. However, no scholar had ever written a comparative study of the civil wars that the conflict between north and south caused in the United States and Italy in the same years in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1861-65, contemporaneous to the American Civil War, fought between a northern-based Union and a southern-based Confederacy, a civil war was also fought in southern Italy, largely between northern and southern Italians. My book is the first comparative study of these two civil wars. I felt that it was an important gap in the comparative scholarship on the United States and Italy that needed to be filled in order to acquire an in-depth understanding of the significance of the parallelisms represented by the north vs. south conflict in the two countries. The importance of these parallelisms is further confirmed by the fact that, in both the United States and Italy, the long-term legacy of the outcome of the civil war – which, in both cases, led to a fracture and then a reconciliation between the northern and southern parts of the country – is still very much present and has witnessed a surge in national interest since the parallel commemorations of the 150 years from the start of the American Civil War and from Italian national unification, in 2011.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy?

EDL: My book argues that the two parallel civil wars in the United States and Italy in 1861-65 had comparable origins in attempts by two regional propertied elites to be instrumental in the creation of two new nations – the Confederate States of America and the Kingdom of Italy – which protected their interests at the expense of the majority of the two southern populations. The resistance to Confederate authority, carried out in the Confederate South by large numbers of Unionists, and especially by African American slaves, and the parallel and contemporaneous resistance carried out by large number of peasants and soldiers attached to the former Bourbon dynasty in southern Italy produced two parallel “inner civil wars” in the two southern regions, and eventually resulted in the collapse on the Confederacy and in the near collapse of the Italian Kingdom, and also in a temporary loss of power for the two regional elites.

JF: Why do we need to read Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy?

EDL: Not only my book is the first comparative study of the American and Italian civil wars of 1861-65; it is also the first comparative study that builds upon the most recent scholarly tendencies of focusing on the Confederate South’s “inner civil war” to argue that comparable “inner civil wars” occurred, as happened in Italy, wherever a process of forcible nation-building from above took place during the course of the nineteenth century. Inevitably, the outcome of this process could only be either the complete collapse or the near collapse of the new nation, as the examples of the Confederacy and of the Italian Kingdom clearly show. Crucially, for the majorities of the two groups of southern agrarian workers – African American slaves and landless southern Italian peasants – who were in conditions of dependency from masters and landlords, the “inner civil wars” in the Confederate South and southern Italy represented major opportunities to strike at their oppressors, by allying with anti-Confederate Unionists in one case and with the anti-Italian pro-Bourbon forces in the other case, and with the two primary and distinct, but parallel and comparable, objectives of acquiring legal emancipation and economic independence. My book shows, though, that, ultimately, complete freedom was indissolubly tied, for both African American slaves and southern Italian peasants, to ownership of land. My book shows also that this aspiration, common to all nineteenth-century agrarian workers, was frustrated in both cases, leading to continuous conditions of dependency for the African American freedpeople and the southern Italian peasants, and, also in both cases, these conditions lasted until long after the end of the two civil wars.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EDL: The long-term origins of my fascination with American History have a lot to do with the many American movies – starting from Gone with the Wind – and American TV Series – among which Roots and North and South – I watched in Italy, where I was born and I spent the first twenty-five years of my life. The actual decision to become an American historian, though, came somewhat later, during the course of my postgraduate studies, when I became progressively aware of the historical parallelisms between the United States and Italy to which I referred earlier with regard to the conflictual relationship between the north and the south of the two countries. As a result of this growing awareness, I thought that I could understand better the significance of these parallelisms if I studied in depth the history of the United States in the Civil War era, and this eventually became my main field of research.

JF: What is your next project?

EDL: I am planning to write a follow-up comparative study which will focus on the aftermath of the two parallel civil wars in the U.S. South and southern Italy. In my comparison, I will look specifically at the extent of continuity vs. change with regards to labor relations in the agrarian countryside. I am especially interested in the rise of illegal, and in one case paramilitary, forms of agrarian violence as tools for the protection of the interests of the agrarian elites – i.e., the former southern slaveholders and the southern Italian landowners – and as a means to keep the agrarian workers – i.e., the African American freedpeople and the southern Italian peasants – in continuous states of subjection in the Reconstruction U.S. South and southern Italy after 1865.

JF: Thanks, Enrico!

When the Union Army Stuck Confederate Soldiers in “Slave Pens”

Slave Pen

Check out Jonathan White‘s piece at Smithsonian on the freedmen’s reaction when the Union Army arrested Confederate soldiers and civilians and imprisoned them in the same pens and jails that the enslaved were forced to endure prior to the war.

Here is a taste:

For decades before the Civil War, slave markets, pens and jails served as holding cells for enslaved African-Americans who were awaiting sale. These were sites of brutal treatment and unbearable sorrow, as callous and avaricious slave traders tore apart families, separating husbands from wives, and children from their parents. As the Union army moved south during the Civil War, however, federal soldiers captured and repurposed slave markets and jails for new and often ironic functions. The slave pens in Alexandria, Virginia, and St. Louis, Missouri, became prisons for Confederate soldiers and civilians. When one inmate in St. Louis complained about being held in such “a horrible place,” an unsympathetic Unionist replied matter-of-factly, “Yes, it is a slave-pen.” Other slave markets, such as the infamous “Forks of the Road” at Natchez, Mississippi, became contraband camps—gatherings points for black refugees from bondage, sites of freedom from their masters, and sources of protection and assistance by Union soldiers.

Ex-slaves relished seeing these paradoxical uses of the old slave pens. Jermain Wesley Logan had escaped slavery to New York in 1833 and returned to Nashville in the summer of 1865, where he found his elderly mother and old friends he had not seen for more than 30 years. “The slave-pens, thank God, have changed their inmates,” he wrote. In place of “the poor, innocent and almost heartbroken slaves” who for years had been held captive there as they awaited sale to the Deep South, Loguen found “some of the very fiends in human shape who committed those diabolical outrages.”

Loguen turned his eyes to the heavens. “Their sins have found them out,” he wrote, “and I was constrained to give God the glory, for He has done a great work for our people.”

Read the rest here.

Jeff Sessions Gets It Right on the Cause of the Civil War (Yes, you read that correctly)

I did not hear the entire speech so I don’t know the larger context, but it does appear that Attorney General and former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions knows a thing or two about the cause of the Civil War.

Here is Yoni Appelbaum‘s tweet:

Also this.

Still More on John Kelly’s Civil War Comments

Compromise

In addition to my analysis of Kelly’s remarks and Carole Emberton’s Washington Post op-ed, I also want to call your attention to Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on this controversy.  It is a nice overview of the various compromises that took place from the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 to the outbreak of Civil War in 1861.  She quotes David Blight, Manisha Sinha, and David Waldstreicher.

Read it here.

More on Kelly’s Civil War Remarks

Kelly

I addressed Kelly’s remarks yesterday.  Today I want to point you to Binghamton University historian Carole Emberton’s piece, “The North tried compromise. The South chose war.

A taste:

By blaming a failure of compromise for the Civil War, Kelly repeated a well-worn tenet of the Lost Cause narrative that valorizes the Confederacy and its leaders like Lee. In this narrative, the failure to compromise is laid at the feet of radical abolitionists and Northern politicians, including the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, who gave Southerners no choice but to secede.

But it was slavery, and the refusal of Southern slaveholders to compromise on slavery, that launched the Civil War. In fact, the secession crisis of 1860-61 was the culmination of a decade-long movement led by ultra-radical pro-slavery “Fire-Eaters.” After decades of compromise between the North and South, the election of Lincoln spurred an almost paranoid anxiety about slavery’s future that made compromise untenable and war virtually unavoidable.

That technically makes Kelly correct. There was a failure of compromise. But lamenting it without addressing the role of slavery at its root reflects the flawed, Southern version of Civil War history that has nourished the white nationalism currently poisoning American politics.

Read the rest at The Washington Post.

Confederate Monuments Get Their Day in Congress

MHC_Confederate_Statue_Hill

Over at AHA Today, Dane Kennedy reports on a congressional briefing about what to do with Confederate monuments.

Here is a taste:

A standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Rayburn House Office Building to hear three leading authorities on the subject—David Blight, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University; Karen Cox, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; and Gaines Foster, LSU Foundation Professor of History at Louisiana State University. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, chaired the event….

How, asked a congressional staffer, does one respond to those who argue that the removal of Confederate statues erases history? It isn’t history that the statues’ defenders want to preserve, Blight insisted, but a memory that distorts or denies history. Cox made a similar point, noting that these monuments celebrate a sanitized version of history that obscures the centrality of slavery and white supremacy to the “Lost Cause.”

Another person asked, so what should be done with the monuments? Options include placing them in museums, contextualizing them with historical labeling, and collecting them at a single site, such as Stone Mountain. James Grossman pointed out that the Russians adopted the latter strategy with their Fallen Monument Park, where they relocated statues of Soviet leaders. In response to a related question about how public arts programs can alter historical narratives, Grossman recommended monuments that present the Civil War as a war of liberation for blacks. Blight suggested memorials to the black churches that sustained African American communities in the South and “elegiac” monuments that highlight the horrific slaughter of the Civil War. But he also cautioned against any precipitate action, urging deliberation in dealing with Confederate monuments. Foster struck a similar note, pointing out that public opinion on the issue needs to change. Cox was blunter: the removal of these monuments, she stated, will not bring an end to the systemic racism that inspired them.

Read the entire piece here.

Do the Victors Really Write the Histories?

Lee

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Keenan Norris of Evergreen Valley College asks: If the victors write the histories, then why has the Confederate flag and monuments been around for so long?  It’s a great question.

Here is a taste of his piece: “To  Be Continued, or Who Lost the Civil War?”

The possibility that the victors do not necessarily write the histories is an interesting one. Today, histories and counter-histories and counters to the counter-histories can be found in most libraries and on the internet. Yet the basic truth that the victors enjoy the spoils and the heroic history books is supported, most obviously, by our historical record. Begin with the language of that record. The works of Herodotus and Livy, C. L. R. James and W. E. B. Du Bois, Studs Terkel and Svetlana Alexievich are not written in the tongues of the defeated. We do not read about Hannibal’s valiant refusal to be a friend to Rome in his native Punic, nor about Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolutionary cause in Haitian Creole, nor are Alexievich’s incredible interviews on Russia’s ongoing conflict with Chechen rebels conducted in Chechen. Moreover, the histories that have been legitimated by widely acclaimed literature and film — that have been canonized — have tended toward a heroic vision of the victors. Plutarch does not remember Alexander the Great as a bloodthirsty psychopath bent on successive genocides, nor does Gary Sinise portray Harry S. Truman as a simple-minded destroyer of worlds, though the subjugated histories of the raped, pillaged, and atom-bombed would probably have told a different tale about them.

The victors do, in fact, write the initial and most powerfully influential histories of every conflict, whether between warring armies or warring ideologies. And, when it comes to war, that history begins not with books or movies, but with the terms of peace treaties, the force of occupation, and the redrawing of borders.

Is the rebel flag an impotent symbol? Do the monuments maintained to the greatness of Confederate generals not hold persistent emotional power? There would be no petitions and no protests calling to bring those symbols down if that were the case. White supremacists and neo-Nazis would not be clashing with Antifa in pitched battles in broad daylight if no one cared. The #NoConfederate Twitter movement would not exist because the idea for an HBO show, which the Twitter movement protests, about the historical “what if” of a Confederate victory in the Civil War, would never have been considered potentially lucrative enough to bring to primetime in the first place, let alone to endure such a sustained negative public backlash if these symbols were just ugly gift-shop kitsch.

Read the entire piece here.

How Did African Americans Remember the Civil War?

Confederate Charleston

Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, a Ph.D candidate in the History department at Rutgers University, tackles this question in a piece at Black Perspectives titled “Beyond Monuments: African Americans Contesting Civil War Memory.”

Here is a taste:

African Americans worked from the end of the war to this current moment to consistently affirm and interpret the Civil War’s meaning for them.  Due to its power and influence, confronting the Lost Cause is a large part of this collective memory.  The Lost Cause movement includes the historical memories, myths, commemorative events, and invented traditions of many white Southerners that first took shape after the end of the Civil War. The Lost Cause was as much about upholding white supremacy as it was about commemorating the white Southern Civil War experience.  It is not incidental, for example, that the Keystone, a publication for Southern white clubwomen and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) published stories of Confederate heroism alongside dedications to “faithful slaves” and praise for books like Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman.  White Civil War memory has long dominated conversations about how the war is remembered, even now when it involves anti-racist activism.  The idea that “both sides” should be celebrated and honored was largely an invention of white Southerners and Northerners in order to reunite the nation.  African American Civil War memory was sidelined in its service.  As a result, we know considerably less about the long tradition of Black anti-Lost Cause resistance that culminated with Bree Newsome snatching the Confederate flag down from the Statehouse grounds of South Carolina in 2015 and Takiyah Thompson toppling a Confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina on August 14 of this year.

On March 27, 1865 African Americans flooded the streets of Charleston, South Carolina to celebrate the coming end of the Civil War.  The result was a grand spectacle, with dozens of Black men marching while tied to a rope to symbolize those bound in chains while being sold down South. A hearse followed with the sign “Slavery is Dead. Who Owns Him? No one.  Sumter Dug His Grave on 13th April, 1861.” Behind the hearse, fifty Black women marched dressed in mourning clothes, but were laughing and happy. “John Brown’s Body” was a popular song among Black and white Union troops and was commonly sung in the various military parades across the South as Union troops marched in victory.  The school children marching in this parade focused on singing one verse in particular loudly: “We’ll hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree . . . As we Go Marching On.”

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Women Behind the Lost Cause

UDC

Over at The New York Times, historian Karen Cox tells the story of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the role the organization played in instilling “Southern white youth a reverence for Confederate principles.”

Here is a taste of her piece “The Confederacy’s ‘Living Monuments’“:

The Daughters’ primary objective, however, was to instill in Southern white youth a reverence for Confederate principles. Indeed, they regarded their efforts to educate children as their most important work as they sought, in their words, to build “living monuments” who would grow up to defend states’ rights and white supremacy.

Members of the U.D.C. developed a multipronged approach to educating white children about the “truth” of the “War Between the States.” They developed lesson plans for teachers, a number of whom were members of the organization. They placed pro-Confederate books in school and public libraries, which they insisted students use when they competed in U.D.C.-sponsored essay contests. They led students in the celebration of Robert E. Lee’s life on his birthday and placed portraits of Confederate heroes, festooned with the battle flag, in classrooms across the South and even in some schools outside of the region. They also formed Children of the Confederacy chapters for boys and girls ages 6 to 16, intended to serve as a pipeline for membership in both the U.D.C. and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a parallel organization.

Read the entire piece here.

Why the Columbus Statues Should Stay

Columbus

I am in complete agreement with this piece by Laura Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra. (And it is not just because I am half Italian).  If we are going to make an argument against Robert E. Lee statues because of the Jim Crow context in which they were erected, then we can make an argument for Columbus statues based on the same principle–the meaning Italian-Americans gave to these statues at the time many of them were erected.  (I also blogged about this here).

A taste of Ruberto and Sciorra’s piece at Process:

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian immigrants saw the American idolization of Columbus as a way to deflect the onslaught of xenophobic and racial prejudice and violence they encountered, and for which they were relatively unprepared, as new arrivals in the United States. They bought into and contributed to a specific Italian reading of Columbus in relationship to their brutal experiences of bigotry. Italian Americans built their emerging identity as provisional whites out of this hagiography.

The connections between Columbus and Italian Americans developed in great part through the work of Italian immigrant prominenti, ethnic leaders who served as intermediaries between WASP elites and the working poor and who supported an upper-class notion of Italian national identity. These included Angelo Noce, a publisher who spearheaded the first declaration of Columbus Day as a state holiday, in Colorado, in 1907, and Carlo Barsotti, a banker and newspaper editor who solicited funds from primarily working-class immigrants to erect New York City’s Columbus monument in 1892. These leaders, many from northern Italy, “argued for full inclusion as Americans based upon an imagined ‘Italian’ heritage of civilization and whiteness,” as historian Peter G. Vellon reveals. In Columbus, they perceived a tool by which to forge an Italian national identity which did not exist among the vast majority of immigrants from southern Italy whose geopolitical affinities were to their local villages. By perpetuating ideas of a united Italian community based on racial hierarchies and a grand history of an assumed, singular Italian civilization, the prominentiimposed elitist notions of a unified Italian American community that was removed from working-class understandings of history and social formations, and that relied on Italians aligning themselves with a white majority. At the same time, the prominenti devalued and inhibited a whole host of Italian working-class cultural expressions that became more and more associated with ignorance and vulgarity—from undermining the practice of Catholic street feasts to belittling the use of Italian regional dialects.

The quintessential prominente, Generoso Pope, was instrumental in cementing Italian Americans to Columbus. A powerful businessman and influential newspaper owner in New York City, Pope was pro-Fascist. He used his Italian language daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano during the 1920s and 1930s as propaganda for the Italian dictator, and he led Columbus Day gatherings at Columbus Circle where audience members made the fascist salute (and anti-fascist Italian Americans protested both vocally and physically). Critical in securing the Italian American vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he later lobbied FDR’s administration for an annual national Columbus Day, eventually proclaimed in 1937.

Significantly, many Columbus statues around the country were commissioned, paid for, and built by Italian immigrants. The statues were not created—as in the case of Confederate statues—to impose political dominance over others; on the contrary, the monuments were a means to gain entrance into a racist society under the cover of whiteness. Theirs was no doubt a troubling, but all-too-common, approach to assimilation. Contributions of small change from working-class Italian immigrants helped underwrite statues like the grandiose marble one dedicated in 1892 in New York City or the smaller bronze one erected in 1930 in Easton, Pennsylvania. In some communities like Easton and Richmond, Virginia, the Ku Klux Klan actively campaigned to prevent the placement of Columbus statues in public spaces in opposition to Catholics and “foreigners.” In short, these monuments were historically contested sites where Italian immigrants sought visibility in the remaking of local landscapes and the larger political sphere.

Read the entire piece here.

Can We Honor Robert E. Lee Apart from the Confederacy?

Lee University

Kevin Levin raises an interesting point.  In a recent talk a member of the audience asked him if it was possible to honor Robert E. Lee with a monument for his work as president of Washington and Lee University.

Here is a taste of Levin’s post at Civil War Memory:

One question in particular caught my attention. A graduate of Washington & Lee University asked if it was possible to commemorate Robert E. Lee today in the form of a monument that focused on his time as president of the college. Imagine Lee walking astride one or two students. Lee is in civilian clothing rather than military uniform and carrying a book. Could one be erected in 2017 on campus and if one were already present would people be justified in asking for its removal or relocation?

In other words, is it possible to commemorate Lee without acknowledging his service to the Confederacy?

I attempted to answer the question by drawing a distinction between before and after Charlottesville, but admitted that I am just not sure. What do you think?

A Metric to Help Us Decide if a Monument Should Stay or Go

Confederate_Monument_-_W_face_-_Arlington_National_Cemetery_-_2011

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University and one of our leading public intellectuals, offers this metric:

  1. Was the person’s or cultural artifact’s historical impact exclusively focused on slavery and racism?
  2. Did the person insist on their support of segregation and racism even in the face of vigorous arguments otherwise?
  3. Is the monument an ever-present part of experience?

Read how he develops these points here.  There is much to commend here. But even if we accept the metrics that McWhorter proposes I imagine that there will still be debate over how to parse their phrasing.  For example, what defines an “ever-present part of experience?” What qualifies as “vigorous arguments otherwise?”

The Author’s Corner with Kevin Levin

interpreting-the-civil-war-at-museums-and-historic-sitesKevin Levin is a historian, educator, and the proprietor of the popular Civil War Memory blog. This interview is based on his new edited collection, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017).

JF: What led you to collect and edit the essays in Interpreting the Civil War?

KL: With the United States recently having completed a 4-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, I was interested in how the war was interpreted at historic sites and museums throughout the country. I wanted a better sense of how recent scholarship and shifts in our popular memory of the war impacted interpretation on the ground. With that in mind I gathered together a group of public historians and educators to talk about how their respective institutions approached the sesquicentennial. I asked them to focus on how the specific challenges posed by their location and clientele shaped their exhibits and public outreach. My contributors include some very well known public historians working at high profile sites as well those who work at places that are a bit further off the beaten path.

JF: I realize that Interpreting the Civil War is an edited collection, but does the book have an overarching argument?

KL: Given the ongoing public debate about Confederate monuments it will not be surprising to hear that taken together the essays serve as a reminder that interpreting the Civil War for the general public is fraught with challenges. Contributors to this volume shared both successes and failures. The most successful public programs turned out to be those that took chances in engaging new audiences and addressing topics that have been both ignored and/or mythologized over the previous decades.

JF: Why do we need to read Interpreting the Civil War?

KL: First and foremost, I hope these essays will be helpful for practicing public historians. This book is part of Rowman & Littlefield’s “Interpreting History” series and is intended primarily for pubic historians, but I suspect that general readers interested in interpretive controversies as well as the long arc of Civil War memory will find much to consider. Essays cover the history of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina and questions surrounding how to interpret the battle flag that was recently removed from the State House grounds as well as the challenges of interpreting the war in the former capital of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Other essays offer insight into where we may be headed in our work as public historians. A historian with the National Park Service assesses its sesquicentennial programming and offers suggestions on what work still needs to be done while the final essay offers advice to public historians on how they can engage various constituencies in communities that are currently debating the public display of Confederate iconography. I can’t think of a better moment for just such a book.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KL: I never intended to become a historian. In 2005 I finished an M.A. in History at the University of Richmond and was teaching full time at a private school in Charlottesville, Virginia. In November of that year I started a blog called Civil War Memory, which within a few years had become fairly popular. The exposure that the blog offered paid off gradually with opportunities to speak and write and eventually led to a contract for my first book with the University Press of Kentucky that was based on my thesis. As much as I enjoy writing, I still think of myself primarily as an educator. Although I am not in the classroom full time, my greatest joy is working with history educators on their professional development and working with students on field trips and other settings.

JF: What is your next project?

KL: I am finishing up a book-length project that is tentatively titled, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. The book explores the wartime role of body servants or what I call camp slaves in the Confederate army and how these stories evolved after the war and into the present as the myth of the black Confederate soldier. My next project will address the current debate about Confederate monuments. I plan on structuring the book as a travel narrative that will allow me to visit and interview some of the most vocal participants on both sides of this debate in different places and weave into the story the history of these very same monuments. No title yet and I am still working through the overall structure and goals of the project.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

Do We Need to Change Our Vocabulary When We Teach American History?

Compromise

Should this be called “The Appeasement of 1850?”

According to Christopher Wilson, the Director of the African American History Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, removing Confederate monuments is only the beginning.  In his recent piece at Smithsonian.com, Wilson argues that the vocabulary that we use to talk about American history is also tainted with Confederate values.

Here is a taste of his piece “We Legitimize the ‘So-Called’ Confederacy With Our Vocabulary, and That’s a Problem“:

Historian Michael Landis suggests professional scholars should seek to change the language we use in interpreting and teaching history. He agrees with people like legal scholar Paul Finkelman and historian Edward Baptist when they suggest the Compromise of 1850 be more accurately referred to as an Appeasement. The latter word precisely reflects the sway that Southern slaveholders held in the bargain. Landis goes on to suggest that we call plantations what they really were—slave labor camps; and drop the use of the term, “the Union.” A common usage in the 19th century to be sure, but now one we only use “the Union” in reference to the Civil War and on the day of the State of the Union address. A better way to speak of the nation during the war, he argues, is to use its name, the United States.

In the same way, we could change the way we refer to secessionist states. When we talk of the Union versus the Confederacy, or especially when we present the strife as the North versus the South, we set up a parallel dichotomy in which the United States is cast as equal to the Confederate States of America. But was the Confederacy really a nation and should we refer to it as such?

When historian Steven Hahn participated in the 2015 History Film Forum at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, he noted that using these customary terms to tell the story of the Civil War —Hahn suggests we use “War of the Rebellion”—lends legitimacy to the Confederacy.

“If you think about it,” Hahn said, “nobody in the world recognized the Confederacy. The question is can you be a state if no one says you are a state?”  

Read the entire piece here.

What About Confederate Reenactors?

Confederate Reenactors

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin reflects on Confederate Civil War reenactors in a post-New Orleans, post-Charlottesville world.

Here is a taste:

It should come as no surprise that reenactors who don Confederate gray and display the Confederate battle flag are meeting more and more resistance from people who question their motivation. A group of Maine men, who reenact the 15th Alabama, have experienced this firsthand in the form of heckling during parades and from those who question their racial motivation.

Read the entire post here.