Flannery O’Connor on the Lost Cause

Flannery

Check out Peter Candler‘s piece at The Christian Century on a little-known Flannery O’Connor short story in which she wrestles with memory and history in the South.  Here is a taste of his piece, “Flannery O’Connor’s challenge to the Lost Cause myths of the Confederacy.”

Propping up an illusory history has a price, and not just on balance sheets. The human cost of such self-deception is the subject of an early and little-known story by Flannery O’Connor, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” Originally published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1953 and included in A Good Man Is Hard to Find two years later, the story is about the ways in which the burdens of history, when honestly confronted, can bring not enlightenment but devastation.

“Late Encounter” is barely ten pages in the Library of America edition. It is hardly one of her major works (O’Connor described it as “not so bad”), and it rarely figures in critical studies of her work. But it is notable for being the only piece of her fiction that directly treats the Civil War and its legacy. The story is only superficially about the war, though; it is really about the way in which the war is—or is not—remembered. It is a story about memory and the deep conflict between public commemoration, sectarian mythology, and historical reality.

“Late Encounter” is structurally simple: there is a single main scene framing one flashback. Sally Poker Sash is about to attend her college graduation, the joyful fruit of a protracted education spread out over 20 summers while she was teaching school. It’s such a big deal that she has invited her 104-year-old grandfather, a Confederate veteran, to attend in full military dress. Sally arranges for him to sit up on stage—not so that he will have a good view of the proceedings but because she wants him to be seen: “she wanted to show what she stood for, or, as she said, ‘what all was behind her,’ and was not behind them. This them was not anybody in particular. It was just all the upstarts who had turned the world on its head and unsettled the ways of decent living.” She wants the crowd to see him, and herself through him—“Glorious upright old man stand-in for the old traditions! Dignity! Honor! Courage!”—as a rebuke to their wanton ways.

And here is Candler’s conclusion:

What if history is not at all the way we prefer to remember it? Could it be that monuments—not just public ones but also those our own personal histories are made of—are tokens of a tacit agreement to forget certain difficult truths? Directed both generally at an inveterate human skill for self-deception and specifically at the mythology of the Lost Cause, the question that O’Connor’s “Late Encounter” puts to the reader is both blunt and surgical: What if you are wrong about what it is you think you were fighting for?

Read the entire piece here.

David Blight on Reinhold Niebuhr, Theology, and a Bunch of Other Things

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Over at Zocalo Public Square, Gregory Rodriguez talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Blight about history, memory, Reinhold Niebuhr and history as theology.  Here is a taste:

You quote Reinhold Niebuhr early on [in Race and Reunion], “The processes of historical justice are not exact enough to warrant the simple confidence of the moral character of history.” What do you understand that to mean?

Well Niebuhr was trying to tell us to have humility. He comes from that deep Protestant tradition of humility. He’s trying to tell us to be careful about our certitudes, but he’s also arguing, never lose sight of the essential tragic character of history. We’re all part of it. We’re all capable of good and evil, and especially evil.

Niebuhr, the theologian philosopher, helps one understand that history is, one, never over—that history’s a very messy, complicated thing, and at its core is our human potential for tragedy. That if we ever lose sight of that—especially I think Niebuhr was arguing this as an American, to Americans. Because by and large—here’s one of your deep American myths—we don’t like the word even. We tend to use it in superficial ways. We tend not to want to view our own past as essentially tragic. I mean, we’re willing to view Russian history, if we know it, as tragic. We’re willing to view modern German history as tragic. What about our past?

Americans are always demanding—this is what Niebuhr’s trying to point out—Americans are always trying to imagine our past as always somehow progress. We are the people of progress. California is about renewal, it’s about always starting over, it’s about progress, and it has been of course. Our task as historians, our task as teachers, is to help people understand that history is always a combination of these things.

Of course there’s progress, but as soon as you think you’ve won something, as soon as you think you’ve turned that great corner of history, or as Obama used to love to quote King saying, who was really quoting Theodore Parker from the 19th century, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Every time I heard Obama say that I would think to myself, “No, it doesn’t. No, it doesn’t. Come on, and you know that.” Of course, a president has to say that, at least a thoughtful president does. Lo and behold what happens? We get a Donald Trump elected, and people are still in shock, wondering how we could go from such progress to this.

Do you consideRace and Reunion a theological work? To the extent that you are tinkering with major American theologies, and you’ve said there are three visions of this war, this war that, in Garry Wills’ words, “revolutionized the revolution.” There was the emancipationist, there was white supremacy, and there was reconciliation, but are you sifting through the theologies to create a new one?

Not consciously, necessarily. I am deeply aware that American history has theological roots. All you’ve got to do is study the Puritans for one week. All you’ve got to do is look at the American founding. The American Revolution is layered with theological rhetoric, even in the hands of people like a Jefferson or a Madison, who were not very deeply religious. They saw themselves in teleological time. They saw themselves creating something that was partly of divine inspiration.

I’m not trying to create a new theology. I am trying to help, I hope, the reader understand that narratives of the American past are never without this—like it or not—never without this theological underlay of a nation with some kind of special destiny and design. Look at our rhetoric through time. Look at presidential rhetoric through time. Look at Reinhold Niebuhr, who comes from the more tragic Protestant tradition, or more realist tradition. Nevertheless, Americans have never been able to crawl out of this idea that we are somehow living our history in some kind of religious or theological time.

However, our greatest events probably are caught up in a kind of a theological history. We just can’t seem to help it. Look at the rhetoric of World War II.

Read the rest the entire interview here.

 

Pennsylvania History: The Final Exam!

PA Hall

The 1838 burning of Pennsylvania Hall, a meeting place for abolitionists

For the past decade I have been teaching a course on Pennsylvania History at Messiah College. The class meets several requirements.  Some history majors take it for a 300-level American history elective.  Other history majors take it as part of their concentration in public history.  Non-history majors take the course to fulfill their general education pluralism requirement.

I have to make this course work for all of these students.  For the public history students, we do a lot of work on the relationship between “history,” “heritage,” and “memory.”  We also feature some training in oral history. Each student is required to do an oral history project in which they interview and interpret someone who can shed light on a particular moment in Pennsylvania history.  As a pluralism course, Pennsylvania History must address questions of religion, race, ethnicity, and social class in some meaningful way.

This year, I split the class into four units:

After several tries, I think I have finally found a pedagogical formula that works.   The students take their two-hour final exam on Friday.  Here are the questions they are preparing:

In preparation for the exam, please prepare an answer to one of the following questions:

QUESTION #1

In each of our four units this semester, we spend considerable time talking about the idea of race and race relations in Pennsylvania History. How do issues related to race play out in the following periods and places in state history:

  • Early 19th-century Philadelphia
  • The Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s and 1760s.
  • The way the Civil War has been interpreted at Gettysburg
  • The City Beautiful movement in Harrisburg
QUESTION #2
We often use the past to advance particular agendas in the present. Consider this
statement in the following contexts:
  • The Centennial celebration in Philadelphia (1876)
  • The Paxton Boys Riots
  • Gettysburg as a “sacred” site
  • The portrayal of Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward by reformers affiliated with the City Beautiful movement.

Good luck! Or as I like to say to my Calvinist students: “May God providential give you the grade you deserve on this exam.”

A Saturday Morning in Gettysburg

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We got to hang our with Abe! 

It is a beautiful today in south-central Pennsylvania–a perfect day to spend some time on the Gettysburg battlefield.  This morning we took ten students from my Pennsylvania history class to Gettysburg.  We have been reading Jim Weeks’s book Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine and exploring the way the battlefield has evolved since July 4, 1863.  I have given a lot tours of Gettysburg focused on military history, but until today I had never done a Gettysburg “memory” tour.

We have been focusing on how Gettysburg became a shrine of American civil religion–a destination for patriotic pilgrims.  We arrived at 7:30am for “devotions” at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.  I read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and stressed the religious nature of the speech.  We talked about what Lincoln meant by the use of words such as “consecrate,” “hallow,” “devotion,”  and “new birth.”  We discussed the blood sacrifice necessary to the consecration of such sacred ground.  And, since I teach at a Christian college, we talked about the difference between civil religion and Christian faith.

After our devotion in civil religion we headed to the Visitor Center.  Most of the students ended up in the bookstore.  Some of them bought souvenirs to remember their pilgrimage to this sacred site of American nationalism.  Others noted the way this sacred site is connected with the marketplace.  We even got our pictures taken with Lincoln, the great prophet of U.S. civil religion.

We spent the rest of the tour on these topics: race and the 1913 and 1938 reunions of Gettysburg veterans, with an assist from David Blight (at the Eternal Light Peace Memorial); the meaning of the Robert E. Lee statue (on Confederate Avenue); the Eisenhower Farm and Gettysburg as a Cold War site; the tension between battlefield authenticity and environmental concerns; the influence of popular culture (Jeff Schaara and Ted Turner) on the battlefield (at the monument to the 20th Maine on Little Round Top); and the role of Daniel Sickles in promoting the bill that brought the battlefield under control of the U.S. War Department.

Here are some pics:

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Students at the Lincoln Gettysburg Address memorial after “devotions” at the Gettysburg National Cemetery

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The “Ike” section of the Gettysburg Visitor Center store

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Anyone want to be buy me a Christmas present?  🙂

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Speaking of Abe… (photo by Joy Fea)

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Messiah College Pennsylvania History students at the Pennsylvania monument (Photo by Joy Fea)

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The “loyal women” of HIST 345: Pennsylvania History

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I was an official Gettysburg tour guide for the day!

Out of the Zoo: “Remembering Grandpa”

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A few weeks ago we introduced Annie Thorn, a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our new intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she offers a moving reflection on the life of her grandfather.  Enjoy! –JF

This weekend, I’ll be heading home to Michigan for the funeral of my grandfather, Norman VanHeulen, who went home on Saturday morning after a month and a half of hospice. My Grandpa VanHeulen passed a day before his 86th birthday; recounting his experiences would be a history lesson in itself. However I think there’s a little something more we can learn about history, and about people in general, from the liturgy he practiced faithfully throughout his life.

Historians write and remember. We reincarnate human life on the pages of books, on the walls of museums or in the body of classroom lectures. We set loose memories once thought lost, after years, decades, or centuries of captivity. My grandpa did that, too. Every day for most of his near-century-long life he wrote in black leather-bound journals, which now sit in heavy boxes in my aunt’s storage room. He recorded everything–from an event so significant as the birth of four grandchildren in less than 24 hours, to something so trifling as the price of a cup of coffee. I have countless memories of spending the night at Grandma and Grandpa VanHeulen’s house, playing cards or eating ice cream or watching Disney Channel (my family didn’t have cable) while Grandpa sat in his chair, pouring words into those journals until they overflowed.

Maybe someday I’ll read through all those journals. In my Introduction to History class in the fall we had a long discussion about our family histories–I got to gush about my wonderful grandfather and his own archival work. When I do get to read them, I’m sure I’ll be reminded of the ways my grandpa loved people well for decades. I’ll see that though his life was long, he didn’t waste a minute of it.

One of the fondest memories I have of my grandpa took the form of a short voicemail he left for me one afternoon while I was at school. Exactly a year previous, my grandparents sat on the sideline at one of my soccer games, as they often did when they still lived in Kalamazoo. I remember standing in our dining room as his warm voice crackled through our answering machine. He read his journal entry from the year before, in which he recorded the events of my game. He recalled that I scored four goals and wrote about how proud he and my family were of me that day. To say I was touched by his minor gesture would be a massive understatement. I remember wiping a couple tears from my eyes. He remembered something that I had forgotten about–and not only that, he went out of his way to let me know he did.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not very good at remembering things. The only reason I can remember my siblings’ birthdays is because my brother and sister share mine. It’s not easy to remember things, and sometimes it’s more painful than we expect to look back on the times that we know were difficult. Sometimes it’s even harder to reminisce about the years things were better or easier than they are now. With my Grandpa’s funeral approaching this weekend, I’m sure I’ll experience a little bit of that pain firsthand. Nevertheless, there’s something deeply good and meaningful in digging up our past for others to see–my Grandpa showed me it’s our duty to do so.

There is power in remembrance. That’s what history is all about.

David Blight on Memory, History, and Hope

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I just came across this great Martha Hodes’s interview of David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (among many other books).

In this exchange, Blight talks about the importance of memory:

MH: Memory is a theme that runs deeply through your work, David. And of course, memories of the Civil War mattered deeply to Frederick Douglass. What memory of the war did Douglass want to endure? And then what happened to Douglass’s vision in the aftermath of the war, which is in many ways the subject of your book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory?

DB: I was confused about what to do with this idea of memory. We all know that memory is a biological thing. We can’t find our car or our keys or our home from here if we don’t have a memory, and it’s why the memory diseases are so terrifying, because our very humanity depends on this quality of memory.

On the other hand, we also are aware, as historians, that memory is a social creation. There are collective memories. Lots of memory scholars love to debate whether there is such a thing as collective memory, and how do you know a collective memory when you meet one, and so on, but we do know they exist. Institutions build memories. People create memories. Churches create memories. Nations create memories. And all that really means is that they create narratives. They create stories that go to battle with other stories.

Now, in Douglass’s case, he was trying to preserve, to hold on to, to keep fashioning and refashioning, a narrative of the Civil War that said the destruction of slavery, emancipation, and the creation of black equality are at the absolute center, are at the core of Union victory. The nation was saved and preserved, but the way it was saved and preserved was by destroying slavery and creating four million new citizens with rights.

And he lives long enough, as we said earlier, to see that victory eroding, first in Reconstruction and then directly betrayed by certain Supreme Court decisions, especially the Cruikshank case in 1876 and the civil rights cases in 1883, and then eventually not only eroded, but defeated by the use of violence and terror by the Southern Democrats and by the Ku Klux Klan and its many imitators. He lives long enough to see even the terrible problem of lynching at its peak by the early to mid-1890s.

And here is a nice exchange on the importance of history:

MH: So let me ask you this, David. Let’s talk about studying history, learning history, reading history, at this moment. Why does it matter? Why does history matter? Why does the 19th century matter? Why does the Civil War matter?

DB: Well, hopefully we don’t skirt this with clichés, but of course learning some history is the only way to know who we are, how we got here, where we might be going, although we’re bad at predicting, we historians.

MH: Clearly.

DB: We’re asked all the time, but we’re really bad at predicting. But mostly, I think, history gives a person a sensibility. It gives them a way of understanding how to ask questions. It gives them a way of scrutinizing both evidence and narrative, evidence and the story. Why am I being told that story by politicians or by the press or by whomever? What’s it based on? You study enough history, you begin to realize it is ultimately about interpretation rooted to some kind of evidence, and it means that that interpretation is always changing. It’s baffling and befuddling, and people don’t like it sometimes. They want to just know, what happened? “Just tell me.”

And hope:

DB: But back to your point about tragedy: the whole point of tragedy is that tragedy is a way of viewing the world. I think to have a solid sense of tragedy about the human condition, and about history, is the real source of hope. It prepares you for when the next cataclysm might come, and when something even like 9/11, which was so cataclysmic, occurs, to know that it is not original. It’s happened throughout history that people have attacked civilians on a mass scale. It happened in the Trojan War. It’s happened ever since.

The more you know that, the more prepared you are for those times when it may actually happen to you. That was James Baldwin’s definition of what it meant to have a sense of history.

MH: Beautiful.

DB: I loved his answer when he was asked: what is a sense of history? He said: you think something has only happened to you, and then you realize it happened to Dostoyevsky a hundred years ago, and it’s especially important for a young person to know that they are, therefore, not alone.

To have a sense of history means you’re not alone. You know enough of the past to know that things that happen have happened before. You’re not alone in this story.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner with David Graham

Graham LoyaltyDavid Graham is an assistant professor of history at Snow College. This interview is based on his new book Loyalty on the Line: Civil War Maryland in American Memory (University of Georgia Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Loyalty on the Line: Civil War Maryland in American Memory?

DG:  My interest in Maryland and Civil War memory began when I visited Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland while in graduate school.  It was a dreary day with on and off rain.  I was practically alone on the battlefield and as I visited the various parts of the landscape and the different monuments, I became interested in learning more about the history of the preservation of the battlefield and the monuments that dotted it.  I ended up writing my Master’s thesis on the commemoration history of Antietam and that led me to look at Maryland’s place in the Civil War and American memory for my PhD dissertation at Purdue University.  This research formed the basis of my new book.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Loyalty on the Line: Civil War Maryland in American Memory?

DG: Maryland did not adopt a clear, postbellum Civil War identity.  The divisions within Maryland during the war persisted after 1865 and not only reflected the divisions of the country but also revealed the importance of the border state experience to American society decades after the Civil War.

JF: Why do we need to read Loyalty on the Line: Civil War Maryland in American Memory?

DG:  It is my hope that this book offers an important argument to not only the field of Civil War memory but that it can also help inform our current conversations about the legacy of the Civil War and the manifestations of that legacy in our public spaces.  In August of last year, the mayor of Baltimore made the decision to remove the city’s Confederate monuments.  There was intense reaction and debate regarding this decision.  I discuss these monuments in my book and add historical context to the current controversy.  One of the themes in the book that I think is pretty clear is that controversy surrounding Civil War memory, monuments and otherwise, is not new.  There is a long history of struggling with these symbols.  That is a major part of my book.

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

DG:  My interest in history was actually sparked by a high school English teacher.  I always enjoyed history but never thought of it as a career until her class.   She was a Civil War reenactor and her passion for Civil War history was clear.  We read The Killer Angels (one of the few books in high school I actually read from cover to cover).  I enjoyed the book but the life altering moment happened when we visited Gettysburg as a class.  Standing on the battlefield imagining the events of those three days in July 1863 was surreal.  The experience was heightened by the fact that we read the novel shortly before the trip to the battlefield.  At one point in the battlefield’s museum, I was left behind by the rest of my class because I lost track of time while gazing at the artifacts and I completely forgot what I was supposed to be doing.  From that point on, I knew I wanted to study history and I wanted to become a teacher of some kind.  Preserved historic sites and wonderful educators are the reason I am an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

DG: My second book project centers on reunions of former slaves during the postbellum period.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, freedpeople and their descendants began holding reunions throughout the United States as a way to reconnect with those who they labored beside before the outbreak of the Civil War.  These gatherings indicate that the intimate relationships and neighborhoods that slaves cultivated during the antebellum period did not conclude with emancipation or the end of the war but persisted for the remainder of their lives.  I’m currently researching the motivations of these reunions, their frequency, and the response they generated from white southerners. Looking forward to see where the research takes me.

JF: Thanks, David!

Would the Coverage of George H.W. Bush’s Death Look Different if He Did Not Die in the Age of Trump?

Bush Obama

Noble. Civil. Classy. Kind. Gentle. Hopeful. Dignified. Selfless. Honest. Wise. Beloved. Modest. Hero. Leader. Moral. Courageous.

These are all words that have been used to describe George H.W. Bush since he passed away this weekend.  Of course there are many writers on the Left who have complicated this glowing perspective, but as I watch his state funeral right now I am essentially listening to commentators describe the anti-Donald Trump.

David Lowenthal, RIP

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I never met David Lowenthal, but his scholarship has influenced my work.  I highly recommend The Past is a Foreign Country (1985) and Possessed by the Past: Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1996).

Here is a taste of his obituary at The Guardian:

In 2017 the historian and geographer David Lowenthal, who has died aged 95, gave a lecture at University College London in which he insisted: “Heritage is not history: heritage is what people make of their history to make themselves feel good.” He contrasted the way that individual nations and tribes imagine their own heritage with the conception recently promoted by international organisations, notably Unesco, that heritage must be universal, for the good of all.

A case in point is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built on a site said to cover locations important around the time of Jesus’s death. Six Orthodox and Catholic Christian denominations own different parts of the church, while two Muslim families look after its entrance. Solutions to the resulting clashes of responsibility are very much needed, just as with other sacred sites in the city.

American-born but British by inclination, David became professor of geography at UCL in 1972, retiring as emeritus professor in 1986. Apart from Unesco, the heritage agencies he advised included the World Monuments Fund, English Heritage, the US National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Trust of Australia. Never afraid of controversy, he presented cogent opinions on a host of topics, such as the Elgin Marbles, the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford and the role of the Barclay twins on the island of Sark.

He helped make heritage studies a discipline in its own right: the lecture he gave last year was the first in an annual series for UCL’s recently founded Centre for Critical Heritage Studies. In doing so, he pointed to the way history seeks to identify the truth while heritage exaggerates and omits, invents and forgets in order to fabricate prejudiced pride in the past. Heritage is fashioned to “attest our identity and affirm our worth”, an argument he developed further in The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1997).

Read the rest here.

Goodbye Silent Sam

In case you have not heard, last night protesters (apparently students) at the University of North Carolina pulled down a Confederate statue called “Silent Sam.”

A few quick comments:

  1. I support the spirit behind this act.  The statue needed to be removed from its prominent place on campus.
  2. I understand what Silent Sam stands for, and I oppose it, but I was bothered by the hate and rage I witnessed during this video.
  3. The UNC History Department has made an earlier statement about the monument.  The department proposed removing the monument from its prominent position on campus and moving it to an “appropriate place” where it could “become a useful historical artifact with which to teach the history of the university and its still incomplete mission to be ‘the People’s University.'”  I wish the UNC administration would have acted sooner on the UNC History Department’s recommendation.

Remembering and “Misremembering” 1968

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Robert Greene II, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, has a nice piece at Religion & Politics on the way we remember the careers and tragic deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.  Both were assassinated in 1968.

A taste:

Public memory is how a nation remembers its past. It’s shown through acts of commemoration such as the dedication of statues, presidential proclamations, or national holidays. Memory can bind together the citizens of a nation through symbolism and pageantry. Conversely, it can also gloss over the legacies of important figures and moments. The deaths of King and Kennedy loom large in any misremembering of 1968. Though the two men had minimal interaction in their lifetimes, and what relationship they had was complicated, their assassinations during the same year marked a turning point. They occurred just prior to the rise of a staunch conservative ascendancy and liberal division that have continued to saturate American politics. King’s death left a hole in the moral leadership of the American left, while Kennedy’s death was the end of the optimism that defined the “Camelot”-style politics of the 1960s. For Americans to properly talk about what the nation is missing without those two figures would mean to fully reckon with the myriad of ways the United States has failed to uphold King’s dream and has ignored the words of Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president.

Read the entire piece here.

Edward Ayers on Confederate Monuments

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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.

 

A Historian of Civil War Memory Reviews Katie Couric’s “Re-Righting History”

Lee Monument

Historian Caroline E. Janney wonders if we can “right the past.”  “Re-Righting History” was the theme of an episode in Katic Couric’s documentary mini-series America Inside Out.  You can watch it here.

Here is a taste of Janney’s post at AHA Today:

This film offers a powerful reminder that memory is always about the present—about using the past to address social, cultural, and or political ideals. When Union veterans launched textbook campaigns in the late 19th century to ensure that the “proper,” i.e. the “Union,” version of the war was taught in classrooms, or when southern states began flying the Confederate battle flag during Massive Resistance, it was about the present, not the past. Such was and is the case in dedicating monuments, naming schools or state highways, flying the Confederate flag, or removing Confederate symbols and names. This documentary provides a stark example: Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler candidly (and chillingly) explains that the alt-right rallied in Charlottesville to protect Lee’s statue in an effort to push back against the “policies of liberals [who] are ethnically cleansing white people from the face of the earth.” Just as the context of the early 20th century shaped efforts to build monuments, the current social and political climate informs calls to both remove and preserve them.

We need to press our students (and perhaps ourselves) to ask what is at the heart of protecting certain symbols or names, constructing new memorials to forgotten aspects of our past, or removing from the public landscape those we have come to evaluate differently in the 21st century. Who should get to make those decisions? What power dynamics are at play? Whom or what do they serve? And can we, as the documentary’s title suggests, ever “re-right” the past?

Read the entire post here.

Hannah Duston: The Puritan’s Memorialized Indian-Killer

Hannah_Duston,_by_Stearns

Check out Barbara Cutter‘s fascinating piece on Hannah Duston, a Puritan woman who was used as a “national symbol of innocence, valor, and patriotism to justify westward expansion.” Cutter is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of Domestic Devils, Battlefield Angels: The Radicalism of American Womanhood, 1830-1865.

A taste:

On a small island north of Concord, New Hampshire, stands a 25-foot-tall granite statue of Hannah Duston, an English colonist taken captive by Native Americans in 1697, during King William’s War. Erected in 1874, the statue bears close resemblance to contemporary depictions of Columbia, the popular “goddess of liberty” and female allegorical symbol of the nation, except for what she holds in her hands: in one, a tomahawk; in the other, a fistful of human scalps.

Though she’s all but forgotten today, Hannah Duston was probably the first American woman to be memorialized in a public monument, and this statue is one of three built in her honor between 1861 and 1879. The mystery of why Americans came to see patriotic “heroism” in Duston’s extreme—even gruesome—violence, and why she became popular more than 100 years after her death, helps explain how the United States sees itself in world conflicts today.

Born in 1657, Hannah Emerson Duston lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts, at a time when disputes among English colonists, the French in Canada, and various Native American nations resulted in a series of wars in the region. King Philip’s War (1675-1676), for example, decimated southern New England Indian nations, which lost between 60 and 80 percent of their population as well as their political independence. Many were sold into slavery. By the late 1680s and the start of King William’s War, fragments of those southern tribes had joined the Abenaki and other northern New England Indian nations allied with the French to fight the continuing expansion of the English colonists to the north and west. Native men conducted raids on frontier English settlements, burning property, killing or injuring some colonists, and taking others captive, either to ransom them back to their families, or to adopt them as replacements for their own lost family members.

Read the rest here.

When the Declaration of Independence Came to Exeter, New Hampshire

Exeter

Historian Jessica Lepler writes: “Exeter’s residents thought they were King George’s subjects twelve days longer than Philadelphians.”  In her piece at Common-Place, Lepler tells the very interesting story of a first edition copy of the Declaration of Independence printed in 1776 by John Dunlap.  Here is a taste:

The Dunlap broadside (the broadside) on display during Exeter’s American Independence Festival was “discovered” in 1985 in the attic of the Ladd-Gilman House. The house was built in the early eighteenth century and was the home of the politically prominent Gilman family. During the Revolutionary War when Exeter was the state capital and a booming inland seaport, the house served as the treasury. In 1902, the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of New Hampshire acquired the house from the Gilman family. The society, a hereditary organization composed of the eldest male descendants of New Hampshire’s commissioned officers who served in the Continental Army and Navy, named it Cincinnati Memorial Hall. In this clubhouse, members gathered for meetings and brought with them artifacts from the revolutionary era for a kind of grown-up show-and-tell. Some of these objects had been passed down in their families; others were acquired over time. The collection grew: political cartoons, swords, furniture, rare books, original drafts of the Constitution complete with handwritten notes, an eighteenth-century purple heart, and portraits of revolutionary leaders by famous artists. Despite the value of the items at Cincinnati Memorial Hall, the collection was unorganized and record-keeping haphazard. The society, however, knew it owned valuable artifacts. In 1985, the society hired a local electrician to install a security system, which required attic access. Local lore suggests that the electrician’s assistant “discovered” the broadside in a stack of old newspapers serving as insulation. The society, in turn, argues that the broadside was “rediscovered” by a member during an inventory of the items stored in the attic inspired by the electrician’s need for access. Regardless of who should be credited with finding the document, it quickly became clear that this piece of paper was worth quite a lot of money. By selling the broadside, the society could afford to repair and restore the rest of its collection, including the Ladd-Gilman house and Folsom Tavern.

The society had stumbled upon a bounty, or at least the members and appraisers thought so. The society reached out to leading sellers of historic documents and rare books. Most valued the broadside at around $500,000 (adjusted for inflation to 2017, that would be about $1.1 million). This is probably a low estimate given the more than $2 million sale price of the copy discovered and sold just a few years later.

The price tag, however, proved inconsequential. As the society prepared to send the broadside to auction, the state of New Hampshire intervened. It turns out that, in legal terms, the mystery of who found the broadside matters a lot less than who lost it. Did a member give it to the society during the show-and-tell meetings sometime after 1902? Or was it the original copy—the one sent to the Committee of Safety by Hancock that arrived on July 16, 1776—hidden in the attic of the state treasury? In 1776, after all, the broadside was not a rare, valuable piece of old paper; it was treason. If the Gilmans hid the broadside in their house in the 1770s, it was never theirs to convey to the society. It was technically state property. And the state of New Hampshire wanted it back.

Read the rest here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Anne Bailey

51yawlmV0vL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Anne Bailey is associate professor of African American history at Binghamton University. This interview is based on her new book, The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What is the argument of The Weeping Time?

AB: Drawing on victims’ accounts and descendants’ memories, The Weeping Time uses the largest slave auction in U.S. history as a lens to explore the legacies of slavery, diaspora and the Civil War.

The story of “The Weeping Time” is also a story of the strength and resilience of families – in this case, African American families. Building on the great work of historians like Herbert Gutman (The Black Family in Slavery and in Freedom) and Annette Gordon Reed ( The Hemingses), The Weeping Time demonstrates that in spite of a history of displacement and loss, some Black families managed to reconnect after emancipation and reestablished strong ties that remain to this day.

JF: Why do we need to read The Weeping Time?

AB: The book is also about memory and why there is such amnesia about slavery particularly about the mechanics of the system. Slave auctions were as common as stock trades today yet most of us cannot recollect even one. How does something so important disappear from public memory? Why is there still contention about Confederate generals and the statues built in their honor? I think all aspects of slavery are important to share because there is still a lot of misperceptions and misinformation about the period and its effect on American history. There is still a lot of healing that needs to take place – a lot of understanding that there are strong connections that we share that should help us to overcome our differences. I also hope the book will open up again the discussion on Reparations – the debt that is due to descendants of slaves whose ancestors labored without compensation. This debt or investment could be a particular boon to inner city communities across the nation.

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

AB: I don’t think I consciously decided until I was in my mid twenties yet I was interested in history from I first saw ROOTS in 1977. I later did a school research project on slavery. That project created in me an endless thirst to know more about this period and, in fact, about my own roots.

During college, I ended up taking the route of Literature (French and English), but again, was more interested in the places where literature and history connect. In the end, I found that that original thirst would best be quenched through the field of history yet I have maintained a strong interest in many disciplines including English and Anthropology.

JF: What is your next project?

AB:  Transatlantic Slave auctions—an edited volume on slave auctions in Brazil, Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean and South America.(2019)

Back to the Future: Jamaican Identity in a Globalized World, co -edited with Dr. Hilary Robertson Hickling of the University of West Indies regarding the history of the Jamaican Diaspora and its relationship with host countries such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, (Expected date: 2018.)

JF: Thanks, Anne!

Christ Church in Alexandria is a Church, Not a Museum

George_Washington_memorial_-_Christ_Church_(Alexandria,_Virginia)_-_DSC03516In case you have not heard, an Episcopalian church in Alexandria, Virginia is taking down a plaque memorializing George Washington.  When Christ Church opened in 1773, Washington owned a pew.  He attended the church whenever he was in town to conduct business.  It is located about nine miles from Mount Vernon. Washington also served as a vestryman in the church.

According to this piece in The Washington Times, Christ Church will also be removing a memorial marker dedicated to another famous parishioner: Robert E. Lee.

Here is a taste:

While acknowledging “friction” over the decision, the church’s leadership said both plaques, which are attached to the front wall on either side of the altar, are relics of another era and have no business in a church that proclaims its motto as “All are welcome — no exceptions.”

“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques,” the church leaders said in a letter to the congregation that went out last week.

The decision was also announced to parishioners on Sunday.

The backlash was swift, with the church’s Facebook page turning into a battleground. Some supporters praised the church for a “courageous” stand, while critics compared leaders at the Episcopal church leaders to the Taliban or the Islamic State.

Read the entire piece here.

Let’s remember that Christ Church is a functioning congregation.  If the leadership of this congregation believe that people will be offended by commemorative material related to Washington or Lee, or if they believe that these plaques will somehow hinder the advancement of the Gospel in their midst, then the materials should definitely be removed from the sanctuary.  Finally, I am not sure political figures or military generals belong in a church sanctuary.  I would say the same thing about the American flag.

I am also glad to see that the church will be creating a separate space where the commemorative items can be explained and contextualized:

The new display location will be determined by a parish committee. That location will provide a place for our parish to offer a fuller narrative of our rich history, including the influence of these two powerful men on our church and our country,” she said in the email. “We look forward to this opportunity to continue to learn more about our own history and find new ways to introduce it to the wider community.

Read the statement from the Senior Warden of Christ Church here.

Agnostic Monuments and Other Forms of Secular Commemoration

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As Washington University-St. Louis religion professor Leigh Eric Schmidt points out, religion, patriotism, and lost causes are not the only things people in America commemorate.

Here is a taste of his Aeon piece, “Monuments to Unbelief

Materialising secularism, giving it ritual shape and monumental expression, has picked up again as the ‘new atheists’ – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and company – have become bestsellers, and as the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has grown dramatically in the past decade and a half. Defenders of scientific rationality and free enquiry have mounted new festivals such as International Darwin Day on February 12 and International Blasphemy Rights Day on September 30 to keep up the battle against superstition. This past summer, the Freedom from Religion Foundation orchestrated the dedication of a seven-foot-tall bronze statue of Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. (His anti-evolution opponent, William Jennings Bryan, had already been memorialised some years earlier with a statue outside the courthouse, but now Bryan’s likeness – thanks once more to Frudakis the sculptor – must share public space again with his infidel adversary.)

Atheists and nonbelievers have also launched new congregational ventures – most prominently, the Sunday Assembly and Oasis – in several cities across the country, and humanist chaplaincies have flowered on a number of college campuses to afford a community for openly secular students. The UK-based philosopher Alain de Botton has crystallised much of this recent ritual creativity in Religion for Atheists (2012), in which he expressly reimagines Comte’s religion of humanity for contemporary nonbelievers. Restaurants and art museums, de Botton suggests, are potential sites for humanistic liturgies of communal solidarity and unbuttoned conviviality. Whether in Sunday gatherings or funeral rites, the new secularists court temple, sacrament and monument much as the old secularists long did.

Perhaps the most successful instance of that courtship has been the Satanic Temple – a group of freethinking activists, led by the pseudonymous Lucien Greaves, which has puckishly deployed an occult statue of Baphomet to challenge a monument devoted to the Ten Commandments at the State Capitol in Oklahoma. Winning its case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2015, the troupe forced state officials into the bind of removing the Decalogue or having it share space with a winged, goat-headed, pagan idol – a topsy-turvy symbol to these ‘Satanists’ of equal liberty, rational enquiry and free expression. Reluctantly, the state’s Republican leadership decided that it was better to take down the Ten Commandments than to make room for such sacrilege. Deprived of a space in Oklahoma’s public square, the statue of Baphomet went instead to Michigan where it has been installed as the showpiece of Detroit’s chapter of the Satanic Temple, the latest US monument to blasphemy, infidelity and strict church-state separation.

Read the entire piece here

Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities

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Over at Uncommon Sense, Elizabeth Losh of the American Studies Department at William & Mary reports on an upcoming conference:

The Digital Humanities Caucus of the American Studies Association is committed to working across “the various areas of digital humanities,” including but not limited to  “born-digital work, computational methods (such as network, spatial, and textual analysis), cyberculture studies, digital editions and collections, digital tools (cyberinfrastructure) for humanities scholars, and new media.” The American Studies Program at William and Mary consulted with the caucus’s leadership to assemble an exciting roster of digital humanities speakers to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of African Americans in Residence on the historic campus. These efforts have been helped by months of collaboration with the Omohundro Institute, which is developing more digital projects and more interactive articles in its signature publication, The William and Mary Quarterly, including many that address the legacies of slavery and the racist dogmas of colonization.

An upcoming Omohundro-sponsored conference on “Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities” reflects a number of recent conversations about using digital technologies to archive and interpret the cultural record with more attention to the contributions of communities of color. Although just a few years ago Tara McPherson bemoaned the lack of diversity in the digital humanities in her groundbreaking article “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” digital scholarship that approaches race as a critical issue from the traditional archive to online communities has become a vibrant and expanding field. From digitizing records on slavery, colonialism, and 19th century political organizing by free and fugitive Blacks to interpreting Afrofuturist science fiction, digital music, and hashtag activism, the contributions of scholars of African-American history and culture to the digital humanities have been significant.  Digital humanities work that explores race and memory even incorporates cutting-edge technologies like 3D computer animation and virtual reality, which Angel David Nieves of Yale will discuss.  Many of the speakers – including Moya Bailey, Alexis Lothian, Amanda Phillips – were founding members of TransformDH, which is devoted to “a digital humanities of transformative research, pedagogy, and activism for social justice, accessibility, and inclusion.”

Read the rest 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.