Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Honoring African American Civil War Soldiers, But Still Searching for the Myth That is "The Black Confederate"



There is so much right with what these brothers are doing, which is why I will tread carefully in my intervention--one, that as always, is based on my prime directives of the love principle and a whole commitment to Black Pragmatism.

Even while trying to free our minds, there is much gunk and debris nested in the consciousness of those who were once colonized, excluded, made the Other, or oppressed. Consequently, those narratives that serve to legitimate Power are often reproduced by the very same individuals who are resisting it. In much the same way that a fish does not know that it lives in water, black Americans often accept and internalize White dominant scripts, frames, and narratives about both our history and present. Thus, we often see our selves through the White gaze.

When those moments are present and reproduced--especially by black folks who are trying to generate a counter-narrative in the face of White supremacist fictions about the humanity of black people--they are glaring. Consider the following quotation from The Tennessean's piece "Black Soldiers Celebrated as Civil War's Forgotten Heroes," where one of the members of the 13th United States Colored Soldiers Living History Association observes that:
“It was a painful time, yes. But I want people to understand that African-Americans were not all slaves and property and mindless and un-ambitious,” said Norman Hill, a retired executive with the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain. “We were strong; we weren’t all just raggedy slaves. These men marched for what they believed in.”
For lack of a better phrase, that just hurts. The irony is grand: A black man channeling the ancestors' freedom struggle and expressing how manhood rights were earned, and freedom dues paid, in blood, yet still holding on to a white supremacist fiction of happy lazy slaves on the yee olde plantation, shiftless and weak, saved by the good graces of White civilization and the benevolent hand of the planter class.

When I see speak to, read about, or encounter brothers and sisters who know not the greatness of their legacy and struggle as Black Americans, I like to remind them of the following facts.

Would mindless and un-ambitious slaves have:

1. Created such a sense of peril because of their daily resistance to the slaveocracy that the South was a veritable military state, where it was law in many regions that white men had to carry firearms on Sunday to put down slave rebellions? Or fought back so often and with such fervor that the TransAtlantic slave trade, while a charnel house for its human cargo, was also one of the most dangerous jobs in the world for those crews who ran the floating dungeons?

2. Manumitted themselves by the tens of thousands, risking life and limb to flee Northward, be reunited with family and kin once sold off, or created an indigenous culture of resistance and survival?

3. Hired out their own labor, negotiated the terms of their relationships with their masters, and then lived semi-independently working as skilled craftsmen, who in turn would buy their freedom and that of their kin folk?

4. Upon liberating themselves reorganized the plantations, kicked their former masters of off the land, and in some cases whipped white slave owners as punishment for their barbarous deeds?

5. Instituted some of the most forward thinking and progressive governments in this country's history during Reconstruction? Served in the U.S. Senate and Congress with distinction, only a few years removed from the end of slavery? Become prosperous entrepreneurs, formed black Wall Streets, and created their own vibrant civil society?

6. Had an appreciation for the grand irony of liberating themselves, returning South wearing the Union blue, and quite literally turning their former communities upside down as Jubilee day had come in the form of black men, marching South, and turning the tide of battle against the Confederacy?

Sadly, some black folks are ashamed of their ancestors' struggles. They eye-roll and look down at the ground when that "slavery stuff" comes up. Some are ashamed and feel like they are the "losers" in American history. Or alternatively, that they are heirs to a tradition of defeat and are somehow a lesser people. I never understood those sentiments. Black Americans have triumphed despite unimaginable obstacles, took our freedom through acts small and great, and tried to save American democracy from the wicked inequities of its own poisoned, White supremacist heart. In short, black Americans saved the country from itself--and selflessly did so for the betterment of all people(s).

We must always be cautious, for in this triumph, and in the 13th United States Colored Soldiers Living History Association's effort to preserve that history, the ugly, dead hand of White racism still reaches out, wearing the glove of friendship as it tries to resuscitate Confederate nobility and the lie that is the fantasy of Redemption:

“It’s not just black and white. You might almost say there were shades of gray,” Hill said. Ruffin Abernathy went to war with his owner, Tom Abernathy of Giles County. He served as a cook with the 3rd Tennessee Infantry and later as a surgeon’s assistant. After the war, he requested and received a Confederate pension and lived the rest of his long life as a farmer near Pulaski, Tenn.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans approached the family, hoping to place a military headstone on Ruffin Abernathy’s grave as a belated honor. The family agreed, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs balked, arguing that because Abernathy was a slave, he wasn’t really a soldier. “They said he would be considered more like ‘equipment,’ ” Gordon said.

Instead, the Sons of Confederate Veterans raised money on their own to buy new headstones for Abernathy and 17 other black Confederates in the Pulaski cemetery. Gordon and her family attended the ceremony on Nov. 8, 2009, which featured cannon fire and costumed re-enactors firing volleys over the graves.

The re-enactors offered to present a flag to the family — a Confederate flag.

“I was sort of torn about whether to accept,” Gordon said. “I couldn’t see accepting the Confederate battle flag, but there was one flag they called the Bonnie Blue flag of freedom.”

And so the Sons of Confederate Veterans presented the family with the Bonnie Blue flag, a single star on a bright blue background. A star not unlike the North Star that used to guide escaped slaves to freedom.

“I thought, freedom might mean one thing to them,” Gordon said. “And it might mean something else to me.”

The myth makers of Whiteness and the flimflam artists of the Neo-Confederate, White populist, Tea Party crowd are always looking for The Black Confederate Soldier. Somehow, he/she washes away the formal and treasonous declarations made by the South's leaders. Most importantly, the unicorn that is The Black Confederate Soldier acts as a magical totem who rewrites the basic truth that the war between the states first and foremost hinged upon the South's desire (in the name of economic "necessity") to maintain a formal system of white supremacy and the permanent inter-generational bondage of millions of people, a group whose only crime was to be born black in a country where they had "no rights that a white man was bound to respect."

As I have written elsewhere, there is no nobility in either the Confederacy or their misadventure. The stars and bars was and remains a symbol of terrorism, treason, and violence. In total, those individuals who honor the Confederacy are celebrating rebellion and white bigotry. By extension, and across the generations, they have blood on their hands.

Ms. Gordon is a better person than I am, for I would have demanded that the Sons of Confederate Veterans stay far away from my ancestors' memory and the honored dead who struggled to survive, live, and triumph despite the wickedness of the White supremacist State known as the CSA.

In sum, it is great to see a group of African American Civil War reenactors who are taking some control of their own history. Making that legacy come alive is important. But, we cannot abandon the fight in the present for controlling the meta-narrative about our own history, or for liberating our minds and cognitive schema from the muck and mire that is White racism.

History is written in drafts. As Americans of all colors, let's at least make sure that we get this central story--that of the Civil War, race, slavery, liberation, and our unfinished democratic project--correct.

17 comments:

Thrasher said...

Decades agO I launched a letter protest against the annual Williamsbug, VA slavey auction reenactment...My primary protest theme was that those orchestrating this insanity did not get the permission of the dead slaves to exploit them for money( the revenues generated from these offensive vacation special attactions)etc..

To my surprise I encountered major pushback from the Black Professsor who has hired to oversee the attraction for authencity etc..

After we chase down these Black Confederate Apologists..I have another group to target as well....

nomad said...

The idea of the black Confederate Soldier in combat is (probably) a myth; except maybe for those that felt compelled to fight alongside their masters. But how do you account for the desire of some blacks (slaves?) to join the Confederacy?

chaunceydevega said...

@Thrasher. Share more about the protest and what happened with the black prof who pushed back?

@Nomad. Black slaves were just that--human property in the eyes of the CSA. So they could be loaned or leased to the CSA Army.

In fact, the CSA resisted allowing black soldiers to serve in the latter years...even as they were losing the war and black confederates could have been of help with their manpower shortage. The black laborers and man servants were in almost all instances that I have seen--and if others have more specifics please share--"escorting" i.e. still in bondage to the white man/family which sent someone off to war.

nomad said...

I wish I knew how to paste here, but anyway, it was mentioned in the Coates article. "The Native Guard in Louisiana mustered" but were told by the Confederacy "no blacks allowed". Where did that uncoerced desire to join the Confederacy come from?

Abstentus said...

FYI, Chauncey. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/memorial-day-parade-includes-tribute-to-the-only-all-black-ranger-unit-in-army-history/2011/05/30/AGL9j0EH_story.html

The 2nd Ranger Co., Korea, has been part of my awareness almost since I had a minimal vocabulary.

Thrasher said...

CD,

The protest did not go far in part because the Professor did not have the passion about the disconnect and insanity of having a slave reenactment attraction in the 90's..She reasoned away it had some merit because the actors are Black and not in black face...

Also she was being paid to act as a buffer against people like me who challenged this bullshit..

The good professor position in part was because this was an educational excercise it could withstand challenges from people like me..

I intentionaly took the position that the reenactments should stop because the hiers of the dead slaves did not give permission nor were compensated ...I used this tatic to navigate around the good professor's educational academic freedom posturing..

In the end after I wrote a series of letters to her employers about having a bunch of crazed negroes invading these weekend games of pretend..They continued and I and my group was dismissed..A few other national pundits wrote about it and the drama faded into the sun...

The New Black Woman said...

@Thrasher: I have a hard time understanding why that black professor would think a slave re-enactment would serve as a valuable teaching lesson. Would she condone that crap if this were a bunch of black school children forced to reenact the roles of slaves by their teachers?

I find it hard to believe that confederate soldiers would even allow black slaves to fight alongside them in their quest for secession. If they allowed slaves to serve in combat, that would require the Confederate soldiers to face the issue of freeing slaves (if they had won the Civil War). Since the Civil War was about southerners maintaining their way of life (slavery, white supremacy, etc.), the myth of blacks fighting for the Confederacy is full of contradictions.

Thrasher said...

@ TNBW,

I share your objections of course..

nomad said...

@CD
Excuse my impatience but I'm waiting for an answer to my query.

chaunceydevega said...

@Nomad. People are complicated. There were slaves that would turn runaways and rebels in to white authorities for example. The human mind is complicated. Like any group some of us were cowards, some "pragmatic," and none too few complicit.

nomad said...

Well, all right. Except these blacks were not slaves. They were free blacks (mixed) and some were likely slave owners. In order to understand our history we have to come to terms with the role of this intermediate caste of blacks. It would shed some light on today's politics. I left a citation on your Alternet article that I hope you will reflect upon.

chaunceydevega said...

@Nomad. I wrote this on Alternet in reply:

Not really. There is a great book I read a few years back called African American slave holders...I believe if memory serves me correct.

There is an interesting paradox where you can have a system of white supremacy that blacks and other people of color participate in. Those cases are outliers that are worthy of study. But, they do nothing to subvert the bigger claim about the naked, raw, white supremacist project of American slavery. Also, we have to qualify cases because there were blacks who owned "slaves" who were actually there family members, loved ones, and other kin as a means of free blacks to try to protect their own people.

Interesting stuff though. As I said on WARN, do a guest spot.

nomad said...

Sure. But it was not always so benevolent. Black slave-owners could be as cruel as whites. A slave was property. And, much like a car today, lots of people wanted to own one. Including some free blacks. Nothing familial about it.

chaunceydevega said...

@Nomad. Sure, there were black slave holders--very few--who were part of the legit planter class. Just as there were black drivers.

But, a good many black slave owners did own their own relatives as a means of protecting them. Others not so. The story is complex as you pointed out. I will be doing something on it this weekend as this discussion is very fascinating and could be quite rich for others who may want to chime in.

nomad said...

Looking forward to it.

Thrasher said...

I am not ..Why is it revelant to anything? The very reality that a very insignificant group of enslaved people parroted the inhumanity of their oppressors is not a news flash nor worthy of any scholarly tome...

At best it is a defensive and deflective device to that seeks to mitigate the raw truth about white supremacy..From my platform I view the reactions of a people under duress as just that the crude reality of people dealing with the slings and arrows of inhumanity etc..

CD can appease this shallow tease but I don't have to....WTF

TheRaven said...

I'm late to this, promoted by your link in a comment made to TNC's Sept 5th post. No argument with anything you've said; beautiful post. I think, however, your list of six accomplishments is missing a seventh: enslaved blacks taught themselves literacy and risked their lives to do so. I think it's Foner who points to 90% illiteracy among southern blacks in 1865, which means that 400,000 had taught themselves to read before emancipation. Black illiteracy fell to 70% ten years later, meaning that, without government funded schools, despite difficult physical labor and other impediments, another 800,000 educated themselves in the aftermath of the ACW, pre Jim Crow. So 30% of 4 million people (1.2 million) acquired literacy on their own initiative before and immediately after the ACW. Given the weight of Slave Power, that's just huge.