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.
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.