Monday, April 12, 2010

And His Wages Were Death: White Identity Politics and a Final Thought on the Confederate History Month Controversy

Those still seeking to understand why the dispute over Virginia's "Confederate History Month" is so pointed would do well to watch this second installment of BBC's miniseries The History of Racism.

Jim Crow. Lynching. King Leopold's genocide in the Congo. Blackface. The Black and Brown freedom struggle placed in a global context. The Racial Contract. Talk about a meaty 60 minutes. Some folks love the documentary Race: The Power of Illusion. But for my dime I am becoming much more inclined towards The History of Racism.

A final thought on this Confederate History Month dust-up: Slavery and white supremacy were not "nits" in our country's history. As Roland Martin sharply pointed out on CNN, the Rebels were terrorists and traitors. Although White Southerners may not have all owned slaves, they died to support white supremacy, an ideology that paid the Johnny Rebs and the Southern poor whites who died by the hundreds of thousands a psychic wage for the privilege of their white skin.

To borrow from my favorite Johnny Cash song, during the Civil War The Man came around and his wages were death (did you know that 2 percent of the U.S. population died in that war?) . In Sherman's march to the sea and Grant's escapades The Man cut Johnny Reb and the Secesh down like wheat and piled them up like cord wood. For those 21st century dead enders and apologists for the Southern slaveocracy I must ask: was all that death and destruction worth it to protect your unique "Southern identity" and "culture?" How can their deaths be made noble and heroic when they fought to keep others in bondage?

As we enter the Age of Obama was it all worth it?

From The New York Times:

April 11, 2010

Southern Discomfort

IN 1956, nearly a century after Fort Sumter, Robert Penn Warren went on assignment for Life magazine, traveling throughout the South after the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decisions. Racism was thick, hope thin. Progress, Warren reported, was going to take a while — a long while. “History, like nature, knows no jumps,” he wrote, “except the jump backward, maybe.”

Last week, Virginia’s governor, Robert McDonnell, jumped backward when he issued a proclamation recognizing April as Confederate History Month. In it he celebrated those “who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth” and wrote of the importance of understanding “the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”

The governor originally chose not to mention slavery in the proclamation, saying he “focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.” It seems to follow that, at least for Mr. McDonnell, the plight of Virginia’s slaves does not rank among the most significant aspects of the war.

Advertently or not, Mr. McDonnell is working in a long and dispiriting tradition. Efforts to rehabilitate the Southern rebellion frequently come at moments of racial and social stress, and it is revealing that Virginia’s neo-Confederates are refighting the Civil War in 2010. Whitewashing the war is one way for the right — alienated, anxious and angry about the president, health care reform and all manner of threats, mostly imaginary — to express its unease with the Age of Obama, disguising hate as heritage.

If neo-Confederates are interested in history, let’s talk history. Since Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Confederate symbols have tended to be more about white resistance to black advances than about commemoration. In the 1880s and 1890s, after fighting Reconstruction with terrorism and after the Supreme Court struck down the 1875 Civil Rights Act, states began to legalize segregation. For white supremacists, iconography of the “Lost Cause” was central to their fight; Mississippi even grafted the Confederate battle emblem onto its state flag.

But after the Supreme Court allowed segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Jim Crow was basically secure. There was less need to rally the troops, and Confederate imagery became associated with the most extreme of the extreme: the Ku Klux Klan.

In the aftermath of World War II, however, the rebel flag and other Confederate symbolism resurfaced as the civil rights movement spread. In 1948, supporters of Strom Thurmond’s pro-segregation Dixiecrat ticket waved the battle flag at campaign stops.

Then came the school-integration rulings of the 1950s. Georgia changed its flag to include the battle emblem in 1956, and South Carolina hoisted the colors over its Capitol in 1962 as part of its centennial celebrations of the war.

As the sesquicentennial of Fort Sumter approaches in 2011, the enduring problem for neo-Confederates endures: anyone who seeks an Edenic Southern past in which the war was principally about states’ rights and not slavery is searching in vain, for the Confederacy and slavery are inextricably and forever linked.

That has not, however, stopped Lost Causers who supported Mr. McDonnell’s proclamation from trying to recast the war in more respectable terms. They would like what Lincoln called our “fiery trial” to be seen in a political, not a moral, light. If the slaves are erased from the picture, then what took place between Sumter and Appomattox is not about the fate of human chattel, or a battle between good and evil. It is, instead, more of an ancestral skirmish in the Reagan revolution, a contest between big and small government.

We cannot allow the story of the emancipation of a people and the expiation of America’s original sin to become fodder for conservative politicians playing to their right-wing base. That, to say the very least, is a jump backward we do not need.

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for biography for “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

In 1905, a man who fought in the war in the same unit as my great-great grandfather wrote about the history of the unit during the Civil War. Two interesting quotes: "Many of those who engaged in the War of Rebellion believed that slavery was a Divine institution, and that it should be maintained, that only heretics and infidels condemned it." Also: "The volcanic forces generated by an attempt to combine freedom and slavery had been rumbling for a quarter of a century and were now to burst forth with intensest fury."

The guys who fought in the war knew that it wasn't about 'States rights.'