Saturday, April 28, 2018

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2018, April 28: A convert's story

Or maybe it's more of a growing-up story. William Black in Confessions of a former neo-Confederate Vox 12/16/2016 about visiting the Jefferson Davis Monument in Kentucky with his wife and father-in-law. He explains how he grew up absorbing the neo-Confederate worldview:
Less than a decade ago I was one of those people my father-in-law was afraid of. I believed slavery in the antebellum South wasn't as awful as some people made it out to be. I believed the Confederacy seceded to preserve states’ rights, not slavery. I thought Reconstruction was a mistake, a prime example of federal overreach. And I insisted the Confederate flag was a symbol of Southern pride, not racism. If Dylann Roof had gone to my high school and we had talked about American history, we would have agreed on a lot.

I worry sometimes it’s too easy to dismiss neo-Confederates as a fringe group. With every victory in the campaign against Confederate iconography in the public square — a flag removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds, a Jefferson Davis statue taken down at the University of Texas — the Lost Cause seems weaker and less relevant.

But neo-Confederate ideas are more pervasive than we like to admit. They’re not limited to the South or the far right. And they’re harder to rout out than a few flags and statues. In January [2016] we heard Hillary Clinton repeat the old Lost Cause line that Reconstruction should have been less “rancorous” and more “forgiving” of former Confederates, gliding across the fact that this would have occurred at the expense of black people’s freedom. [my emphasis]
He tells the story of how he watched the Ken Burns' documentary series on the Civil War as a 12-year-old and found elements of it that resonated with neo-Confederate sentiments that he had experienced growing up in Tennessee:
I quickly devoured all 11.5 hours of the series, and though the documentary is far from neo-Confederate propaganda, I was drawn to its Lost Cause elements. There were the magnolia-drenched words of novelist Shelby Foote, who blamed the war on the American people’s failure to compromise. There was the story of how the Northern Lights made an unusual appearance after a Confederate victory in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which Lee’s men saw as a sign of God’s favor. There were the final words of Stonewall Jackson, accidentally shot by one of his own men: “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” When the narrator related how, at the 1913 Gettysburg reunion, veterans from the opposing sides embraced and shook hands over the stone wall at the Angle, I cried.
Now a history scholar, Black recounts his own experience as a history-nerd teenager coming to understand the ideological and false nature of the Lost Cause/neo-Confederate narrative.

He talks about how much of real history is obscured in the Lost Cause account:
Nor was slavery a mere wedge issue. Serious money was at stake. Slaves were worth more money in 1860 than all of America's factories, railroads, and banks combined. And it wasn't just slaveholders who had a stake in the so-called peculiar institution, because every white Southerner, even the poorest dirt farmer, drew comfort from the knowledge they would never be on the bottom rung of society so long as slavery remained in place.

The Confederates were clear: They were seceding to protect slavery. Just read Mississippi’s secession ordinance: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” Or read the Confederate vice president’s proclamation that the “cornerstone” of the new nation was “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
This is a useful reflection on his part that gets to the issue of "anachronism," in the sense of applying prominent present-day perspectives to earlier periods in which those ideas were not dominant, and possibly not even recognizable in the earlier context:
I look at my own past — valorizing slaveholders and traitors, whitesplaining history to my middle school teacher and to my classmates — and I cannot be sure, as many white liberals are, that if I had lived in the 19th century I would have been an abolitionist. I cannot be sure I do not even now support systems of cruelty and injustice that future historians will view with clear-eyed contempt.
An added note on the Jefferson Davis Monument. The conservative writer Robert Penn Warren, a onetime figure in the Nashville Agrarian group, used his youthful visits to the Jefferson Davis Monument as it was under construction as a introductory narrative in his book-length essay, Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizens Back (1980).

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