May 15, 2017 § Leave a comment
While it is easy to forget foreign wars, it is not so easy to forget wars fought on one’s own territory. Reminders are everywhere — those statues, those memorials, those museums, those weapons, those graveyards, those slogans. While one may not remember history, one cannot avoid its reminder. — Viet Than Nguyen.
Nguyen wrote this about Vietnam, and how reminders of the Vietnam War are all over the Vietnamese landscape. But this is true of any war-marked landscape, any territory haunted by war. It is true of the landscape I live in, the American South.
Driving to Chattanooga last week, I saw, but didn’t see, the half dozen or so Civil War memorials that dot the landscape off I-24. I saw, but didn’t see, the National Monument atop Lookout Mountain just outside of the city (from here, Union artillery bombarded Confederate-held Chattanooga). I am sure I’m not the only one who experiences this. We historians like to talk about memorials, about their power and all of that, but most memorials are simply part of the landscape, no longer worth remarking upon.
Most of the Civil War memorials were erected in the half century or so following the war, and thus, have had another century or so to blend into the background. My personal favourite of these memorials is one that lies within a chainlink face, on the side of a hill, above a hollow, hard up against the interstate.
The Civil War was obviously fought on Southern territory, as it was the Confederacy that tried to leave the Union. And it remains the most mis-remembered of all American conflagrations, of which there have been many. Americans in the North and the West think the Union went to war to end slavery. And many Americans in the South (by no means all, or, even a majority, I don’t think) think that the war was fought for some abstract ideal, like states’ rights. Both are wrong. The Confederacy seceded due to slavery, as the Southern states felt the ‘peculiar institution’ to be under attack by Northerners. But this is not why the North went to war in 1861; the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t come about until 1862, enacted on New Year’s Day 1863. Prior to that, the Union was fighting for, well, the union.
To return to the landscape of the South, with its battlefields, its many monuments, and to the parts of the landscape still physically scarred by the war, over 150 years ago, there is this constant reminder. This, I would like to humbly suggest, is why the Civil War has remained such a bugaboo for the South.
I oftentimes get the feeling that the larger country would like to just forget the Civil War ever happened, to move on from it. Maybe this is not true for all Americans, particularly African Americans (given slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865). But, it is certainly a trope I notice in my adopted country. But for the South, it couldn’t forget the war even if it wanted to.
Both the Union and Confederate armies marched up and down Tennessee, between Nashville and Chattanooga, along the railway that runs between the two cities. That railway runs next to I-24 for much of that stretch, at most a few miles apart. There are a series of battlefields between the two cities and, of course, the fall of Chattanooga in Autumn 1863 is what allowed the Union Army of General Sherman to march into Georgia and towards Atlanta.
It is hard to forget and move on from a war when there are reminders of it in almost every direction. And mis-remembering the Civil War also serves a purpose beyond the macro political. For one, it removes the nasty part of the rationale for the war on the part of the Confederate States: slavery (this also, obviously, has a macro-political impact). This allows some Southerners to mis-remember the Civil War in order to claim their ancestors who fought in it, to celebrate those that came before them for defending their homes, family, and so on.
Nevermind the inconvenience of slavery, or the fact that these very ancestors in the Confederate Army were deeply resentful of being the cannon fodder for the small minority of the Confederate States of America who actually owned slaves. Nevermind that these ancestors recognized they were the pawns in a disagreement between rich men. Nevermind the fact that these ancestors didn’t own slaves. In fact, that makes it easier to claim and sanitize these men. They were innocent of the great crime of the Confederacy.
And thus, it is easy to take this mis-remembered vision of one’s ancestors fighting in the Civil War for the Confederacy. It is easy to forget that war is terrifying, and to forget the fact that these ancestors, like any soldier today, spent most of their time in interminable boredom, and only a bit of time in abject terror in battle. It is easy to forget all of this, and thus, it is easy to mis-remember the essential reason why this war happened: slavery.
February 20, 2017 § 8 Comments
We tend to live in ideological echo chambers these days. This is as true of the left as it is of the right and of the centre. But something has shifted in recent months that I find rather interesting. Until 2015, liberals and lefties could, and did, say with smug superiority that they dealt in facts and reality and too many people on the other did not (the latter is proved by the ‘alternative facts,’ or lies, that come out of Whitehall in London and the White House in DC, for example).
But since the autumn of 2016, I have been harangued on Twitter by leftists who trade in alternative facts and lies themselves. In October, I found myself in the cross-hairs of the anti-Hillary Clinton left. I had been having a discussion with one of my tweeps about President Bill Clinton’s attempts to introduce universal health care coverage in the United States in 1992-94. This push was led, to a large degree, by Hillary Clinton. It failed for a multitude of reasons, but the simple fact of the matter is that Mrs. Clinton and her husband attempted to introduce universal health care to the US.
During this discussion, I got attacked, in increasingly vicious language, by two leftists who apparently believed that Mrs. Clinton is the face of evil incarnate. They accused me of lying, and, of course, being a Clinton apologist, amongst other things. Not all that interested in this argument, I posted a link to the Wikipedia page explaining this (note that ‘Hillarycare’ also redirects to this page). Sure, it’s Wikipedia, but it gives a general idea of what happened. Not good enough for one of my accusers. She pointed out Wikipedia is ‘not a primary source.’ No, it’s not. But there is a whole bibliography leading to such sources. So, instead, she sent me links to heavily redacted documents and heavily edited YouTube videos of Mrs. Clinton’s speeches on the matter, including one video that showed her in four different outfits. None of this changes historical fact.
In December, it was British leftists who insisted that white people had been slaves in the United States. This isn’t really anything new, the Irish have been claiming they were brought here as ‘slaves,’ but now this was expanded to include the Scots, English, and Welsh. And they did not mean what people usually get confused, which is indentured servitude. They meant that white people were chattel slaves like Africans. In this case, though, they provided no sources, just their beliefs. And, as one pointed out to me, she was entitled to her opinion. Sure. She is. But she’s still wrong. And I have the realities of history behind me on that one.
And then, a couple of weeks ago, the subject was the Civil War in the US. The Republican Party tweeted a Happy Birthday to the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, claiming that Lincoln united the country. Whatever one thinks of Lincoln as president, and I consider him one of the best presidents all-time (and it’s not just me, as my new favourite Wikipedia page shows), he did not unite the country. Lincoln’s election was the excuse used for Southern secession. So, in the midst of a conversation with a tweep, also an historian on this matter, I got harangued by a lefty.
He insisted that slave owners ‘were killing in the name of slavery from 1856 on.’ He wasn’t wrong. And I could point to events such as Bleeding Kansas in 1854. But, that doesn’t change the simple historical fact that Secession began with Lincoln’s election.
In all three cases, my credentials as an historian were challenged. I have been called a ‘Professor of Bullshit,’ a ‘Doctor of Horseshit.’ I have been called a fascist, and a genocidal apologist (of what genocide, I’m not sure, I’m presuming she meant the genocide of white people sold as slaves in the 18th and 19th century). In all three cases, lefties have based ‘arguments’ on ‘alternative facts,’ or, what I would call bullshit. But all the weight of historical reality meant nothing to them. They didn’t like the facts, so they decided they weren’t true.
This is deeply disturbing.
September 30, 2015 § 5 Comments
Here in the United States, it is common to see a bumper sticker that says “Freedom Isn’t Free.” These stickers pre-date 9/11 and the War on Terror and the devastating human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they have taken on special meaning in the decade-and-a-half since 9/11.
I am, as usual, teaching American history this semester. One of my classes is reading David Roediger’s classic book, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. While Roediger’s attempts to connect himself to EP Thompson are perhaps overdone, he still makes a powerful argument about the centrality of race in the development of a free labour ideology in the US. He especially ties his argument to WEB DuBois’ conclusion in his Black Reconstruction of the psychological benefit the white worker received (in lieu of fair wages) through his whiteness, and its pseudo-entry to power.
Roediger digs back into what he calls the pre-history of the American worker, the period between colonization and the dawn of the 19th century and the beginnings of the American industrial revolution. This involves a discussion of the compromise over slavery in the Constitution. Roediger writes:
Even artisan-patriots with substantial anti-slavery credentials supported the Constitution as a compromise necessary to secure the world’s greatest experiment in freedom.
Indeed. The freedom of white Americans, especially white American artisans/workers in the Revolutionary era came at the cost of the enslavement of African Americans. On one hand, Roediger seems to be letting these artisan-patriots off the hook. On the other, I have never quite understood the apparent lack of irony in the Revolutionary generation’s easy resort to slavery rhetoric to complain of Britain’s treatment of the colonies. I find it preposterous and disingenuous. And yet, this rhetoric became powerful during the Revolution. At any rate, as Roediger reminds us, freedom isn’t free.
April 22, 2015 § 10 Comments
Well, Ben Affleck has spoken. And he has said what I would have hoped he’d have said the first go around. He posted on his Facebook page last evening:
After an exhaustive search of my ancestry for “Finding Your Roots,” it was discovered that one of my distant relatives was an owner of slaves.
I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.
Skip decided what went into the show. I lobbied him the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use. This is the collaborative creative process. Skip agreed with me on the slave owner but made other choices I disagreed with. In the end, it’s his show and I knew that going in. I’m proud to be his friend and proud to have participated.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t a news program. Finding Your Roots is a show where you voluntarily provide a great deal of information about your family, making you quite vulnerable. The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family.
I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.
Obviously, I wish he had said this last October, but kudos to Affleck to taking this head on. I don’t think anyone can have issue with anything he (or, more likely his PR people) say here. I would like, though, to see him do more than just make this statement, I would like to see a Hollywood mega star actually start a discussion on the legacies of slavery. But. I suppose I’m asking for too much.
April 21, 2015 § 172 Comments
A few years back, I was contacted by the producers of Who Do You Think You Are?, a popular TV genealogy show, to help them with an episode. The show was predicated on tracing the ancestry of celebrities, attempting to capitalize on the boon in genealogy amongst the masses, and was based on a popular British version. For an upcoming episode, they were working with Rosie O’Donnell, whose Irish ancestors had passed through Montreal, living for a time in a long-defunct neighbourhood in the city’s east end.
So I met with people from the show when they came to Montreal, spent the good chunk of a day with them, showing them what mid-nineteenth century architecture in the city looked like, using Pointe-Saint-Charles in the stead of this defunct neighbourhood, which was destroyed by the expansion of rue Notre-Dame in the 70s. Not surprisingly, the majority of the Montreal part was excised from the show, but I did get a wonderful brunch at Quoi de N’Oueuf.
In preparation for their visit, they had sent me the very first episode of the show, from 2010, which looked at Sarah Jessica Parker, then riding high on Sex and the City. It turns out her ancestors had been in Salem in 1692. As the show went to commercial, Parker was waiting on tenterhooks in the archives. Was her ancestor the accused or the accuser? Turns out her ancestor was the victim. I have always wondered how this episode would’ve played out had Parker’s ancestor been one of the accusers?
Would Parker have responded to learning her ancestors were involved in dodgy dealings like Ben Affleck? Affleck was on PBS’ Finding Your Roots last year. The show, hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a lot like Who Do You Think You Are?, though perhaps more erudite, given the host and the network. Anyway. Emails released out of that hacking of Sony’s servers a few months back reveal that Affleck is the descendant of slave owners, but he wished that part of the story kept under wraps. No doubt he was embarrassed by this fact.
According to The Boston Globe, Gates emailed the Sony USA’s boss, Michael Lynton as to what to do with Affleck’s request that his ancestor’s slave-owning past be excised from the show. As Gates noted,
One of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors — the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?
This led to a discussion about what to do, as Lynton said the information should be kept out of the show; Gates noted the moral problem with this kind of self-censorship. Nonetheless, the episode aired last October, minus the information about Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors.
Now, I get why Affleck might be embarrassed by this information. However. Here we had a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion about the legacy of slavery and imperialism in this country. If Affleck had stood up and said “Yes, some of my ancestors were slave-owners, I’m not proud of that, but it is what it is,” we could’ve discussed the fact that a good number of Americans, including some African Americans, are descendants of slave owners. We could have faced up to this ugly part of history.
History is full of all sorts of uncomfortable things, which should be patently obvious to anyone. Dealing with these uncomfortable truths is part and parcel of coming to terms with history as both individuals and societies. Take, for example, the case of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Here we are, at the centenary of the genocide, and Turkey, the nation descended from the Ottoman Empire, which committed the acts, refuses to acknowledge its actions. At this point, given the régime change at the end of the First World War, I am not entirely sure why Turkey is so steadfast in its denial. On the other hand, Germany has faced its ugly past in terms of the Holocaust.
Facing ugly histories is the only way we can face understanding and healing. It is the only way to come to terms with the past. And Affleck, who fancies himself a humanist and an activist (and he has done some good work), has missed a wonderful chance here in the name of saving himself some temporary embarrassment.
February 18, 2015 § 6 Comments
It is Black History Month. Specialized history months exist for a reason. They exist because black people, indigenous people, immigrants, LGBT people, women, etc., all get written out of history. Take, for example, a typical US History survey course. Usually US History survey courses at the college level are split into two parts, the first covers the period to Reconstruction, usually with the break coming in 1877; the second part goes from then to today. In the entire broad expanse of American history, nearly every single textbook I have ever reviewed with an eye towards using reflects a triumphalist narrative of progress. Certainly, some focus more on the people than the politics and wars, others focus on culture. Some have a narrative centring around the American fascination with freedom and liberty.
But, still, the narrative is dominated by white men. Indigenous peoples are the stars of the period before colonization, but that’s usually no more than a chapter. Then they share centre-stage with the colonists. Then they disappear from the narrative until the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, and then make a cameo during the story of Western expansion. Women are almost entirely invisible from the main narrative; women, especially, get shunted into little featurettes, usually at the end of the chapters. Possible exceptions are Seneca Falls in 1848, the 19th Amendment (sometimes), the Second World War, and Second Wave feminism to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. As for African Americans, they feature, sort of, in the story of slavery. But even then, the textbooks tend to represent slavery from the Euro-American perspective: why slave owners thought slavery just, why Northern abolitionists sought to end slavery. Rarely do we get actual glimpses of the slaves themselves. Then, after a brief light of Reconstruction, African Americans disappear until the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s. And that’s it. Thus, there is a need to focus on the history of a minority group, to focus on the contributions of that group, whether singly or collectively, to history. Hence, Black History Month.
The very existence of Black History Month, however, is a result of racism. The weight of history can be felt every single day, whether individually or collectively. We feel our own histories, but we also feel the weight of societal history on us every day. Where we are and what we have is in part a response to history. As a middle-class, white, heterosexual man, I have privilege, all of which comes from history and the way in which society has been moulded by it. Men benefit greatly from patriarchy, but not all men benefit in the same way from patriarchy. For some men, their access to patriarchal privilege is modified by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class.
I got into a Twitter argument today over George Zimmerman and his murder of Trayvon Martin three years ago (Martin would have turned 20 next Thursday, 26 February). The content of the argument doesn’t matter so much as what the argument represents. Trayvon Martin was suspect to Zimmerman because Martin was black. He aroused the neighbourhood watch captain’s suspicions for “walking while black,” a pretty common occurrence for black men and women in the United States.
Racism is very real. And it is historic. It doesn’t have to come with name calling and threats of violence. It comes in more peaceable ways, too. It is subtle, it is silent. But it’s still very real. Racism against black people has a long, long history in the United States. But this was inherited from the British. The British, and other European nations, were the ones who thought it acceptable to enslave Africans and sell them at auction for profit. British cities such as Bristol and Liverpool became rich off the slave trade. In the United States, though, racialized slavery reach its apogee. And this history still weighs down American society 150 years after the Civil War ended.
Why? Eric Foner argues that Reconstruction was an “unfinished” revolution. I would suggest it was a failed revolution. Either way, as Foner rightly notes, Reconstruction failed because African Americans were left free, but impoverished, as the racist mindset that lay behind slavery sill existed. And let me remind you that many, if not most, northern abolitionists were just as deeply racist as southern slave owners. Where they differed is that the abolitionists thought it immoral for someone to own another person. The Civil Rights Era didn’t happen until a century after the Civil War. And today, we live in an era of backlash against the Civl Rights Era.
All of this, though, is due to the weight of history. On this continent, racism pre-dates the founding of Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In the United States, it dates back to the founding of Jamestown in 1608 and the Pilgrims reaching Plymouth Rock twelve years later. The very idea of British superiority over black Africans underpinned the colonial project here, as settlers had the same ideas of their own superiority over the indigenous populations. Thus it is perhaps no surprise that racism is so deeply ingrained in society. And this is not a uniquely American problem. Look at Canada, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, the Netherlands, etc.
For those of us who have spent their lives fighting against racism (and various other forms of oppression), we are fighting back against the cumulative weight of history; we are trying to push a massive weight off us. And until we do, we need to call out racism, but we also need to understand the reason for Black History Month this month. And Women’s History Month next month. And Native Americans’ History month in November.
April 15, 2014 § 5 Comments
Slavery is, by definition, a condition where one human being is owned by another. The condition of African Americans in the US South prior to the Civil War was one of slavery. Slavery is NOT an unpaid internship. It is NOT working a bad McJob. It is also not what happened to African Americans after the Civil War in the South.
After the war, many allegedly free African Americans were made to work on the same plantations they had been enslaved upon. They were not paid. They were viciously, and cruelly exploited. Their civil rights were deeply and fundamentally violated. And this is a stain on American history that is not spoken of. The standard narrative is that the slaves were freed and that was the end of that. But this status of allegedly free African Americans after the Civil War in the South was not slavery.
There is a fine distinction to be made here between the ownership of someone else’s person and the exploitation of someone else’s body or economic power. A slave has next to no rights. Slave owners in the pre-Civil War South were free to buy and sell their slaves at will. They had almost free range to do whatever they wished with and to their slaves. Men violated and raped their female slaves. Men beat and savaged their male slaves. Slave owners broke up families because they could (see my post on the Carolina Chocolate Drops for a powerful story of a freed slave woman).
The allegedly free African Americans after the war, forced to work on the same plantations they had been enslaved on, were not slaves. They were personally free, even if that freedom amounted to less than a hill of beans.
My college is hosting a partial film-screening of Sam Pollard’s 2012 film, Slavery By Another Name, this week, along with a talk by Rebecca Hill, an historian at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. I fully understand Pollard’s rhetorical point in his documentary. The term “slavery” is one of the few that still has the power to shock, and Pollard capitalises on that in drawing audiences in for his documentary and exposure of a more or less forgotten period of American History. This is a documentary that all Americans and anyone with an interest in American Civil Rights should see.
But the problem is that when we use words like this, we demean their meanings, and lessen their impact. Take, for example, the term “fascism.” That term is thrown around like it means nothing in political circles in both Canada and the USA, by all sides, to describe anyone and anything the speaker might disagree with. In the end, “fascist” doesn’t really mean much anymore, and has no shock value. That is not a good thing.
The same thing will happen with the words “slave” and “slavery,” too. Especially if otherwise well-off white, college-educated young men and women continue to use those terms to describe their unpaid internships, or if we continue to describe the plight of adjuncts in the academy as a form of slavery.
Language is symbolic. We use words to describe concrete and abstract theories and ideas. They are meant to be symbolic for the theories, ideas, and things we are describing. Language is obviously how we communicate, and if we demean and cheapen our words to the point where they lose their meaning, I’m not entirely sure how we communicate at all.