The Same World

Reading the brilliant Race and Reunion book by David Blight which gives evidence of the 3 narratives of the post Civil War era of emancipation, North/South reconciliation and white supremacy and how emancipation was largely pushed aside in favor of the other two. In the book, the origins of Memorial Day are discussed. What began as a day in many communities to honor those lost in the War, (one of the earliest post-war events was in 1865 was staged by African-Americans in South Carolina to honor the Union soldiers who had died in their Confederate prison), Decoration Day quickly became a day for “genre” for oration and assumed a political character of reconciliation. “By the early 1870s, a group of ex-confederate soldiers in Virginia had forged a coalition of memorial groups that quickly took over the creation of the “Lost Cause” tradition… In the South, monument unveiling took on a significance equal to, if not greater than, Memorial Day. The story of Civil War memory and the rituals of Decoration Days continued well beyond 1885 with the emancipationist legacy fighting endless rearguard actions against a Blue-Gray reconciliation that was to sweep American culture.”

In a column entitled “Memorial Day”, Albion Tourgee wrote: “To dwell upon the hero’s suffering and ignore the motive which inspired his acts is top degrade him to the level of mercenary. Fame dwells in purpose as well as in achievement. Fortitude is sanctified only by its aim.”

As Clifford Geertz has written, “In a ritual, the world as lived and the world as imagined, fused under the agency of a single set of symbolic forms, turns out to be the same world.”

Advertisements

Confederate Stories

here’s my new conversation starter about the Confederate monuments around town. If you want to honor Civil War history, then (as befits the victors),  for the Lee statue, insert Grant; for the J. Davis one, Lincoln; for PGT Beauregard, Gen. Lovell or Butler. In fact, the history that would be appropriate would be to only have the victor depicted with information about the war and the losers left to a plaque, and would then offer true Civil War history to the future generations…That is my argument; explaining the history of a failed insurrection (of which New Orleans was in for all of 16 months or so of its 300 year history) was not the point of those statues, but rather meant as a defiance of the order of the victors to integrate, and as a way to tell this new tall tale of the “Lost Cause.” The Davis statue, in particular is in that camp as it was put up in the 1900s (I hope no one is arguing for the Battle of Liberty Place Monument to remain). I believe anyone who argues for these to stay as they are is arguing for a false narrative of triumph and encouraging that long ago generation’s view of subjugation of their neighbors. Still, I’d like them to remain in the city, in an appropriate place with other symbols of previous times available to all to see and understand. History is not erased but with the removal of false idols, is also no longer appropriated and altered as it is presently.

When people scornfully use the argument that those who want this change want to deny history, I reply that it is those who argue for the losers of the war to be depicted who are the ones denying history. Yes, let’s absolutely depict the  history of our horrific Civil War, but do it truthfully and with respect to ALL of our people and our (at times, shameful) history. If you truly want to have our history on display, then get actively involved in finding innovative and respectful ways to match the complicated details of it.

Weighing In On A Confederate Past

It’s amazing to be alive at the moment of the tipping point for a social movement: For my lifetime, they already include the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid in South Africa, Arab Spring, the extension of legal rights for women and for same-sex unions among many others.
What all of these have in common is that they happened well before the formal governing entity signaled that it was ready for the change or even in some cases, before the solid majority had decided to back the change.
All were hard-fought and seemed destined to fail at many points in their campaign. All had active opposition.

The removal of statues of Confederate leaders from public space is another tipping point in a country that is heading toward a time when whites will be a minority (by 2043).
The affronted use mockery (“Why don’t we remove all traces of Washington? HE owned slaves! Where will this end?”) or condescending treatises on what they view as “the real history”, as understood through a lifetime of racist schoolbooks and likeminded family members (“The war was about states rights and not about slavery, duh.”)
To me, the arguments stated above mask the bigger truth: The public lionization of the Confederate past of the South is a barrier to working together for the future and signals to people of color that whiteness is a privilege earned, when it is not. I don’t care what version or scope of history you subscribe to, although I may pity you; have a statue of Lee in your backyard, but holding on the “Lost Cause” narrative in public places is a recipe for the continuing disintegration of our region. It also masks the true vibrancy of the South: that it is based on a multi-cultural, multi-generational belief in place, extreme socialization and culture handed down from person to person.
I wish we had the ability and forethought as a people to have created realistic evidence of the world of slavery and the brutality of the Civil War as Eisenhower ordered to be done with the concentration camps after WW2, but we did not. Instead we have inherited this soft and “heroic” narrative that does not truly represent the history of that ugly time.

Statues of those who brought a civil war to defend a system that allowed people to be sold as chattel should not be kept in public spaces.
Keep all of the statues and throw some Mardi Gras beads on em if you’d like, but put them in the Custom House or another place to properly frame their history as those who ignored the opportunity to expand human rights for their neighbors, along with information on when the statues were commissioned and by whom.

And thank you to Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “The Warmth Of Other Suns:The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” for writing this piece in the NYT about how symbols do help to define their time:

With the lowering of the Confederate flag in the state that was the first to secede and where the first shots were fired, could we now be at the start of a true and more meaningful reconstruction? It would require courage to relinquish the false comfort of embedded racial mythologies and to open our minds to a more complete history of how we got here. It would require a generosity of spirit to see ourselves in the continued suffering of a people stigmatized since their arrival on these shores and to recognize how the unspoken hierarchies we have inherited play out in the current day and hold us back as a country.

“Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God’s airth [sic] a free woman— I would.” — Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman secured her freedom in a precedent setting court case on 8/22/1781.