Sunday, April 11, 2010

Wrestling With History

Latest Newspaper Column:
When I first heard that Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell had issued a proclamation reinstating Confederate History Month in Virginia, the first thing that entered my head was, "Oh, boy. This is gonna get ugly."

To be a Southerner who loves both the South and the United States at the same time is to understand just how complex emotions can be.

Yes, I admire Robert E. Lee as a great and noble man. Yes, I recognize that Stonewall Jackson was a military genius, whose audacious end run around the Union Army at Chancellorsville was as jaw-dropping a feat of arms as Hannibal crossing the Alps or George S. Patton's turning his entire army in 48 hours to relieve Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge.

Yes, I recognize that the majority of Confederate soldiers, including my own ancestor Oliver Barnes, probably didn't own slaves. As one defiant Southern POW told his Yankee captors, he was fighting "'cause y'all are down here."

And yet ...

If you have any degree of intellectual honesty, you begin to realize there's a paradox inherent in loving the United States of America while revering the memory of people who once took up arms against it and tried to divide it in two. You begin to realize that all of the issues that led to this attempted sundering of the country - nullification, the right to secede, jockeying for political power - eventually ended up, at their core, being about preserving a regional economy that could not survive unless one group of men kept another in chains.

How do you reconcile these competing emotions? Well, as one of my favorite Southern writers, Florence King, once wryly observed, most of us do it by going quietly nuts.

Some do it through the use of denial. At first, that seemed to be the path McDonnell was going to take.

The original proclamation said nothing about the "s" word. It talked about "the numerous Civil War battlefields that mark every region of the state," and the soldiers and sailors "who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth" before being "ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army." There wasn't any mention whatsoever of the issue of slavery.

Needless to say, civil rights organizations were less than pleased with this somewhat sanitized recounting of events. They raised a hand and went, "Uh, hello? Mind if we black folks put a word in here?"

Actually, most of them were somewhat less diffident than that. The chairman of the state's Legislative Black Caucus called the proclamation "offensive " Former Gov. Doug Wilder (who'd supported McDonnell) called the omission of any reference to slavery "mind-boggling."

Which, of course, led to the usual sneers about "political correctness," as if acknowledging even the existence of slavery was somehow suspect. Holocaust deniers have nothing on these people. At least the neo-Nazis try, however ineptly, to claim the murder of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, et al., never happened. For slavery deniers, even acknowledging that the subject exists is "politically correct," and therefore taboo.

Eventually, Gov. McDonnell bowed to the inevitable and issued an amended proclamation. Slavery, the new proclamation said, "was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation."

It went on to say, "As Virginians we carry with us both the burdens and the blessings of our history ... best encapsulated in a fact I noted in my Inaugural Address in January: The state that served as the Capitol of the Confederacy was also the first in the nation to elect an African-American governor, my friend, L. Douglas Wilder."

While some commentators inevitably referred to the amendment as a "surrender," I have to give Gov. McDonnell a lot of credit. It's hard to see how you can argue with saying, in effect, "keeping people in slavery was bad, and yeah, we did it. But we've tried to do better by all our people since, and we've had some success."

We're never going to get anywhere in the South, or in this country, until we acknowledge both the "burdens and the blessings" of our history. We can debate how much slavery had to do with the war, but we can't do it if we pretend it didn't happen. We'll never appreciate how far we've come - or be able to go farther - until we acknowledge and make our peace with where we've been.


Loyd said...

As another Southerner (raised in Arkansas) I see where you are coming from. I often disagree with your politics. But in this, I think you are dead on. We can't ignore our past and its mistakes. Or be scared of it.

Celine said...

Someone elseNet mentioned that a valid comparison for Lee and Jackson might be Rommel -- a legitimate military genius who nonetheless served a vile and corrupt government.

Fran said...

My partner's from Virginia, and she shakes her head at the things going on there. Ignoring a part of your history is never going to work, on a personal level or on a national one.

KateH said...

Besides being an offensive proclaimation when it didn't mention slavery as the cause of the war, I wonder just as much about where "It talked about "the numerous Civil War battlefields that mark every region of the state," and the soldiers and sailors "who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth" before being "ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army."

Seems to me that there wouldn't have been the battlefields or the need for soldiers and sailors to have fought if the slaveholding elements running the South hadn't manipulated much of the population into comitting treason in the first place. Then there would have been no need for the Union forces to "overwhelm" the Confederacy. That the issue of treason is never mentioned is another kind of whitewash as is not mentioning slavery.

Gerard Saylor said...

Barry Eisler linked over to this:

I thought it was a neat read and argument against the "it was not about slavery" argument.

Gerard Saylor said...

Oh, posts are approved now. Never mind...

Gerard Saylor said...

I left an earlier comment. I thought.

Anyway, I linked to this: