Happy Black History Month!

2009 February 6

Last year the ASHP/CML staff read The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, by John Coski, and the discussion caused me some discomfort. There was something incomplete about the assertion that the Confederate flag can and does represent Southern heritage sans white supremacy for some, and that racism does not necessarily enter into it. When we discuss the states’ rights argument for why the south seceded and the Civil War was fought (as opposed to the more straightforward Slavery explanation), I get the same feeling: there are holes in this logic that I would like to discuss.

I understand the academic tendency to complicate the study of history by allowing, encouraging even, multiple perspectives as to causes and meanings of historical events. This diversity is how we paint ever more complete and inclusive pictures of the past. Thus the assumption of many historians and history buffs, including Coski, is that to interpret a historical perspective as racist is an inherently non-academic, subjective treatment of the subject and so inappropriate for real academic inquiry (because the charge of racism is interpreted as an emotional, personal reaction). Here is where the flawed reasoning begins: The Confederate battle flag, a symbol of southern heritage, commemorates the lives of those who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. When we abstract the fight itself from why they fought, we decontextualize and remove practical meaning from these events. If we remove purpose and meaning, and some of those meanings and causes include the racist reasoning and justifications of the time period, historians end up distorting part of the reality they are studying. Instead these historians dismiss uncomfortable points of reflection as non-academic without having examined them. This is a huge disservice to the practice of history and the academy as a whole because it hinders the search for the truth about our pasts.

ASHP/CML’s Education Professional Development programs are planning what is sure to be an exciting exploration of the Civil War at our Feb. 13th daylong Retreat. We will host Dr. Jeanie Attie (Long Island University) for the fourth time as she leads another dynamic and inspiring discussion of the war, the people who fought and lived it, and the myths and truths about its causes. For Professor Attie the institution of racial slavery is the single root cause of the Civil War, and she is often challenged by her audience on this point because of the states’ rights perspective: that there was, in addition to – or even separate from – the issue of slavery, an ideological principle of self-rule at stake for the Confederacy. This is the same principle that is invoked by those who use the Confederate flag symbol to honor their southern heritage. Often this perspective gets raised because we as educators are uncomfortable with simple-seeming explanations for complex events, and Slavery – just Slavery – seems oversimplified. It isn’t, in my opinion.

The Confederate secessionist argues that “governments rest upon the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish governments whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established.”¹ He takes up the cry of the American Revolution against the divine right of sovereignty, predicated on the assumption of all men being equal. Let us imagine that his slave, hearing this, looks to him and says, “I, too, do not consent to your authority over me – your rule is destructive to my ends.” (This statement is ludicrous of course; if there were consent in the slave/master relationship, there would be no need for whips and chains etc., nor would there be runaways, so a lack of consent is obvious.) The exact logic the secessionist uses to justify secession, the American principle of self-government, would render his slave a free man (and of course did render him free in the end). Yet the secessionist uses it specifically to keep his slave in bondage. How can this incongruence be resolved? Only if the universal human right he invokes, the right to consent to one’s government, does not apply universally at all; i.e. the slave is not entitled to the human right that he, the white man, is. The slave is sub-human: the very definition of racism. Put another way, if the south did not secede because of racial slavery but rather due to some ideal of self-rule, then this universal principle would have applied to all men and, as we know, it did not. The only way it can retain legitimacy is if blacks are inherently not entitled to it. Now of course, most white people of the time would not have found this incongruous; it was widely accepted at the time that blacks were inferior. (The institution of slavery was at issue, not the lives of slaves themselves.) Today, though, there is far less agreement on that point. So much less, in fact, that celebrators of the “Lost Cause” don’t even feel comfortable acknowledging the racism built into those arguments when they make them. Today we are all supposed to believe that we’re equal, even if our understandings of history reflect otherwise.

But this contradiction, this exclusion of Black human beings from the pride of Southern heritage in the rebellious seizing of a human right, renders both the States’ Rights argument and the “heritage” defense of the Confederate flag argument completely dependent on the presupposition of black inferiority. This is why the claim that race needn’t be a part of these conversations (or that it is peripheral) is itself an inherently racist claim. The exclusion of racism establishes its centrality because without racism, without the slave system being understood as based in an assumption of white supremacy, the states’ rights argument is a logical fallacy. If it is a human right being invoked, then it would apply to all people including slaves. If it applied to all people, the south would never have invoked it. They fought to preserve slavery. And if it does not apply to all people (as we know it did not), then the assertion that secession was about an abstract right is false. One either acknowledges the Negro as human and entitled to that human right claimed by the Confederacy, or one does not: the logic holds either way, but the states’ rights argument falls apart without racism attached to it.

A recurring theme at our Civil War retreats is how tangled a concept the institution of slavery was during the War. Slavery, property, and race in the context of young American democracy were as complex as theoretical ideas get. We owe it to our students and to the discipline itself to not shy away from these complications in the name of historical objectivity, or our own comfort levels. Our teachers’ discussions about what it meant to fight for or against slavery without having ever owned or been a slave are some of the most gripping and nuanced reflections I have heard. They demonstrate the complexity of the societal challenges of 1860, and let teachers get their hands dirty with evidence of peoples’ actual justifications for war, instead of the speculations written by analysts of it after the fact.

Much has been said about the “History” being made by the election of President Obama, and of the promise he embodies of a “post-racial” America. A post-racial society would indeed be convenient for those folks reluctant to even discuss the significance of the role of racism in American history; the trouble is that we can’t get there without acknowledging this history. If we have accepted that Black history is American history, and that our responsibility to the discipline is to include more voices, not less, in the story of our many pasts, we must be diligent in our analysis of what we accept as credible history, and why. Something other than history is being done when the question of black humanity is excluded from the historiography of the Civil War.  Happy History Month, and stay tuned for clips of Professor Attie’s lecture and much more via podcast on the ASHP/CML website!

¹Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, Inaugural Address Feb. 18, 1861

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1 Comment
2009 September 25
Lawrence Dunlap permalink

Great article Isa !

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