One of the most interesting things about sharing one’s work on the American Civil War is what I learn about how people view history and historians. One thing that startles me (okay, it used to startle me) is the degree to which some white southerners take the findings of scholarship personally. There’s a notion out there among some folks that a primary goal of historical scholarship about the Civil War era (at least as practiced by supposedly left liberal politically correct academic elitists who clearly do not hail from the South) is to make white southerners feel guilty or ashamed about their ancestors or their region. Apparently this is especially true when it comes to anything related to slavery or violence against blacks during Reconstruction.
Take Trace Adkins, who recently declared: “Over the generations it has seemed to me that Southern children, because of that terrible slavery issue, have been made to feel apologetic — if not guilty or ashamed — of their heritage.” Mr. Adkins adds, “And I for one hope my children don’t feel that way, because everybody knows or should know that the majority of soldiers that fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves. I know that my grandfather didn’t, and had no aspirations of owning slaves. It wasn’t part of his makeup.” Let’s set aside the fact that Mr. Adkins’s grandfather must have been very, very old to make that decision, since slavery was abolished in 1865. And let’s overlook the fact that whether or not the majority of Confederate soldiers owned slaves has no bearing on the issue of why secession happened or why the Confederacy was formed. Let’s agree that the purpose of teaching history is not to make people feel bad about their ancestors. What, exactly, would Mr. Adkins have southern children taught? I assume he knows that public schools are desegregated, so not all those children are white, and there may be more than a few who claim slaves as ancestors. Indeed, his query gets to the heart of the matter: why teach history? Is it to instill civic pride? Is the reason to make children proud of their ancestors? Or might one teach history to help students learn about the past? Oh, I guess it can’t be that simple.
And yes, this seems to be somewhat of a white southerner thing, although one could point out that some other areas of historical study offer moral judgments about various folks. Some Native American historians present pointed indictments of how whites treated Native Americans. I don’t feel targeted by their scholarship. I come from New York, yet I don’t feel targeted by scholarship on the New York City draft riots of July 1863. Indeed, some white southerners take pains to argue that there was racism in the North as some way of saying “you, too”– but, as I wasn’t around 150 years ago, how could that be about me?
If anything, the “you, too” response (which one sees every once in a while in the writings of the eminent historian C. Vann Woodward) suggests that it is the people who make that connection who want to hold people of today accountable for what happened in the past. Part of that’s understandable: there are people who portray the South in caricature or claim that there’s something more backward, more racist, more evil about it that separates it from the rest of the nation. Oddly enough, that literature on the South as different collides with a literature by white southerners that proudly proclaims that the South is different, and for the better. However, while the growing scholarship on how people remember the past draws linkages between past and present, it doesn’t hold people in the present responsible for the behavior of people in the past … although it certainly holds them accountable for how they choose to view that past. Thus, the recent flap about Confederate History Month in Virginia was not, at least to me, about holding white Virginians accountable for the supposed sins of their forefathers, but to highlight the distortions of history inherent in the first proclamation (before the entire debate became dominated by the governor’s failure to mention slavery). Overlooked by most was the Virginia SCV’s own willful warping of the historical record; at least the governor got the message.
That some white southerners may feel defensive is understandable: how they respond to this is another thing altogether. Moreover, often it’s not a response to anything, even if it comes in the form of a response. A reader commenting on my blog entry about Reconstruction must have overlooked a great deal of what I had written in his haste to assume that it was an attack on white southerners (especially those from Louisiana). “Remember and acknowledge our history we should,” he concluded, “but the remembrance and acknowledgement shouldn’t be used to promote bigotry, self-hate, and disunion today, i.e. it is not a tool with which to metaphorically bludgeon certain groups of people with.” And yet who was being bludgeoned? Here’s what I said:
“After all, a belief in white supremacy was not limited to slaveholders … nor was it limited to white southerners. And yet during Reconstruction the majority of white southerners were united by a desire to maintain white supremacy in a way that they were never united by the quest for independence: some white southerners were willing to fight the guerrilla war to preserve white supremacy that they refused to fight for Confederate independence. And, if a majority of white northerners supported a war for reunion and the destruction of slavery, not nearly as many made the realization and protection of the equality of African Americans before the law a priority during Reconstruction … and, indeed, a significant number actively opposed that end.”
This would seem to hold whites North and South as accountable for what happened during Reconstruction, and yet I don’t see any white northerners (recall, I am a white northerner) complaining that I’m being unfair about them. Oh, yes, and I guess the words “a majority” and “some” seem to have escaped notice.
Now, to point out that in writing about people long ago I’m not issuing an indictment of their present day descendants would seem to me to be obvious (although, as we see in this discussion group, sometimes the obvious isn’t so obvious). Nor do I believe that the purpose of scholarship is to make white southerners ashamed of their ancestors (it sounds silly just to have to say that, but then I’m replying to a silly argument). Recall that I am married to the descendant of Confederate soldiers, and the accusation becomes even more warped. So the question remains: why do some white southerners take all this personally? What are the consequences of that? Should we whitewash (pun intended) our nation’s past so that white southerners can feel good about themselves? Is history an exercise in therapy and building self-esteem? If it’s not about you, why do you think it is?
And, if you think I’m being harsh, well, part of me thinks I should react in this fashion.
It’s not about you … that is, unless you want to make it about you. You’ll have to tell us why.