It’s Not About You … Or, Taking History Personally

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.

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