Last month the decision of some white South Carolinians to hold a “secession ball” to celebrate the events of December 20, 2010 drew much commentary (none of it having to do with the fact that it took attention away from my daughter Rebecca’s nineteenth birthday). I declined to join in the discussion on this blog, largely because I thought it was covered elsewhere and that the arguments were fairly predictable (and sometimes misrepresented, as in the response to some of Kevin Levin’s observations about the event). More recently, some folks decided to reenact a slave auction in St. Louis, Missouri. That drew far less media attention, although it was not ignored here and here and here (with video).
If you look for coverage of both of these events using the Google news search engine, you’ll discover that the secession ball drew far more attention than did the slave auction. I wonder why that is. Is that because it’s easier to ridicule white southerners than it is to look straight at the ugly horrors of slavery itself? After all, this auction happened in Union-controlled territory. Is it because the debates over the secession ball are, in fact, more predictable? You know how it is. Find a white southerner who supports the ball and who does so by shoving slavery to the side (sometimes with comments that it was a bad thing, but that’s not what it’s all about) … something one could not do at the slave auction. Find other people who are outraged at holding the ball for any number of reasons. Find yet more people who shake their heads sadly at what happened. Find the clips and post links to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Search out Fox, MSNBC, and CNN for more commentary. You know the drill.
Many white southerners looked askance at the secession ball. Indeed, you can see white South Carolinians struggling with the memory of the Civil War, and it’s simply wrong to reduce white southerners to some simplistic stereotype that makes other people feel good or smug about themselves. When it comes to the slave auction reenactment, however, I see several bloggers (here and here, too) discussing it … and that’s all. Yet here was an event planned by black Americans as well as white Americans who wanted us not to forget but to remember what it was all about.
Much has been made of how African Americans are going to approach the sesquicentennial. Well, here’s evidence of how some African Americans will approach it … much as, some 150 years ago, blacks helped remind white Americans of what was at stake during four years of war. So, on the eve of Black History Month, let’s remember Dred Scott, Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, the 54th Massachusetts, Robert Smalls, and countless others, as well as the blacks who sought freedom and fought for liberty as well as union. In a time when so much energy is spent on discussing Black Confederates, let’s remember what far more blacks were doing, and as we look for a handful of blacks in gray, let’s not overlook the thousands who wore blue.
During the next four years, what will we reenact? Parades? Sham battles? Or will we look for a broader coverage of events … including the execution of thirty-eight Dakota in Minnesota days before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, or the impact of Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling Jews from his command? If we are going to reenact Pickett’s charge, will we also reenact Fort Wagner … or Fort Pillow?
If memory’s all about what we forget as well as what we remember, what are we going to choose to remember … and what are we going to overlook? Choices, choices. As we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., today, maybe we’d better spend a little time thinking about these issues.