In December 2005 I was sitting in my office at ASU, minding my own business, tying up loose ends from the fall semester, when the phone rang. It was a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor. He wanted to discuss with me the findings of a recent inquiry into the Wilmington (NC) Race Riots of 1898. A historian working for the state had just completed a report that cast light upon the origins of the riot, which might be better termed a coup d’etat in which white Democrats conspired to overthrow a biracial Republican municipal government.
I made two points in the interview: first, that as Americans we have not always looked carefully at examples of terrorism in our own history, and second, that the state-employed historian was going to encounter criticism from certain corners for framing a “politically correct” history, although the old story of the riot in mainstream histories was also “politically correct” for the white supremacists who framed the mainstream narrative that this report promised to overturn.
Then I became even more direct with the reporter. Here’s what you’re going to do next, I opined. You’re going to contact a member of a certain group who will attack the findings as politically correct. In short, you will have interviewed the scholar who did the research, solicited “official” reaction, chatted with an outside historian who will place things in context and appear sage (I can do that), and then turn to a person who will dismiss the report as politically-inspired hogwash. That’s your story, right?
The reporter tried to sidestep that point, but sounded a bit sheepish.
Days later the report appeared. Here’s what readers found:
“If the state of North Carolina is revisiting the 1898 riots, they’re doing it for one reason: to make sure that nobody thinks that the riots were in any way the fault of the Negroid race or anybody that might want to support the negroid race for political gain,” says Randy Jamison, Virginia state chairman of the League of the South, which is part of the Southern independence movement.
We’re going to see a lot of predictable reporting in the next several years when it comes to the display of Confederate Battle Flag, commentary from the Sons of Confederate veterans on the sesquicentennial (including a defense of the mission of the SCV), and the occasional “Black Confederates” piece. Many readers already recognize the patterns of the discussion. It’s all going to be about Confederate “heritage.”
Here’s what interests me: to date the usual narrative featured during the Civil War Centennial is being challenged every day by people who do not equate the South, Southern history, and the Confederate experience, and who do not equate southerners with either just white people or with Confederate descendants and celebrators. Let me remind you that there were other people who played a role in our great national drama. Some were white, some were black, and some were neither (or both); there were women as well as men, northerners as well as southerners, and simply to portray the war as North vs. South distorts historical reality almost beyond recognition.
I hear all the time from people protesting that the South is misrepresented (and it is), although many of those people proceed to misrepresent the North (I have in mind one southern white retired academic with pseudo-liberal credentials whose own record of scholarly accomplishment fits comfortably on the back of a stamp in 18 point font). I think all of us can do better. We might want to educate a press which seeks to educate and inform the public to break out of these predictable patterns and to report the ways in which the sesquicentennial may reframe our understanding of this period.
Part of that depends, I’d argue, upon people owning their past. You simply can’t let the SCV or the League of the South (two rather distinct organizations) speak for white southerners. You shouldn’t want to be reduced to cardboard caricatures. And one might want to turn to people who were ignored fifty years ago, and see how they view the events of 1861-65. After all, it’s hard to portray the Confederacy as a blow for liberty and freedom given the brute fact that it sought to deny both to a rather large portion of its population. Nor should it be easy to portray the North in highly favorable terms that reek of moral superiority and smugness.
People write about Civil War memory all the time. Let’s make some new memories, ones that correspond more closely to reality. And let’s educate a press to ask new questions, rather than fill in the blanks in an all-too-predictable pattern.