Saturday, February 12, 2011

Caught between Honoring History and Celebrating Slavery

By: Zannie Carlson

2011 marks the 150-year anniversary of the Civil War, and the South is gearing up to honor history and heritage in various celebrations that glorify the antebellum South. There will even be a ‘“secession ball” in the former slave port of Charleston.”  Amid public controversy, Virginia retracted its proposal for an April Confederate History month, which honored Confederate soldiers’ sacrifices, but failed to mention slavery. Being a Yankee myself, I have never fully understood the Southern pride that seems to stem from secession and the establishment of the Confederacy itself, but I wonder if history, culture, and upbringing comingle in our not taking advantage of an opportunity to engage in dialogue and deepen understandings of American history.

Southern and Northern identity construction further divided as the North supplanted an agrarian lifestyle with industrialization. A Northern interpretation of the postbellum South would assert that following the Civil War, Southerners sought to reestablish the antebellum status quo and reject Northern Reconstructionist policy by engaging in racial terrorism, while Southerners highlight resistance as part of their heritage. The destruction of social structures and institutions essential to white Southerners’ way of life were no longer viable options resulted in chaos in the South. The lack of alternative means to sustenance was so prevalent that many ex-slaves went back to their masters to work as farmhands.

I figure a lot of this is common knowledge to many of us, but my intent in highlighting the two interpretations of the Southern experience is that there is still a social barrier in which the South still has an interest in sanitizing history in defense of the North’s knee-jerk exclamations of racism. I don’t think it’s the celebrations themselves that are necessarily racist, but if they are promoted without the understanding of the social and racial context in which the South operated at the time, Southern states would be doing more than a disservice in miseducating the public and misrepresenting history. I think that necessary in the celebration of the anniversary is a healthy acknowledgment of how both the North and South depended on slave labor to drive the economy. As one historian noted, 'Now we find some attention also in the North.... We can mourn without the allegation that all Southerners are rednecks who want to defend slavery. How many soldiers had slaves?'  Forwarding more complicated understandings of both regions’ roles in the institution both discourages the blame game and promotes a richer understanding of the relationship between Blacks and whites in America today.

One article argued that America may be closer than ever before in repairing psychological war wounds between the two regions, as it noted Georgia’s remarkable reinterpretation of the Civil War since the centennial, from a defense of a Northern invasion to a defense of the institution of slavery. As increasing numbers of African Americans take prominent positions of power in American society, it will be interesting to see how public perceptions of the Civil War and attitudes between the North and South will further evolve over time. 

- Zannie Carlson
   TMA Staff Writer

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