Confederates At the Bridge

This past Saturday I attended a very nice wedding in Southern Illinois. The drive to the ceremony was like any other adventure through the Land of Lincoln (boring!), but a couple attractions along Interstates 70 and 64 caught my attention and prompt me to write yet another (and hopefully the last one for a while) post on Confederate iconography in American society today.

I started my drive in St. Charles county, Missouri, and within minutes of getting onto Interstate 70 I noticed a demonstration on a bridge above the highway with roughly fifteen men waving just about every Confederate flag that existed during the Civil War, from the “Stars and Bars” to the Battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and everything in between. The purpose of this demonstration was unclear; there were no signs identifying the group or a message stating their purpose. For this reason it’s hard to speculate this group’s motivations, but I have traveled on this road for nearly my entire life and have never seen such a demonstration before. You can’t help but wonder if the vocal backlash against Confederate iconography in the wake of the Charleston Massacre in June has something to do with it.

I continued my drive and eventually crossed over into Illinois on Interstate 64. As I neared Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County I observed yet another demonstration that included the waving of a Confederate flag! This time the group had a number of signs explicitly stating their message:

“IMPEACH OBAMA!”

“ISLAM IS NOT A REAL RELIGION!”

This time there were two flags being waved. One was an American flag. The other was a Confederate flag conveniently displayed right next to the Obama sign.

Waving an American flag makes sense in this context, even if you disagree with the message. Historically all sorts of political groups from the Second Ku Klux Klan to the Communist Party USA have used the American flag to symbolize their beliefs and give them validity. The fact that libertarians, conservatives, liberals, socialists, and communists find meaning in the American flag is a testament to the fluidity (and ambiguity) of our nation’s fundamental principles. By flying the red, white, and blue, the demonstrators at this bridge wished to appropriate the American flag’s symbolism to reflect their own values and ideological views. They wanted to show drivers that they are true American Patriots who care deeply about the state of their nation, which they believe is now imperiled because of the President.

But why fly a Confederate flag alongside the American flag and a sign calling for Obama’s impeachment? Why not fly just the American flag or, if necessary, a “Don’t Tread on Me” Sign? Would these demonstrators whip out a Confederate flag if they were protesting the actions of Presidents Reagan, Bush, or Clinton? These people believe they are losing their freedoms, and in a way the Confederate flag’s use has always symbolized the perceived loss of freedom. But given the Confederate flag’s long history as a symbol of opposition to Civil Rights legislation and racial equality, one can easily conclude that the flag was also there because the demonstrators’ dislike for our nation’s first black President stems at least in part from their racism (and, of course, their mistaken belief that he is a practicing Muslim).

In the wake of the Charleston Massacre the economist Thomas Sowell was quick to warn against “trying to make up for the past with present-day benefits” from the welfare state. He expressed a desire to see the country repudiate racism, find a path towards national racial reconciliation, and come to terms with the results of the Civil War. Sowell, however, did not direct this message to the wavers of Confederate flags. He instead directed it to who he describes as “professional race hustlers” like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the Black Lives Matter Movement (which, ironically, has had a very limited public association with either Sharpton or Jackson). In Sowell’s rendering these hustlers are bent on perpetuating a new civil war within the country and destroying its history by renaming every memorial and landmark that is scared in our collective memory. And in a strange leap of logic, he concludes that the result of a victorious Black Lives Matter movement “could ultimately accomplish [Dylann Roof’s] dream of racial polarization and violence.”

There is certainly room for debate about the tactics and methods of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Veteran Civil Rights Activists from the 1960s don’t even agree about the effectiveness of the movement’s approach so far. And Sowell’s desire for national reconciliation and racial healing is a sentiment I share. But his hyperbolic warnings to the “race hustlers” lose their substance when white modern-day Confederates without an ounce of reconciliation in their souls go to interstate bridges on Saturday mornings to wave the symbols of a failed government whose cornerstone foundation was based on white supremacy. Are the people peacefully demonstrating at Black Lives Matter protests the actual race hustlers bent on perpetuating a state of war, or is it the people flying the Confederate flag under the ambiguous cloak of “heritage” who are the actual race hustlers still bent on fighting the Civil War?

It should go without saying that everyone has the right to freely express themselves and wave as many Confederate flags as they want at their homes or at bridges on top of busy interstates. Likewise, I have had my own criticisms of President Obama and don’t approach this discussion as an apologetic defender of his administration. It would be nice, however, if the people so proudly waving this flag could be a little more self-reflective about the history of their beloved symbol and its divisive nature. I wish people would care about the betterment of their communities and a more just society for all Americans as much as they care about their Confederate flags.

Cheers

Final Thoughts on Paul Kennerley’s “White Mansions”

Last week I wrote two separate essays here and here on the British songwriter Paul Kennerley’s 1978 country music concept album White Mansions. I originally intended to stop with two posts, but alas, I have a few more final thoughts to add about this album.

I think the cultural historian Christian McWirther’s description of White Mansions in the comments section of my last post really gets to the heart of my own feelings about it: he suggested that the album “flirted with a more complicated view of the Confederacy but inevitably defaulted to a Lost Cause narrative.” That’s a perfect description in my view. For example, the song “No One Would Believe A Summer Could Be So Cold” highlights a vocal secessionist’s changing attitudes towards the Civil War and his role in it. Whereas Matthew’s ideological passion for Confederate secession and the preservation of his “way of life” sustain him in the beginning of the conflict, his words by 1863 suggest that all of the talk surrounding valor, glory, and heroism are meaningless to him upon the sight and smell of dead, rotting bodies around him. Matthew doesn’t explicitly question his earlier political views in the song, but it’s clear that he is physically and emotionally affected by the consequences of war. I also like how Kennerley acknowledges in numerous songs at the beginning of the album that the defense and expansion of slavery was a central motivation for Confederate secession, a point that is not always appreciated by listeners of White Mansions today, as we will soon see.

The lyrics towards the end of the album, however, fall into predictable Lost Cause talking points by suggesting that the Confederacy never had a chance of achieving victory because of the Union’s superior manpower and resources; that General William Sherman’s men were the sole perpetrators of violence and destruction during the March to the Sea; that the United States government and military were wholly responsible for bringing on and perpetuating a violent war of aggression; and that the postwar Reconstruction years were marked by oppressive misrule of the South by hateful Northern carpetbaggers and their black allies. Although historians like W.E.B. Du Bois and Kenneth Stampp had already published marginally popular studies challenging this traditional Reconstruction narrative by the time White Mansions was released, the story of “Carpetbagger and Negro misrule” remained the consensus view in the 1970s and was uncritically embraced in this album. Later revisionist works by Eric Foner, Thomas Holt, Steven Hahn, and Brooks Simpson in the 1980s and 1990s further questioned the accuracy of this consensus view, but it still remains popular today in some quarters.

Time and space are also important factors for placing White Mansions within the cultural context of 1970s and 80s music. White Mansions was released at the same time Confederate iconography and identity more explicitly embedded itself within popular music. From Lynyrd Synyrd hanging the Confederate flag on their stage during concerts, to Tom Petty’s album Southern Accents, to Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” and Confederate Flag guitar, this period of rock music saw many instances in which Confederate identity was appropriated to symbolize rebellion and independence in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. While this identity never fully shed its complicated past of slavery, secession, and resistance to Civil Rights, the 1970s and 80s saw new meanings attached to that identity and a general acceptance of its expression through popular music. White Mansions never reached the popularity level of a Skynrd album or other concept albums by bands like The Who and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, but it is nevertheless reflective of those cultural forces at play in popular music. And it is hard to imagine a concept album like White Mansions–an album that explores and even celebrates white Confederate identity–gaining much popularity or enjoying commercial success without controversy today.

Paul Kennerley’s British background is also significant because it speaks to the popularity of the Lost Cause throughout the world. I would love to learn about the books Kennerley relied on to inform his interpretation of Civil War history when composing White Mansions. I would guess it probably wasn’t too different than the sorts of books students were reading in American history classrooms and buying at National Park gift shops at the time. Kennerley’s background also reminds me of a recent feature in Vice of a Brazilian town called Americana that was settled by Confederate defectors 150 years ago and where an annual festival called the “Fraternidade Descendência Americana” celebrating the Confederacy continues today.

Finally, I take note of YouTube’s role in perpetuating the memory of White Mansions, which now also acts as a gathering place for users to express their pride in Confederate identity and share their memories of listening to the album during their youth. On a video of the entire album commenters remarked that:

“I have not heard this record since about 1982. It is a pleasure to find an ‘old friend.”

“This is one of my favorite albums. Beautiful and haunting.”

“I’m too excited, I just ordered it off of Amazon. Can’t wait. I first heard this album in the early 80s with my brother. I had the cassette.”

And on another video of the song “The Southland’s Bleeding” (sung by Waylon Jennings and nearing 100,000 views today) YouTube users over the past month have left a range of comments expressing love for the Confederacy and concerns about efforts to “erase” Confederate history:

“Still fighting to honor the Confederate army and Dixie-land in 2015. But the Liberals want to erase them and (us) from history. Southern pride.”

“The southland is bleeding again this week. God help the south.”

“I live in ‘enemy territory’, but I still run up my beloved ‘Stars and Bars’ and bring it in every night. Down with the eagle, up with the cross!”

“Today some folks object to the Southern flag. This flag isn’t about race. This flag is about state’s rights.  California has rights concerning immigration that the feds wont touch. Our states  have rights that the feds wont touc” [sic]

“The Stars and Bars of the Confederacy, the Southern Cross, or St. Andrews Southern Cross did in no way have anything to do with slavery or what started the Civil War. It signified to the Confederate Soldier their opposition to what was considered an illegal levying of unfair and overburdening taxation by the Federal government on the Southern States and the products they produced.”

That people would take the time to find songs from White Mansions on YouTube and then comment on those songs demonstrates the ways YouTube has become a cultural medium for expressing historical memories and prideful statements about personal identity. It also shows how people seamlessly weave their understanding of history into their interpretation of current events. Whether or not these comments are accurate from a historical perspective is one question scholars can and should address when analyzing public memories, but the fact that people go through the trouble of expressing themselves this way in the first place is another question worth examining more closely.

Cheers

White Mansions: Singing Songs About the Confederacy

In my last post I discussed the British songwriter Paul Kennerley’s 1978 concept album White Mansions, which aims to tell a story about the experiences of white Southerners who supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Kennerley creates four composite characters in White Mansions (along with a very minor appearance from Rodena Preston, who portrays “The Slaves” in a blandly predictable one-minute interlude) who are supposed to represent various perspectives of people who actually experienced the war firsthand. I provided a brief introduction to each character in that last post. We will now dig further into each character’s role in White Mansions. This essay is a bit long, so bear with me.

Polly Ann Stafford (portrayed by Jessi Colter)

Polly stays out of any political discussions about the nation’s impending civil war, but she senses that “the Old South” is going to change. In “Story to Tell” she sings to a white-haired planter (the symbol of the established planter class) her prediction that he will not live to see these changes. “They want to change your way of life/a life you thought was right/all you’ve held dear since birth, they’ll rearrange/but I don’t think you’re going to live to see the change.” “They,” of course, is President Abraham Lincoln’s new administration in Washington, D.C. Even though Lincoln proclaims in his First Inaugural Address an intention not to touch slavery where it already existed, his refusal to allow the extension of slavery into new western territories undergirds his true desire to see slavery eventually abolished throughout the entire country. Polly and the planter class believe his election will represent the undoing of their freedoms.

Polly’s two other appearances on White Mansions use horses as a metaphor to sing about love, companionship, and kindness. “The Last Dance & The Kentucky Racehorse” is a cheeky song in which Polly and her sweetheart Matthew sing of their enduring love, but it’s also reflective of the Victorian-style letters soldiers and loved ones wrote to each other during the war, replete with flowery language and uncensored emotions. “For the time you’ll be away from me/all the days that lie ahead/dear heart, please keep the memories/we share like we share my bed. Although I won’t have your helping hand/or keep your sweet company/darling when you’re fighting this war/please think a little bit about me.”

In “The Union Mare & The Confederate Grey,” Polly and “The Drifter” (portrayed by Waylon Jennings) hear of dead Union and Confederate soldiers lying together on the battlefield while their horses grazed side-by-side during the aftermath of a horrible (which one specifically is a mystery to listeners). The two lament this scene and wonder aloud what could have been if both sides would have avoided war: “How happy we’d be if we acted way of the Union mare and the Confederate grey.” From this point on, however, Polly suddenly disappears from the story. Her work as a nurse at Confederate hospital makes her sick and eventually kills her, an unintended victim of the war.

Matthew J. Fuller (portrayed by John Dillon)

Matthew’s status as the son of a wealthy Georgia planter leads him to a vocal position in favor of secession in order to preserve slavery. He enthusiastically joins the Confederacy and outlines his reasoning in “Join Around the Flag”:

the State’s called its sons to its side, boys

they’re hoisting up the ‘Stars and the Bars’

we must all prepare to fight

for a cause we feel is right

and join Jeff Davis from near and far

they can’t understand our way of life boys

they don’t want slaves in the new territories

the knowledge that they lack

is there’s no cotton if there’s no blacks

and that gives us the reason to secede

since Abe got elected there ain’t no choice, boys

we showed ’em what we meant when Sumter fell

and if they to try to take us back

or come and free the blacks

the good Lord knows we’re going to give ’em hell

Matthew’s initial enthusiasm for a break with the Lincoln government and a lust for bloodshed quickly evaporates, however. Matthew doesn’t explicitly harbor second thoughts about his role in encouraging secession, but one can easily conclude in “No One Would Believe a Summer Could Be So Cold” that Matthew starts regretting his enlistment in the Confederate military. He abandons Polly’s love and admits that after being wounded at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek he “grabbed some love from the whores in town.” He acknowledges that “I start to forget just why we’re here” and laments the Confederacy’s major losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863. And, in some of the most moving lyrics in White Mansions, he states that “they tell you stories of valor and glory/but they ain’t near the fact/heroes look bad when all they had/bin eaten by worms and rats/I hear dying men calling with gangrene crawling/through their flesh and bones/I’ve seen thousands pleading as they lie bleeding/ain’t it time to go back home.”

Matthew’s pride is too strong, however, and he pushes on to serve through the end of the war. In “Bring Up the Twelve Pounders” he calls for more artillery but is reminded by “the ghosts of the Confederate dead” that the war is over and that he must go home. Finally, in “Bad Man” he states his intention to enact revenge for the death of his sweetheart Polly (who he had previously cheated on during the war). Matthew boasts that “this war taught me how to kill” and that he is “going to make them bleed/they’ll pay in time/they’re damned unjust/with their twisted laws/they want to take my life.” Even though Matthew began doubting the cause during the war, he emerges in the war’s aftermath as an unreconstructed rebel without regret for his role in precipitating the conflict. He expresses no doubts about the righteousness of his cause and lays the blame for the war entirely on the Lincoln government, which he believes used superior resources and men to defeat, humiliate, and subjugate an honorable people. Matthew’s initial postwar memories in White Mansions, therefore, symbolize the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War that became so prevalent throughout the country in the war’s aftermath.

Caleb Stone (portrayed by Steve Cash)

Caleb Stone has ragged clothes, poor teeth, long hair, no property or slaves, and a Confederate flag in hand. He describes himself as “White Trash” and happily embraces that title. In a song by the same name Caleb proclaims that he’ll join the Confederate military because he has nothing better to do: “I guess I’ll volunteer for the war against the blue/’cause there ain’t nothing better down here to do that’s much better/I’ll break some blue bones before this thing is through. They call me white trash but I’m a fighting man/I’ll sure do the best I can/I may be bad and have a foul mouth/but I’m ready – to defend the South.” In contrast to Matthew’s highly ideological reasoning for joining the war, Caleb joins up simply because he loves the South and has nothing better to do, not because he wants to defend slavery or the planter class. We will later see that in reality such a distinction cannot be not easily made.

After the initial success of 1861 battles at First Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, Caleb feels like the Confederacy’s soldiers are vastly superior to their counterparts in blue. “They got many more men than us/got the arms but not the guts,” he proclaims, and he believes that “pretty soon they’ll give in.” In “Southern Boys” he boasts that the “sweet spirit of Dixie” is the reason the Confederacy is winning: its soldiers are stronger both mentally and physically, and this strength will prevail against any sort of resources the Union throws against it. Caleb’s confidence in ultimate victory for the Confederacy reflects a different perspective than the one put forth by Polly, who believed that the South was doomed to lose from the start (a point also embraced in Lost Cause mythology).

Caleb then disappears from White Mansions until the end of the war, when we hear of his remarkable transformation into a God-fearing man of Christ. Whereas Matthew is vindictive, violent, and broken by his wartime experience, Caleb seems to have been saved by it. He admits in “The King Has Called Me Home” that “I’ve bin burning up my body with drinking/and I can’t leave them women alone” but also proudly proclaims that “I’ve found salvation, the King has called me home/I know where I’m going now, the King has called me home.” Where he actually goes from this point remains a mystery for listeners, but it appears that the war has given a Caleb a new birth of freedom and a sense of redemption. The war has changed him for the better.

“The Drifter” (portrayed by Waylon Jennings)

“The Drifter” stays away from the battlefield and instead comments on the happenings of war from afar. In “Dixie, Hold On,” he simultaneously warms of the good and bad consequences of seceding from the United States. He starts off with a cautionary tone:

to stand alone and cut America in two

means everything’s lost, the constitution’s fallen through

to leave the Union is to weaken what is strong

you think it right, they think it morally wrong

but you’ll fall – oh, oh, oh Dixie you’ll fall

King Cotton, your reign is shadowed with pain

and burning emotion

you need slaves to keep alive

but the North could help you survive

your misguided notion

By the end of the song, however, The Drifter concludes for unknown reasons that secession is actually the correct path for the South: “oh, oh Dixie, you are bold and strong/you could have ’em beat before too long/you have a birthright, a lifestyle to defend/you must hold on, until the very end/hold on – oh, oh Dixie, hold on.” The Drifter invests his stock into the Confederacy’s fortune.

The Drifter, like Caleb, reappears in the narrative towards the end of war. But like Polly, The Drifter now concludes that there was no realistic chance of winning the war. In “The Southland’s Bleeding” (one of the more popular songs from White Mansions) he pleads, “let’s stop this fighting while we can/it takes a brave man, but to end this killing/it takes a braver man. You know there ain’t no real chance/for us to win this/there won’t be no victory dance at the finish/it’s just – Southern pride/it’s just – stubborn blindness.” For the Drifter the end of the war meant swallowing any Confederate pride and accepting the consequences of a losing war. Any resistance to the reality of the situation was a product of blindly foolish Southern pride in his mind.

The Drifter then concludes White Mansions with a melodramatic elegy for the now-dead nation: “you had courage and you had pride,” the Drifter wails, “but the Union could never see your side.” “The states are bleeding, they’re wounded and marred/Mister Lincoln isn’t here to lend a hand/now he’s gone – and bitter hate rules the land.” Through this song another popular myth of the Lost Cause emerges – that vengeful Northerners were now ready to oppress the South through undemocratic legislation and the destruction of the Southern social hierarchy by giving African Americans their freedom and the right of male suffrage. The “bitter hate” would be a painful pill to swallow. Dixie was done.

The Clincher

The climax of White Mansions, in my opinion, is the song “They Laid Waste To Our Land,” with group vocals that include Matthew, Caleb, and The Drifter. The unified singing of these three men is a symbolic uniting of their experiences and perspectives in support of the Confederate war effort. Matthew’s status as the son of a wealthy planter gave him a strong incentive to fight for the Confederacy; Caleb didn’t own slaves or land and claimed that he had no real motivation to join the Confederacy, but he cherished his placement above enslaved blacks in the social hierarchy and benefited from not having to compete with slaves on the wage labor market. The Drifter was an aged Mexican war veteran that was highly respected in his community, and he ultimately believed that his allegiance to his local community and state outweighed his allegiance to a United States government he had once fought for. All had a vested interest in slavery as a social and economic system. All had a vested interest in preserving the status quo. All supported the Confederate war effort, and all made a deliberate risk when choosing to support secession, regardless of their original motivations.

The singers in “They Laid Waste To Our Land” take no responsibility for their choices and once again echo a popular Lost Cause talking point by claiming that the United States military went too far in its prosecution of the war. There were certainly times throughout the conflict when that was the case, but their particular focus on General Sherman’s March to the Sea without also accounting for the damage wrought by Confederate General John Bell Hood’s men is a one-sided distortion of what actually happened during the march. Again, for these men the responsibility for the war’s destruction lies entirely with the United States.

they laid waste to our land, they took it from our hand

from Atlanta to Savannah, they scorched our earth

they stole our corn and wheat, they left no food to eat

they slaughtered all the cattle, took the things of worth

well, we got women and children too

just the same as you

ain’t it enough just to know that you got us beat

the hatred will never cease, even now that there’s peace

the feelings will run as deep as the scars we bear

this ain’t cloth we wear it’s a rag, we’re at the mercy of the carpetbag

what you call justice is plain unfair

how the hell can you ever claim

it’s bin worth all of the pain

just to have us live together under one flag

they laid waste to our land, they took it from our hand

I’ll finish this series of posts on White Mansions with some concluding thoughts in my next post.

Cheers

Country Music, Concept Albums, and the Confederacy

A young Briton working in London in the advertising business listened to American country music for the very first time in the early 1970s. It would turn out to be a life-changing experience for him. Listening to the sounds and soulfulness of Waylon Jennings was particularly moving, and in due time the young Briton decided that he, too, would become a songwriter. He listened to many hours of country music, taught himself the ways of songwriting, and soon began writing his own country songs.

The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed the emergence of the concept album in popular music at the same time the young Briton was first exposure to country music. Musicians at that time began writing entire albums with plots, settings, and unified themes while pushing beyond the boundaries of three-minute radio-friendly jingles about love and happiness. Rock bands like The Who and Pink Floyd obtained an oversized presence in the concept album world with records like Tommy and The Dark Side of the Moon, but country and jazz musicians like Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra laid the original foundations for concept albums with popular records in the 1940s and 1950s.

The first forays into country music songwriting for Paul Kennerley pushed him towards the world of concept albums, and, amazingly, he managed to enlist the help of Waylon Jennings, Steve Cash, Eric Clapton, and a number of other musicians in his first major project: a “prog-country” concept album about the American Civil War that was released in 1978, just a few short years after he first listened to Waylon Jennings. That album, White Mansions, aimed to portray the experiences and struggles of white Southerners who supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. I’ve never heard anything quite like this odd but unique album, and I encourage interested readers to listen to a few songs or the entire album in the YouTube video at the top of this page. You can read lyrics for all of the songs here.

With this post and another one in the near future I propose to examine and interpret White Mansions as a cultural artifact. What does this album tell us about Civil War history, and is it an accurate representation of that history? What ideas did Kennerley hope to impart on listeners in his songs? What might this album tell us about the ways people remembered the Civil War in 1978? I hope to examine all of these questions in due time, but for now let us briefly examine the five characters of Kennerley’s story in White Mansions.

Matthew J. Fuller (portrayed by John Dillon) is the son of a wealthy Georgia cotton planter. He was raised on a large plantation with roughly 400 enslaved people working its lands. Fuller’s status as a wealthy white male places him at the top of the Southern social hierarchy and allows him to live a life of comfort while enjoying the rare privilege of an advanced education. Matthew has much at stake when the Civil War breaks out, and his early decision to enlist in the Confederate military reflects an awareness of how his privileged life could instantly change economically, socially, and politically.

Polly Ann Stafford (portrayed by Jessi Colter) is Matthew’s sweetheart. She too was raised in an wealthy Southern family, and the outbreak of war leaves her worried about the fate of her family, her sweetheart, and her way of life.

Caleb Stone (portrayed by Steve Cash) is a poor white Southerner without land or property. Many consider him “white trash” and he seems to accept and embrace that label as a part of his identity. Caleb is resentful of the power and privilege of the planter class and frustrated with his own impoverishment, but he is also a racist with a strong hatred of blacks. Although he personally is not a slaveholder, Caleb benefits economically from the institution of slavery because he does not have to compete on the wage labor market with black workers. For these reasons Caleb is inclined to join the Confederacy when the Civil War breaks out.

“The Drifter” (portrayed by Waylon Jennings) is a native Southerner who fought in the Mexican-American War during the 1840s. He is aged and physically worn by 1861, and he decides not to enlist for either side during the war. The Drifter acts as a sort of sage by offering opinions on the wisdom of secession and the Confederate war effort from afar. We are told that The Drifter “sees both sides of the argument clearly,” but it is apparent from the beginning that his sympathies lie with the Confederacy.

“The Slaves” (collectively portrayed by Rodena Preston) play a very minor role in White Mansions and are almost completely absent from Kennerley’s narrative. The liner notes explain that their absence is symbolic, that “despite the fact that they represented over a third of the population of the South, their voice was seldom heard.” When they do appear in their lone song, “Praise the Lord,” the enslaved people are portrayed as having no agency in shaping affairs in their own lives, instead waiting on “Father Abraham” and God to free them from the shackles of slavery:

Sing Praise to the Lord, I’m a free man

Massa Abe done take these chains off a me

I will walk all the way to Ohio

’cause the Lord done set me free

That’s about it for the slaves.

With my next post we’ll dig deeper into the lyrical content of White Mansions and explore how Kennerley portrays each respective character’s wartime experience.

Cheers

Karl Marx on the Civil War, the Border States, and the Confederacy’s War of Conquest

Karl Marx is a well-known thinker to any casual student of history, philosophy, or social science. Some people deify him, while others probably imagine him drinking coffee with Satan. I’m not interested in making him either a sinner or a saint, but I do think we stand to benefit intellectually by trying to understand Marx within the context of his time, to see how the major events of his day shaped his thinking on politics, class, and freedom. One such event in Marx’s life was the American Civil War, a topic of great interest to him and one that inspired much writing from his pen. A collection of those writings can be found here.

The Confederacy claimed at the outset of the war that they had no intention of “conquering” any land from the North; they were engaged in a defensive fight, as President Jefferson Davis explained, “solely to preserve our own rights and promote our own welfare[.] [T]he separation of the Confederate States has been marked by no aggression upon others and followed by no domestic convulsion.” Marx questioned this line of thinking in an essay entitled “The Civil War in the United States” that was published in Die Presse in November 1861. What follows from that essay I find extremely perceptive and worth sharing at length with readers:

“Let him go, he is not worth thine ire!” Again and again English statesmanship cries–recently through the mouth of Lord John Russell–to the North of the United States this advice . . . If the North lets the South go, it then frees itself from any admixture of slavery, from its historical original sin, and creates the basis of a new and higher development.

In reality, if North and South formed two autonomous countries like England and Hanover, for instance, their separation would be no more difficult than was the separation of England and Hanover. “The South,” however, is neither geographically clearly separate from the North nor is it a moral entity. It is not a country at all, but a battle cry.

The advice of an amicable separation presupposes that the Southern Confederacy, although it took the offensive in the Civil War, is at least conducting it for defensive purposes. It presupposes that the slaveholders’ party is concerned only to unite the areas it has controlled up till now into an autonomous group of states, and to release them from the domination of the Union. Nothing could be more wrong. “The South needs its entire territory. It will and must have it.” This was the battle cry with which the secessionists fell upon Kentucky. By their “entire territory” they understand primarily all the so-called border states: Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas. Moreover, they claim the whole territory south of the line which runs from the northwest corner of Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. Thus what the slaveholders call “the South” covers more than three quarters of the present area of the Union. A large part of the territory which they claim is still in the possession of the Union and would first have to be conquered from it. But none of the so-called border states, including those in Confederate possession, was ever an actual slave state. The border states form, rather, that area of the United States where the system of slavery and the system of free labor exists side by side and struggle for mastery: the actual battleground between South and North, between slavery and freedom. The war waged by the Southern Confederacy is, therefore, not a war of defense but a war of conquest, aimed at extending and perpetuating slavery.

[…]

The attempts made by the Confederacy to annex Missouri and Kentucky, for example, expose the hollowness of the pretext that it is fighting for the rights of the individual states against the encroachment of the Union. To be sure, it acknowledges the right of the individual states which it counts as belonging to the “South” to break away from the Union, but by no means their right to remain in the Union.

[…]

It can be seen, then, that the war of the Southern Confederacy is, in the truest sense of the word, a war of conquest for the extension and perpetuation of slavery. The larger part of the border states and territories are still in the possession of the Union, whose side they have taken first by way of the ballot box and then with arms. But for the Confederacy they count as “the South,” and it is trying to conquer them from the Union. In the border states which the Confederacy has for the time being occupied it holds the relatively free highland areas in check by means of martial law. Within the actual slaves states themselves it is supplanting the democracy which existed hitherto by the unbridled oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders.

Food for thought.

Cheers

A Memo to Mike Huckabee: The Military Has Always Been a Social Experiment

Last night, for better or worse, I decided to watch the first GOP debate in its entirety. I watched it partly for its entertainment value but mostly from a sincere desire to try and understand the arguments and characteristics of the candidates who claim to be competent enough to run the United States as our next President.

In the course of the debate candidate Mike Huckabee was asked a question about the military’s recent decision to lift its ban on transgendered troops. He gave a laughable response:

The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things. It is not to transform the culture by trying out some ideas that some people think would make us a different country and more diverse. The purpose is to protect America. I’m not sure how paying for transgender surgery for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines makes our country safer.

Cheers and clapping came from the party faithful in response to Huckabee’s comments, but this is simply bad history. The United States military has always been a social experiment whose actions have most certainly transformed our “culture.” Indeed, serving in the military and killing people and breaking things is itself a social experiment, right?

Take, for example, President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. A passage in the Proclamation proclaims that African Americans “will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” Blacks were already serving with the Navy prior to Lincoln’s Proclamation (and have served in every American war since the Revolution), but the message signaled an important transformation within the ranks; ten percent of the military’s fighting force would be composed of United States Colored Troops by the end of the Civil War.

Some scholars such as Lerone Bennett and Michelle Alexander downplay the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation by saying that it didn’t free any slaves (which is false) or that its only significance lies in its utility as a war measure, but the vitriolic responses from some border state Unionists and the Confederate government at the time reflect a belief that the Proclamation was a radical social experiment that threatened law and order. Border State politicians and slaveholders wondered what would happen to their slaves; Kentucky troops fighting for the Union allegedly threatened to lay down their arms if abolition became a war aim and blacks enlisted in the military; and many white Northern troops who may have publicly accepted the changes wrought by the war still held private doubts about the fighting capabilities of blacks.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis also understood the radicalism of the Emancipation Proclamation and responded with fear and disgust:

We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellow-men of all countries to pass judgment on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation ‘to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.’ Our own detestation of those who have attempted by the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by a profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses.

Davis believed that the Proclamation would encourage black-on-white violence in the South in the name of “self-defense” and that emancipation would ultimately lead to their extermination by giving them freedom, guns (for the men), and a place outside their “sphere.” The military is not a social experiment!

On January 1, 1861, the St. Louis Courthouse (now the Old Courthouse) hosted its final slave auction. Exactly two years later Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation encouraged those same slaves–people that could have been bought and sold as property–to enlist in the military. That’s radical. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood that the Proclamation had implications that went beyond military service when he asserted that blacks who enlisted had “earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” While I would argue that African Americans earned citizenship for other reasons in addition to military service, it is undeniable that their military service during the war played a significant role in shaping the fourteenth amendment (which gave all native-born and naturalized residents the right of citizenship) and the fifteenth amendment (which gave all men regardless of color the right to vote). The Emancipation Proclamation was a clear case of what we could call a “social experiment” that involved the military.

The military was also used as a social experiment in the twentieth century. Before desegregation in public facilities and schools throughout the South during the 1950s and 1960s, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948 ordering the military to integrate. Just like the Emancipation Proclamation, Truman’s order aroused claims of “social experimentation” within and without the military. Lieutenant General Edward Almond, for example, believed integration would be demoralizing to white soldiers. He actively fought to deny justly-earned medals to black soldiers during the Korean War and continued to lament the perceived ills of integration well into the 1970s. And of course we cannot deny the evolving role of women in the military as nurses, factory workers, administrators, and eventually combat soldiers in our current military.

When we take a look at the social transformations that have taken place in the U.S. military throughout its history we can safely conclude that the opposite of Huckabee’s claim is true – that the military has always provided a means of social change with profound consequences for the social, political, and cultural fabric of American society. Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” a few years ago continued this trend by allowing people the chance to serve in the military while openly gay, and now transgender people can enlist. Until I see some sort of empirical evidence suggesting that a military with transgendered people in the service puts my country’s national security at risk (which I highly doubt), I will gladly applaud and encourage their service in our military.

Cheers

Addendum: Upon further reflection I think it’s important to further clarify that I do not mean to suggest that the military as an institution leans to the left of the political spectrum or that it embodies liberal or “progressive” ideals any more than it embodies conservative ideals. Rather, I am trying to suggest that the military has historically been targeted by activists because various social groups (including the aforementioned ones here) have earned expanded citizenship and suffrage rights through military service.

“It Should Never Float Over American Soil”

During my master’s thesis research on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana I relied heavily on a Union Civil War veterans’ newspaper called The American Tribune. The paper was printed out of Indianapolis from roughly 1888 to 1906 and was edited by active members of the Indiana GAR during the postwar years. The paper is extremely hard to find on microfilm today and I was really lucky to have the Indiana State Library–one of the only places in the country where you can find it–within walking distance of my house to aid my research. Just for the fun of it I’ve been going back through some of my files and came across some interesting commentaries from the paper’s editorial page on the Confederate flag. Here are a few samples:

On May 29, 1890, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was unveiled in Richmond, Virginia, along what is now called “Monument Avenue.” When reports suggested that Confederate flags were waved during the ceremonies, the John A. Logan Post No. 199 of the Indiana GAR issued an angry resolution condemning these actions as “disloyal and treasonable.” The Tribune gleefully republished the Logan Post’s resolution in full on June 27:

WHEREAS: The rebel flag was unfurled and displayed on housetops and in line of march, and used for the purposes of decorating in remembrance of the same principles that it represented during the years of 1861 to 1865, and

WHEREAS, The principles taught the rising generation by such acts are as wrong as that principle taught by anarchists and communists in carrying the red flag, which this government forbids. Therefore be it

RESOLVED, That we heartily endorse the sentiment of Gen [Daniel] Sickles on last Memorial Day unmoved by any rancor or spirit of hatred, God forbid, but we say as Union soldiers and the love that we bear for the stars and stripes that there is but one flag for the Americans, the flag of Bunker Hill, of Saratoga, of Yorktown, of Lundy’s Lane, of New Orleans, the flag of Washington, Scott, Perry, Jackson, Lincoln, Hancock, Grant, Hooker, and the flag carried victorious by Billy Sherman to the sea. The only flag that represents the right, and in charity we will not forget the difference between right and wrong.

RESOLVED, That in this country there is but one flag which represents the fundamental principles of a free government known and acknowledged by all nations of the earth, and while we respect the pride that animates the hearts of ex-confederate soldiers in historic valor displayed on many battlefields of the war and the sentiment which endears them to each other, and keeps alive in their memories the many scenes of hardships which they shared together, we sincerely condemn any attempt to resurrect from the buried past the emblem which represents a bad and lost cause.

RESOLVED, That the stars and stripes represent loyalty and the stars and bars represent treason, the same to-day as they did from ’61 to ’65, and we deem it the duty of the authorities at Washington, irrespective of political parties, to forbid the display of the stars and bars on any occasion, and this we do in memory of those who so heroically gave their lives that the Nation might live.

From an editorial entitled “Our Flag is There” on January 7, 1892:

When Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant at Appomattox, the latter would not accept Gen. Lee’s sword, and he included within that surrender a provision that all the Rebel officers should retain their side-arms. That courtesy of Gen. Grant expressed exactly the feeling of the great generous heart of the North toward the defeated and conquered South. Southern poets have written ballads and Southern women have sung of the sword of Robert Lee. This is all as it should be. But when Gen. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant there was no provision made that the flag of slavery and secession should ever be retained, either as a souvenir or standard. It represented something that cost this country a million of men and many millions of money, and at Appomattox its bloody folds should have been furled forever. War relic or no war relic, it should never float over American soil.

A month later the paper lamented how many Northerners (and Democrats in particular) embraced what the paper called a “forgive and forget” sentiment that accepted the continued flying of the Confederate flag (“Still Pandering to Rebels,” February 4, 1892):

The Northern Dough-faces and the “forgive and forget” sentimentalists are largely responsible for the manner in which the “relics of the lost cause” are nursing emblems of their treason and are still laboring to make the same respectable. In poor old Missouri they have societies called “Daughters of the Confederacy” whose invitations to their balls and receptions have a Confederate flag printed in colors on one corner; and the principal of the leading military school in that State [Alexander Frederick Fleet, Sr. of the Missouri Military Academy]…advertises the advantages of his school with the picture of a late major-general of the Rebel army in the uniform of a rebel, and this officer was a graduate of West Point, resigned from U.S. Army in 1861 and fought for the Confederacy.

This sort of thing is becoming too common and the President should call a halt and order the officer now on duty there to his regiment, and require the arms to be turned over to the ordnance officer at Jefferson Barracks. It is high time there was a law forbidding the Government of the United States from furnishing teachers’ ordnance, or in any way aiding any institution of learning which seeks to perpetuate the principles of or honor the so-called Confederate Government.

All these comments make you wonder what these guys would think about our debate over the Confederate flag 120 years later.

Cheers

A Call to All Public History Employers

Little Round Top at the Gettysburg Battlefield

Little Round Top at the Gettysburg Battlefield

This past weekend I took note of a couple thought-provoking blog posts worthy of mention here. Both essays argue that public historians at National Parks, museums, and state/local historical sites need to find ways to use their resources and respond to last month’s Charleston massacre. Christopher A. Graham is trying to find examples of small museums and Civil War sites engaging in some sort of interpretive dialogue about Civil War history and memory in the aftermath of Charleston without much luck. He offers some thoughtful ideas on simple programs these places could embrace for discussing these topics and expresses his wish to see “small museums…wading constructively and imaginatively into this conversation about the Confederate flag.” Kevin Levin echos similar sentiments in calling for public historians to “get out there and do what you are trained to do.” He, like Christopher, is looking for examples of innovative programs like the one John Hennessy recently offered at Fredricksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. There are currently no comments with any specific examples on that post, so it looks like his readership has not found any noteworthy interpretive programs either.

I am in general agreement with these posts. The national discussion taking place about the Civil War’s enduring legacy offers a ripe opportunity for public historians and Civil War history sites to enter themselves into an important and highly visible conversation. I would only slightly push back against Kevin in that plenty of public historians at Civil War sites understand their responsibilities as interpreters and care a great deal about “getting out there.” We’ve been out there plenty, actually. In the aftermath of the Ferguson unrest, for example, we at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site here in St. Louis “responded” in May by hosting every 8th grader in the Ferguson-Florissant School District over a two-week period at the park to discuss slavery, the Civil War, and U.S. Grant’s presidency. I pushed the envelop even further by designing a short ten-minute facilitated dialogue in our museum about the ambiguous nature of the term “justice” and how racism affects our own contemporary society. While our park hasn’t yet formulated a program specifically connected to the Charleston Massacre, it’s not as if we stopped talking about these issues once the Ferguson kids went back to school. Our urgency to wade into these discussions has not diminished one bit and we’ve been having plenty of them with regular daily visitors to our site this summer.

It seems safe to say, however, that many Civil War sites including ours can do more to connect past with present through interpretive and educational programs. This shortcoming challenges us to ask tough questions about the purpose of public history in communicating accurate, thought-provoking interpretive histories to diverse audiences of all types. Kevin asks what public history sites are doing “to help their communities make sense of the relevant history behind our ongoing and very emotional discussion about Civil War memory.” That’s a good question, but we can also flip it to ask what local communities are doing to help their public history sites tell accurate, inclusive histories of the Civil War. Are the board members, museum directors, front-line employees, and volunteers that run a given public history site committed to fostering dialogue and a sense of community in their localities, or are they simply committed to placing fancy artifacts devoid of context on display for admiring cultural elites? I want to move Christoper and Kevin’s challenge to public historians upwards towards the people who employ these professionals at their institutions.

While I am still in the early stages of my public history career, I have thought much about the underlying values and philosophies needed to run a truly innovative public history site. I can think of at least three qualities for building a solid foundation at these places:

Vision: I know of and have visited a privately-run Civil War museum that explicitly states in its mission statement a desire not to debate or interpret the causes of the Civil War. The mission, they explain, is to pay homage to the soldiers of the war “without bias to either side.” Is it a surprise to anyone that this museum or ones like it don’t play any sort of public role in a larger dialogue about the Civil War and contemporary issues in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, or elsewhere? It is a surprise that public historians at these sites lack any sort of institutional support to develop programs in response to current events and are often told not to discuss them with visitors? Is it any surprise that many history museums that prioritize uncritical candle-making activities and Blue-Gray gala balls face declining attendance numbers?

The impetus for thoughtful interpretive programming starts with a vision from the top. That vision should offer support to public historians by giving them space to experiment with new methods for communicating history to public audiences. That vision should also embrace a willingness to challenge visitors with programming that checks their prior assumptions. Public historians, however, can only do as much as their employers (who often come from non-history/education backgrounds) are willing to let them do.

Opportunity: The National Park Service is currently suffering from an $11 billion maintenance backlog. Reduced budgets and financial shortfalls since the government shutdown in 2013 and the 2008 recession have led to fewer rangers in uniform and reduced services in maintenance, law enforcement, park administration, and interpretation/education. Long-tenured employees are retiring and their jobs left unfilled. Some parks have almost no front-line staff and rely on volunteers to greet visitors and lead interpretive tours. Full-time, permanent jobs are scarce. It’s a dream of mine to become a park historian at a national park like John Hennessy someday, but I have no idea how to pursue that path because I’ve never seen a single posting for a park historian job in my whole time with the agency.

The NPS is but one example of a public history institution currently facing serious financial challenges. The Park Service and other public history sites at all levels often preach the importance of relevancy, diversity, and inclusion in their hiring practices, but such ideals are meaningless if there are no opportunities to establish a stable career and a livable wage to support yourself. While I realize that many sites must find ways to cut expenses and stay in the black, it always worries me when I see a lot of volunteers running the show at any given public history site. It’s not that I don’t value their contributions – far from it. But public historians don’t spend thousands of dollars for their education (and for internships that are often unpaid) to be volunteer museum docents for a living. Pay your interns. Invest in your employees with full-time jobs if at all possible. Do your best to pay your public historians and museum workers a living wage and offer them fair benefits.

Professional Development: Interpreting history requires specific skills and intensive training. A facilitated dialogue, for example, is not just a Q&A session with a sage on the stage. It requires the work of someone who has been trained to create structured conversations based on relevant questions that push participants to share their thoughts and experiences in a free exchange of ideas. Organizing a dialogue around a controversial topic like the Confederate flag is not something just anyone can easily do. How do you get a supporter of the flag and a person who finds the flag offensive into the same room talking with each other in a civil manner? It’s as tough as it sounds.

To repeat, while I value the volunteers who do so much to keep our Civil War sites running on a day-to-day basis, the process of creating an interpretive program, educational lesson plan, or facilitated dialogue often requires the skills of a trained professional who has the time and skills to put together such a plan. That means the professional’s employer must be willing to buck up for resources and training to aid the development of those programs. I have been fortunate enough to have some really wonderful training sessions with the National Park Service in facilitated dialogue and interpretation, but I know that many other public historians don’t have the luxury of getting any training once they join the workforce. We can’t expect these professionals to offer John Hennessy-like programs if they don’t have the training, resources, or support to put together such programs in the first place.

Finally, Aleia Brown’s article on museum practices and the Confederate flag is also relevant to this discussion and also worthy of your time.

Cheers

Tearing Down the Barriers Between “Experts” and “Buffs” in the Historical Enterprise

Over the past few days I have been going back and forth with a commenter on a recent post I wrote about mediocre, good, and great biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. One of the issues raised in the conversation was my citing of a book written by a professional lawyer instead of an academically trained historian with a PhD. Without having read the book in question the commenter wondered aloud if the author’s choice to publish with a non-academic press reflected a desire to “bypass the normal refereeing process at a scholarly press” and, in a defense of scholarly publishing, warned that not all history writers are in a position to make sound judgements about the past. The commenter also equated the history profession with the medical profession: you wouldn’t trust someone not trained in medical practices to examine you for a disease, so why would you trust a non-historian with interpreting the past?

I believe these comments are unfair to the author in question, but looking at the bigger picture this conversation also reflects an unfortunate and all too common desire to create false barriers between “experts” and “buffs” within the historical enterprise. Few would disagree that training in historical thinking and interpreting primary/secondary source documents is very important to good historical scholarship, but the question of whether someone needs to hold a history PhD to be considered a competent historian is very much debatable.

My argument is simple: Some people focus on the players; I focus on the game. Some people focus on credentials; I focus on arguments.

I am far less concerned about a person’s academic background than I am with the substance of their arguments. I am far less concerned with what a person does for a living than what scholars in any particular field have to say about how that person’s work shapes their field. Take Gordon Rhea as an example. The fact that he holds a law degree from Stanford (and no history PhD) and has worked as a trial lawyer for 35 years means far less to me than the fact that his scholarship on the Overland Campaign of 1864 is highly respected by both Civil War military historians and general readers.

This is not to say that everyone’s opinion is equally valid when interpreting history. The point is that the historical enterprise should strive to cast a wide scholarly net that allows people from many different types of backgrounds to contribute their voice to the conversations we have about the past. Setting the bar for good historical scholarship to only include history PhDs who work in academic institutions impoverishes our field and shuts out many people who care about history but may not have pursued an advanced degree for any number of reasons, not least the fact that it’s damn expensive and time-consuming to get a PhD.

Equating the history profession’s standards with the medical profession is also a poor apples-to-oranges comparison. It might be better to compare the history profession to the music profession. There are musicians with PhDs in music, others who have more limited training through k-12 schooling and private lessons, and still others with no formal training whatsoever. Chances are that when you first discovered your favorite artist you probably didn’t go online to check that person’s formal training before determining whether or not their artistry was valid. The musician’s credentials matter far less than the fact that their music makes you feel good. Different types of music have different goals and required standards of training. You don’t need a PhD to play punk rock, but you might need it to teach classical music in a college setting.

Obviously the end goals of historical scholarship don’t necessarily compare to those of music, but the point stands that history is something that exists far beyond the walls of academia. Different works of historical scholarship–whether they’re written in a book or designed for a public history setting–call for different sets of training and expertise. Not every person who engages in these scholarly endeavors comes with a history PhD in their academic background, and that’s okay with me. Hit me with your best argument and I promise to look at it with an open mind.

Cheers

Creating Sound Arguments: Personal Experiences vs. Structural Realities

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Do you remember that time about a year and a half ago when Duck Dynasty actor Phil Robertson made some questionable remarks about homosexuals and black people during an interview with GQ? A&E, Robertson’s employer, decided to put Duck Dynasty on hiatus; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal misinterpreted the meaning of the first amendment; some of your friends probably joined an “I Support Phil Robertson” Facebook group on the website and claimed in harried status updates that Christians in the U.S. were now being persecuted for their beliefs; and then A&E–caving into the criticism against their choice to suspend Duck Dynasty–came to their senses and lifted the suspension nine days later when they remembered that ratings have always dictated the ethics of television programming.

The whole episode was a waste of time and maybe even a ploy by GQ and A&E to manufacture a controversy and garner attention for themselves. But I learned an important lesson during this “crisis ” that’s stuck with me ever since. That lesson is that there are many logical shortfalls to making arguments about the world based on personal experiences and perceptions. This lesson simultaneously applies to the ways we talk about contemporary society and how we talk about history.

When asked about racism in his native Louisiana in the 1950s and 60s before the Civil Rights Movement, Robertson relied on personal experience to argue that life wasn’t so bad for African Americans back then:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

There are many ways to interpret these comments. A generous interpretation could suggest that Robertson really was telling the truth about his experiences and that life really wasn’t that bad for the black people in his community. A more cynical interpretation could argue that Robertson’s status as a beneficiary of a racist system of legal segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence against black people may have blinded him to the actual hardships of his neighbors, and that his suggestion about African Americans becoming discontented and “singing the blues” only after the rise of the welfare state is offensive. My thoughts lean towards the latter interpretation, but that’s beside the point.

Relying on personal anecdotes to explain a society’s political, economic, and social foundations generally results in poor arguments that don’t advance the conversation because they are used at the expense of compelling evidence about a society’s systematic and structural regulations, policies, and philosophies. Robertson’s perceptions of racism or lack thereof in his own community tell us something about Phil Robertson’s view of reality in 1950s America, but they don’t necessarily reflect the structural workings of 1950s American governance. Across the United States blacks in impoverished communities at this time were offered fewer opportunities in the labor market, education, housing, and quality health care. It is not difficult to find this information or accept these realities, regardless of what Phil Robertson says or whether or not he is accurately describing an objective reality of his upbringing.

I make these points because it’s so easy to rely on personal experience as the final arbiter of truth without acknowledging the limited and flawed nature of our perceptions. Here in St. Louis, for example, I had no idea that various municipal governments were using aggressive policing and exorbitant ticket fees from petty misdemeanors to fund their operations on the backs of impoverished people until Radley Balko reported on it for the Washington Post in September. A Robertson-esque response to the Balko report might argue that “the police in my community treat everyone with respect. Nobody is discriminated against by the police on account of race, ethnicity, or class. People just need to follow the law and they’ll be just fine.”

That argument might very well be true for some people, myself included! Every police officer I’ve met in my area of St. Louis has treated me with kindness and respect. I have no doubt that those hard-working people are doing everything they can to keep my community safe. But just because I haven’t been witness to the corruption of these municipal governments does not mean that they don’t exist or that no one else has suffered. My experiences and those of others here in the area only make sense once they are fit together within a larger social, political, and economic context that explains how structures shape our society.

And just like Phil Robertson, we are always relying on personal experience to explain the past. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of arguments from ancestors (typo!) descendants of Confederate soldiers who claim that their ancestors did not fight for the Confederacy on account of their support for slavery but instead fought for things like honor, defense of home, allegiance to the South, etc. For that reason, they argue, the Confederate flag is not just a flag of white supremacy. Again, that might very well be true for some. I readily accept that the Confederate flag has many layers of meaning, but the personal experiences of your ancestors tell us more about the experience of soldiering during the Civil War than anything about the political disagreements that precipitated the war. Soldiers and politicians often have very different motivations for participating in wars, and the vast majority of Civil War soldiers on both sides had no political role in the debates over secession in 1861. Therefore any discussion of a Confederate soldier’s desire to fight on behalf of “defending his family” (and not for slavery) is inadequate until you also take a look at the bigger picture and acknowledge what the politicians were willing to go to war over in the first place. It wasn’t states’ rights.

Are personal experiences unimportant or useless? Of course not. I would argue, however, that they are inadequate determinants for explaining how the world works. Our experiences don’t happen in isolated bubbles. We must account for that.

Cheers

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