Earlier this week a friend and I undertook a short two-day trip of various Civil War historic sites in Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. We had a great time and saw a lot of neat history, highlighted by a wonderful visit to Fort Donelson National Battlefield. Unfortunately we encountered some bad history along the way as well.
I will not name the site here, but this particular house tour was loaded with all sorts of Lost Cause nonsense.
- “The war wasn’t all about slavery. It was about independence.” Why did they want their independence?
- “Grant owned slaves during the war.” Wrong.
- “Grant said he’d drop his sword and stop fighting if the war became a fight to end slavery.” Wrong, and obviously that didn’t happen. The guide’s comment was extremely ironic given that there was an exhibit right behind him about Grant’s support for the enlistment of black troops into the U.S. Army.
- “Lincoln was a racist who didn’t care about slavery.” I agree that he held racial prejudices, but that does not mean he was indifferent about slavery.
- “The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free any slaves.” Wrong.
- “It’s not a PC thing to say, but there were thousands of blacks who served as soldiers in the Confederacy. Frederick Douglass saw them on the battlefield.” Wrong and wrong.
And on and on and on.
I usually keep quiet on tours, but there were multiple times when I had to push back against the tour guide’s interpretation. I felt bad afterwards for speaking out so much but I had never been on such an inaccurate tour before.
I believe all tours at Civil War historic sites should incorporate some discussion of the political ramifications of why the Civil War was fought. But in that moment I really felt like this house tour would have been better if it just focused on the furniture and fancy guns and left the politics out of it. At least people wouldn’t leave the tour in some sort of fantasy land where the war had nothing to do with slavery and 20,000 African Americans voluntarily fought for the Confederacy and their continued enslavement.
Regular readers of Exploring the Past know that I have many writing interests besides the American Civil War and nineteenth century history, and I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to periodically write my thoughts on sports for the fantastic website Sport in American History over the past couple of years. I am grateful for the opportunity to write outside “my lane” on occasion and I think that if the circumstances had been slightly different I might have pursued a career in sports media when I was younger.
For my latest essay on the website I reviewed a new book on hockey cinema and sports films by Iri Cermak, a Media Studies scholar. In the review I go through the typical analysis of various themes that emerge throughout the book’s chapters, but I also offer a fairly critical assessment of what I think is a serious shortcoming when it comes to analyzing the changing racial dynamics of hockey cinema and hockey as a whole in the book. I was pretty pleased with how this review came out; the American Studies department at Notre Dame retweeted the essay onto their account, so I guess someone liked it!
Let me know what you think.
The above tweet from linguist and writer Fredrik deBoer got me really thinking about the meaning and purpose of having a historical perspective when looking at contemporary events. deBoer was responding to a recent essay by Jonathan Chait entitled “It Is Not 1968.” Chait argues in that essay that the country is actually more unified in its views towards Black Lives Matter and police reform than social media may suggest. He argues that recent op-eds and commentaries from a number of conservative political leaders and thinkers indicate a shift in thinking that is more sympathetic to BLM’s grievances. “[Democrats and Republicans] may not agree with Black Lives Matter on the exact scope of the problem, but the two sides have a shared sense of its existence — no small achievement in a country where the two parties cannot even agree on such questions as climate science — and broad moral contours,” he explains. Chait sees these developments as a genuine victory for “reasoned, evidence-based progress.” We as a country are doing better than we were in 1968 and should ultimately proceed with caution before making any rash historical comparisons.
But deBoer pushes us to take a wider perspective and consider how the families of Philado Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and many black victims of police violence might react to Chait’s declaration of forward social progress and “historical perspective” when the price of such progress has been paid in human life and the loss of their loved ones. What good is it to say “things are better now” when the threat of violence at the hands of police still remains for many people of color today? What good is it to tell someone that “it is not 1968” when the challenge at hand is living in 2016? Are there times when “keeping things in perspective” prevents us from taking steps to ensure a better world tomorrow?
I made a similar argument a couple years ago when I wrote about the events in Ferguson, events that occurred within a short drive to my own house here in the St. Louis area. I appreciated the historical perspective that numerous writers offered in attempting to explain the looting and violence that hit the area (including a long history of urban riots in places like Watts and Detroit and others led by white supremacists for different reasons that completely destroyed cities like Memphis, Wilmington, and Tulsa), but I simultaneously suggested that such historical perspective probably offered very little solace to the victims whose businesses were destroyed amid the chaos. Likewise, I imagine any claims suggesting that police practices are more humane today than fifty years ago are probably true but of little solace to the residents of Ferguson and surrounding areas whose local governments used their police force and municipal court system to raise funds through petty fines and fees for offenses that were not a threat to the community.
To be sure, I do think it’s a good thing to have historical perspective. There’s a song by Billy Joel, “Keeping the Faith,” where he cautions that “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I always liked that line because it warns us to avoid being overly sentimental about the past while demonstrating that the potential for a better tomorrow is always there. But at the same time I see issues with that thinking when real problems in peoples’ lives today are minimized and dismissed, especially when those people are truly disadvantaged. At its most extreme we see the worst perversions of “things are much better today” when people say things like “slavery was a long time ago. Life is so much better today and everyone is treated equally, so get over it!” That viewpoint isn’t helpful for solving the problems of today and is ultimately another way of telling someone to shut up because their concerns aren’t valid.
What are the advantages of viewing contemporary problems with a historical perspective?
As you’ve probably heard by now, the U.S. Treasury has announced that it will begin putting Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill while relegating Andrew Jackson to the back of the bill (which I find odd for multiple reasons). As soon as the news came out a friend on Facebook announced that he was ready to see none other than Ulysses S. Grant up for removal from the $50 bill, citing his allegedly weak Presidency and his ownership of a slave, William Jones, for a period of time in the 1850s. Although Grant has been on the $50 Federal Reserve note since they were first printed in 1914, calls to remove Grant have occurred in the past. In both 2005 and 2010 a minority of Republican legislators called for Ronald Reagan to be placed on the $50, but both proposals died fairly early in the legislative process.
So I ask you, dear readers: Is it time for Grant to go? You tell me.
The other night I had a chance to watch the above documentary, The Pruitt Igoe Myth, about a failed public housing complex in St. Louis. Pruitt Igoe was billed in the 1950s as an example of smart urban planning and a model for future cities dealing with housing crises. The complex quickly ran into a myriad of funding and maintenance issues, however, and the complex became so dangerous that St. Louis police officers sometimes refused to go into the area. Pruitt Igoe was torn down in 1972, and the area where the complex was located is littered with dilapidated trees and brush today.
The “myth” that the movie describes is the idea that Pruitt Igoe failed mostly because of the poor black residents who lived there. Instead, the movie argues that other factors such as structural racism, government subsidization of outlying suburbs (aka White Flight) in St. Louis county that drove away crucial tax revenues for the city, and political ineptitude within the St. Louis Housing Authority all contributed to an idealistic initiative that was arguably too expensive to financially sustain long-term. As one interviewee says in the film, “you can’t build yourself out of poverty.”
Even though I’ve been a St. Louis resident for most of my life, I learned a lot of new things about the city’s history from this film. There’s a nice mix of oral histories from former residents of the complex and historical analyses from urban historians. If you’re into St. Louis or urban history and have 90 minutes to spare, give it a watch.