Wednesday, April 07, 2010

On Collective (and Selective) Memory

You know, I am not at all surprised by the fact that Virginia's Governor Robert McDonnell proclaimed April Confederate History Month. My (Louisiana) parish has done it before and I'm sure it's not an anomaly in the South.

But what gets me, what always gets me, when I see people loving on the Confederacy and declaring that their flags and memorials are all about heritage, is the selective, largely one-sided memory they have. The "Old South" may have been all moonlight and magnolias in their recollections, but there were four million or so people who, I'll bet, remembered it quite differently.

Encouraging people to remember the Confederacy includes encouraging them to remember that those states left the Union largely because of their fear that Abraham Lincoln would not just stop the expansion of slavery, but abolish it all together. Remember that these people were willing to go to war to protect their right to own and exploit other people. That dims the moonlight a little bit.

The irony is, it is "heritage" to remember the Confederacy, but we are never supposed to talk about slavery. McDonnell urges people to "to recognize how our history has led to our present," but when we talk about how slavery has very real effects on our present, that is dismissed. It ended a century and a half ago, after all, and to talk about it is to search for grievances and dwell on the past or however that argument goes. The proclamation itself makes no mention of slavery, just vague allusions to "a time very different than ours today." McDonnell himself suggested that slavery was not important enough to merit mention in a proclamation about remembering the Confederacy.

That is not the only contradiction in that proclamation:
all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace
No, they didn't. They fought like hell to reinstate and then maintain their previous control over every aspect of southern life, at the cost of thousands of lives and the continued denial of the most basic civic rights.

And then, the admonition that "this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten," as if that has ever been a possibility. (Some) white southerners and their sympathizers have been busy since the end of the Civil War making sure we never forget their noble "Lost Cause" or how near-perfect the South was before the intrusion and unwarranted intervention of the North. Confederate flags haven't just been on people's bumper stickers or their back windows. They've flown over state capitol buildings and been woven into new flags. We are not in danger of forgetting "this defining chapter."

I think what we are in danger of forgetting--and I say this as a history teacher in Texas absolutely appalled at what the Texas Board of Education is doing to the social studies curriculum--is that not everyone has had the same experiences of every event in U.S. history and that those "defining chapters" have tended to be interpreted very differently by people forced into the margins of society. That doesn't make those interpretations any less valid or real or "American."

It is enraging and hurtful to me that people expect us to learn, to teach, to glorify history in a way that disappears us, our experiences and our contributions. The history of this nation is not composed solely of the experiences and opinions of the dominant group(s).

Neither should its collective memory be.

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Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...