The (Confederate) Flag and the (Black) Student

Um, this happened:

Byron Thomas is 19, black, a freshman at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and a proud Southerner. He hung a Confederate flag in his dorm room window until the university asked him to take it down because several people had complained about it. (The university later stepped back from the request, saying all students have the right to free speech.)

“I know it’s kinda weird because I’m black,” Thomas said in an iReport he submitted. “When I look at this flag, I just don’t see racism. I see pride, respect. Southern pride, that’s what I see.”

“Ignorance gave that flag a bad name, ignorant people like the KKK,” he told CNN’s Don Lemon.

And this happened:

In April 1865, the United States was faced with a discomfiting reality: it had seen 2 percent of its population destroyed because a section of its citizenry would countenance anything to protect, and expand, the right to own other people. The mass bloodletting shocked the senses. At the war’s start, Senator James Chesnut Jr. of South Carolina, believing that casualties would be minimal, claimed he would drink all the blood shed in the coming disturbance. Five years later, 620,000 Americans were dead. But the fact that such carnage had been wreaked for a cause that Ulys­ses S. Grant called “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse” invited the damnation of history. Honor is salvageable from a military defeat; much less so from an ideological defeat, and especially one so duly earned in defense of slavery in a country premised on liberty.

Sir, say that again?

Honor is salvageable from a military defeat; much less so from an ideological defeat, and especially one so duly earned in defense of slavery in a country premised on liberty.

Ahh.  So what you mean is, the Civil War was about slavery.

I almost never enter these debates.  I do slavery.  Not just the South.  Not just antebellum America. Not even just early African American  history.  I. Do. Slavery.  And like all systems of abject and absolute injustice, slavery eventually had an end.  And, in the United States, slavery ended because of the Civil War.  And the Civil War occurred because of slavery.

Let me say that again.  Slowly:

Slavery was a system of abject and absolute injustice (Read: It was not benevolent or paternal or Christanizing or whatever else Ron Paul or Michele Bachman are talking these days).

Slavery eventually ended (Read: Five centuries after its start–and only after small and large revolts by black slaves on four continents, and political organizing by free, freed and enslaved blacks on four continents, and political organizing by liberal-minded whites on four continents, and the rise of an economic system (capitalism + wage labor + colonialism in Africa and South Asia) that could sorta-kinda replicate the profits and the labor system but without all the nasty guilt of, ya know, bondage–slavery ended).

In the United States, slavery ended because of the Civil War (Read: Lincoln wrote the 13th Amendment only after years of bloody battle and only after he realized there was no way he was going to keep the Union together without sweeping the South’s prime labor system out from under itself without having more troops, i.e. black troops enlist and fight for the Union for their own freedom.  And then those troops, black and white, had to go ahead and win that war to make that amendment a reality).

The Civil War occurred because of slavery (Read: Lincoln wrote the 13th Amendment only after he realized there was no way…blah blah blah… There was no way on God’s green Earth the South was going to give up slavery without a war and there was no way the Union could remain viable as long as slavery remained acceptable, condoned and institutionalized within its borders)

Got all that?

Because the last one is a doozy.

The Confederate flag only exists because of the Civil War.  It was created to represent the South at a time when the region was willing to kill for the right to enslave (and rape and maim and kill) other people.

You can say what you want about what the flag means now.  I live with a southerner.  I’ve heard it all.  But the history of slavery and its end is disgraceful to EVERYONE on either side of the Mason-Dixon line.

There is nothing post-racial or post-black enough on this planet to redeem that bloody piece of saltired fabric.  The only way to endow a symbol so afflicted with “pride and respect” is to participate in a willful act of collective amnesia:

We knew, of course, about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. But our general sense of the war was that a horrible tragedy somehow had the magical effect of getting us free. Its legacy belonged not to us, but to those who reveled in the costume and technology of a time when we were property.

Our alienation was neither achieved in independence, nor stumbled upon by accident, but produced by American design. The belief that the Civil War wasn’t for us was the result of the country’s long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that avoided what professional historians now know to be true: that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them. In the popular mind, that demonstrable truth has been evaded in favor of a more comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry. For that more ennobling narrative, as for so much of American history, the fact of black people is a problem.

Coates’ essay, “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” is in the Civil War issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Unidentified black soldier dressed in Zouave uniform / Library of Congress / Posted in "Beyond 'Glory'" @nytimes Disunion Blog

Thomas is too young and too ignorant and this story is too sad.  I will not roast him.  Besides, his mama and daddy got this:

I might not put it back up now because my parents are disappointed in me. They’ve said I can do what I want but I want them on my side. I want them to see it as trying to make a change for my generation. I’m sorry if I’m making my family look bad.


And the truth is:  Thomas is our mistake.  We decided that history shouldn’t be taught in schools with the rigor it ought to be.  We decided that slavery–and, hell, these days, the civil rights movement–is a thing of the past and we’d better not rehash it.  And I don’t mean we as in the black community.  We as a society are flushing critical thinking and the ability to do thorough, independent research down the drain by putting our educational resources behind paywalls, by gutting our public schools and by turning higher education into debt servitude.  We’ve caged the production of knowledge so nicely that accessing the most current research on any subject outside of the university setting is like trying to get from Dayton to New Greenwich with only a day’s time to spare.

I assume Coates meant, in general, black people don’t study the Civil War.  Because when it comes to the Ivory Tower, there are a number of African-American scholars studying the Civl War.  The phenomenal black woman historian of slavery Thavolia Glymph (Duke University) is in the midst of a new project on the experience of women during wartime–she presented a tragic and powerful piece on women, rape, and violence in contraband camps at the 2011 annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.  Julie Saville (University of Chicago) wrote the authoritative text on the impact of the Civil War & Reconstruction in South Carolina.  Elsa Barkley Brown’s classic essay, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition From Slavery to Freedom,” on black women’s political behavior after the Civil War is well cited and well circulated among black feminists doing political history and theory.  Regardless, Coates is right about one thing.  The classic works, the ones scholars, publishers and journalists continue to turn to, are written by white men: Eric Foner, Steven Hahn and James McPherson (who Coates cites) to name three.

Either way, much of this work sits in bookstores or, more likely these days, university press warehouses, waiting to be purchased.  But not by individuals–for the price of a paperback these days I could get a Busboys and Poets pizza and a Coke to wash it down.  And not by public libraries.  Those bastions of independent learning are closing left and right because cities can’t afford to keep them open.  Perhaps not even by university libraries, who are cutting back on print requisitions in favor of electronic versions, shifting even more of the cost of books (+ Kindle or other ereader)  onto the backs of the consumer.

And not by Thomas–who may not even know these books exist.  Like so many college freshman, he may be just learning how to use his library and distinguish primary sources from secondary ones.  That was a snark free statement–I know of what I speak.

So for those of us who DO study slavery and the Civil War, who are educators, who are citizens of color in this nation, what role do we play in this brave new world?  The one where books cost a lot and the knowledge we produce is bound up in copyrights and contracts?  The one where our own children and grandchildren can proudly proclaim they see uncomplicated “Southern pride” in a flag created to be the banner of a nation in which they were never meant to be more than perpetual slaves?


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