Even a short visit to the Southern US is enough to see that it is still remarkably reluctant to face up to the horrors of slavery and the civil war
“In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.“
A nation’s museums and historical sites often tell you less about its past than what it wants you to believe about that past.
For example, I spent a chunk of my gap year interailing across Eastern Europe with a particularly assiduous military history enthusiast. This meant that by the end I felt like I had visited every martial museum between the Rhine and the Urals. One thing that became abundantly clear was that the space these museums gave to events in the 1930s and 40s was inversely proportional to how closely the country they were in had been tied into the Axis. Thus what is often most informative about such places is what they neglect to cover.
This question of collective historical memory (or indeed amnesia) is presently rather current in the Southern United States. The victory of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars means slavery is again being discussed. And that’s not necessarily a comfortable experience for those who live in the former Confederate states. A BBC reporter quoted one Louisiana man descended from slave owners wondering “why, if slavery was so bad, so many freed slaves remained in the area” and arguing that it was time to move on because “we have enslaved ourselves to making right things that our ancestors have done, and we don’t need to do it anymore.”
Based on having been travelling south of the Mason-Dixon Line last summer, this seems a lot like wishful thinking to me. Even a short journey in the US makes it clear both that racial inequality remains very real and that the South has not faced its own history clearly enough to be able to move on from it.
To illustrate America’s ongoing racial divides we could just compare the two main means of getting from city to city without a car: Amtrak trains and the Greyhound bus. The former mode is the more expensive and I don’t think I set foot on one of their trains on which a clear majority of the passengers weren’t white. However, during my one trip by Greyhound, I was one of two white travellers: the other was my sister.
The problem with the way history is presented is more subtle. At no point did I encounter anyone who expressed support for the Confederacy or slavery. And I’m sure most of them would find those things deplorable. What I did see a lot of was that process of omission, I described earlier.
In Richmond, Virginia – the former capital of the Confederacy – you can take a tour of the “Confederate White House”, the townhouse where Jefferson Davis lived and worked for the duration of the Civil War. Attached to it is “a Museum of the Confederacy.” Someone looking to learn about the military history of the Civil War would be well served by this institution. However, a Martian visiting this institution could be forgiven for thinking that slavery was a small part of life in the Antebellum South rather than the essential underpinning of its society and economy. Nor are slaves given anything the prominence that their share of the population of the Old South (3.5 million out of 9 million) would have justified. And most concerning was its explanations of the origins of the Civil War seemed to minimise the role of slavery emphasising instead ‘states rights.’
While I was in South Carolina I went out to the gorgeous Magnolia Plantation:
Now as you would expect this was a plantation whose owners had ‘owned’ slaves. And signs of their presence were visible to visitors. For example, I took this photo of the cabins where the slaves slept:
But as you can probably guess from the foot and the seat in the photo, I didn’t get the chance to stop and look at them properly and consider their significance. I saw them from a road train carrying us around the grounds to see (the rather remarkable) wildlife. There was a tour that focused on these cabins but tellingly it wasn’t included in the package offered by the company I had to use to get their from Charleston. The only thing we were told about the slaves while being given a tour of the house was that their master had taught them to read and that this was a very risky thing for him to have done. It seemed that consciously or unconsciously slavery was being kept to one side: a fact that visitors could easily skip over if we did not wish to be troubled by it.
Another site we visited Colonial Willamsburg has only relatively recently began depicting the lives of slaves in the town and this has apparently been a difficult process in part because of some disturbing reactions from the overwhelmingly white visitors. And I have to confess I didn’t notice any of these efforts while visiting and have failed to spot any looking back through my photos.
I also found the way the Civil War was dealt with in the South uncomfortable. For example, it was almost invariably referred to as “The War Between the States” a term that seems to have been propagated by those seeking to avoid the assumption contained in the term “Civil War” that the Confederacy’s claim to have broken away from Union and created a new nation was incorrect. The only exception I remember to this was at Fort Sumter, which is probably not co-incidentally run by a federal agency rather than a local charity.
A recent book by Tracy Thompson argues that these version of history didn’t gain popular currency by accident: there was a concerted effort spearheaded by groups representing Confederate veterans to minimise both the horrors of slavery and its role in bringing about the Civil War. It often had the tacit approval of White Northerners who were often more interested in promoting reconciliation between themselves and Southern elites, than in justice for the victims of slavery.
The sad reality of this situation is that if White Southerners wish to take pride in their history they do not need to make excuses for the Confederacy. Rather they could point out the distinction between the Confederacy and the South. The Confederacy was home to many who rejected slavery: not only the slaves themselves but also by a small but determined group of White Abolitionists. Commemorating their real history would do Dixie more credit than telling a partial history of the Confederacy and Slavery.