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Whistling Dixie (Not)

January 14, 2011

Is the Civil War over? Here in Virginia, almost 150 years later, it is not.

Virginia was the heart of the Confederacy, Richmond its capital. How to commemorate our most uncivil war has always been a difficult question, but too often the conservative side has won out over reason. For example it was not until 2003 that Richmond greeted its first statue of Lincoln—with a protest. As a gesture to conservative voters, last year our governor issued a proclamation of Confederate History Month that incredibly neglected to mention slavery. True, to do so would have undermined the proclamation’s anti-historical insistence that Virginians stood united against northern aggression. The revisionist document (grudgingly revised after a national hailstorm of criticism) aptly illustrated the peculiar apologist agenda of even our uppermost state leaders. Many Southerners like me wonder why so many embrace the battle flag and stake the honor of the South, which has much to be proud of, to the stinking corpse of the Lost Cause.

That corpse resurfaced this month in the recall of the state-approved fourth grade history textbook, mostly because of its patently false claim that many blacks fought on behalf of the South.

In truth the slaves were the last people most Confederate leaders and slaveholders wanted to give guns. Apparently the journeyman author of the textbook was beguiled by apologist claims espoused online by the Sons of Confederate Veterans that slavery was only one of sundry factors that caused the conflict. (You can imagine what might have been President Lincoln’s surprise, considering his words to the contrary.) At first the publisher issued stickers to be pasted like fig leaves over the offending words, but a belated in-depth vetting of the book identified so many other errors that a recall became the least shameworthy option. (It would be prudent if Virginia checked its textbooks before approving them.  Perhaps it did.)

History belongs to those who write the books, and it is critical to ask which facts are, well, factual. The way we speak of the war now is bitter commentary on how far we haven’t come and the extent to which we really are not a we. The Governor and the state textbook quite blatantly misstate, distort, or ignore the facts, and when the errors are corrected the correction itself becomes the controversy. The facts are that few blacks fought willingly for the South, whereas many enlisted with the North despite the discrimination they encountered there and unusually depraved treatment they risked if captured by the South. The Emancipation Proclamation was explicitly a document of recruitment, and irrevocably gutted the status quo of American slavery.  The governor was surprised to learn that millions of Virginians of every color are anything but grateful to the Confederate soldiers and are delighted that they were utterly defeated.

My two sons straddle the racial line, white and black, a distinction that to them matters little. They live, they breathe, they fight, they dream; and their free exercise of these things is a blessing. There are moments of awkwardness: My eldest had to choose his race this fall, much like declaring a major, because the school system provided just one checkbox.  No matter:  Our boys don’t worry much about the labels.  They know who they are. But such boxes once mattered quite a bit. When their parents were born, Virginia deemed interracial marriage a criminal offense. The state fought all the way to the Supreme Court to protect this law, but the Court struck it down—an unforgettable rebuke to the enduring Confederate cause of state’s rights.  For my kids, biracial is but a footnote, a detail, a trait they know they share with paupers and the President himself alike. Their heritage matters to them, but, thanks to the sacrifices of those who came before, it won’t determine how their lives turn out.

Or so I hope. Most of us sensible folk would be delighted to declare that particular conflict over, and many of us unfortunately have. But I can’t.  I have lost that option.  Although I am white, I have some firsthand insight into what it’s like to be on the short end of the stick.

One day a dozen years ago, when I had just moved to Virginia with my wife and our charming “zebra” toddler, I was working in the yard under a blanket of Washington’s uniquely sticky air when I heard someone practicing the piano, presumably a child. The halting notes were lightly audible but unmistakable. It was the peppy tune Dixie, which all may agree is an ongoing celebration of the old South.  Many have embraced it, including in a lusty 1999 sing-along led by the then-chief of the Supreme Court. However, many of us can not enjoy history so selectively; it is also one of the most concise modern symbols of racism. Reminiscing about the “land of cotton” with a famous marching song of the Confederacy doesn’t resonate well to those who listen and has a positively nasty flavor for those whose slave ancestors made cotton profitable. Not many whites would try singing this particular piece in mixed company. They know its power. In 1993 a senator of North Carolina threatened to sing it to an African-American senator while trapped in an elevator “until she cries.” (The late senator was never held accountable for his virulent racism and served five terms before retiring in 2003.)

Not so long ago I might have reacted with anger to hearing Dixie in my own front yard. I would have known I was supposed to react that way. I wouldn’t have immediately felt the indignation, but I would have thought it. This time I felt fear. This wasn’t about someone else, this was about my baby, thus about me; this was personal. I realized some sick person might actually hurt him someday for a stupid reason, because of a war that is not over, because of a defeat some people can not snap out of it and acknowledge.  I had lost my opt-out.

The facts of history are not something on which to equivocate, and yet there are those who will never stop trying. The consequences of not safeguarding the record are important. The massacre in Arizona shows what happens when words of violence shade into actions. It wasn’t race that time, but it might as well have been; there can’t be much doubt the shooter’s warped motives were adapted from others. Hatred plus a gun, or even incompetent leadership, are serious things.  The Civil War insurgency is not over; it is alive at the highest levels of state government. This week’s figurative burning of a textbook is a symbol of the problem, not the end of it.

Have a fine MLK Day.

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