Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Surprised that people think the Confederate flag is not a symbol of racism? Listen to what they think about slavery.

Southerners can continue to honor their ancestors, but doing so does not necessitate embracing the vile cause for which they fought — just as Germans can honor their ancestors without embracing Nazism and Japanese without embracing militarism.
--Max Boot, Commentary

many Americans don't seem to think slavery was much of a problem in the first place

In the wake of the horrendous massacre at the Charleston African American church by the racist fanatic Dylan Roof, there has been a startling, salutary, and long overdue willingness to challenge the perversely enduring presence of the so-called "Confederate flag" (actually a version of the battle flag) as ensign and emblem. Where else but in the US today--or until today--would the public display of a symbol of treason be not only tolerated but celebrated? And that's not even taking the question of racism and slavery into account.

Some have expressed surprise that otherwise well-meaning people could insist that the flag is simply a symbol of regional and historical pride, which has nothing to do with slavery and should not be seen as an offense and a provocation. That becomes much less surprising when one realizes that a good many Americans don't seem to think slavery was all that much of a problem in the first place.

Yesterday, the South Carolina Senate voted to remove the offending "Confederate flag" from the grounds of the Statehouse, although subsequent necessary approval from the House was far from certain, and even if successful, the measure might just result in replacement of the battle flag by another Confederate flag. Meanwhile, in Texas, schools are preparing to use textbooks "based," in the words of the Washington Post, "on state academic standards that barely address racial segregation" and "also do not mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws." A Republican Board of Education member was quoted as having called slavery a "side issue to the Civil War.”

"earnest but deep misunderstandings about the nature of American slavery"

I tend to use Twitter more for professional than personal purposes, to keep up with news from and network with colleagues in various historical fields, including historic preservation and history museums. One of the accounts that I follow is @AfAmHistFail. The author, Margaret Biser, who for six years gave tours of a historic southern plantation on which the captive Africans outnumbered the whites by three to one, was dumbfounded when visitors "reacted with hostility to hearing a presentation that focused more on the slaves than on the owner." She began to tweet some of their choicest remarks, which range from the offensive and mindboggling to those reflecting "earnest but deep misunderstandings about the nature of American slavery."

Last month, she offered a summary of what she had heard:
  1. People think slaveholders "took care" of their slaves out of the goodness of their hearts, rather than out of economic interest
  2. People know that field slavery was bad but think household slavery was pretty all right, if not an outright sweet deal
  3. People think slavery and poverty are interchangeable
  4. People don't understand how prejudice influenced slaveholders' actions beyond mere economic interest
  5. People think "loyalty" is a fair term to apply to people held in bondage
As she notes, in many cases, it is probably not so much about an intentional desire to defend slavery as such, and rather, more about the need to defend one's individual or collective national ancestors. (We all saw how Ben Affleck forced PBS to censor the presentation of his ancestry on "Finding Your Roots" because he discovered he had slave-owning forebears--even though no one would seek to visit their sins upon the quintessentially liberal actor.)

How do public historians teach the population about the legacy of slavery and the contributions of African Americans to our collective heritage?

Two African American public historians (among others) are doing brilliant work to teach about the history of slavery and foster understanding by emphasizing a common but not unproblematic American heritage.

Historic preservationist Joseph McGill (@slavedwelling) hit upon the simple but radically original idea of traveling the country to visit every former slave dwelling and, by spending the night in them, calling attention to this lost history and these lost-from-memory historic structures.

The immediate purpose of his Slave Dwelling Project "is to become a clearinghouse for the identification of resources to document and preserve these slave dwellings," but there is also a larger mission:
Now that I have the attention of the public by sleeping in extant slave dwellings, it is time to wake up and deliver the message that the people who lived in these structures were not a footnote in American history.
His work is among the most exciting and innovative efforts of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It has provoked considerable conversation and now inspired two national conferences. Clearly, it no longer suffices simply to mark sites of memory with a sign. We need new ways to engage the public, so that it can understand the place of history as not only the past and memory but also an active contributor to the world that we have inherited.

In a related realm, Michael Twitty (@koshersoul) travels the country to explain our fascinating and tangled foodways. His presents his work as "a food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian , and historical interpreter personally charged with preparing, preserving and promoting African American foodways and its parent traditions in Africa and her Diaspora and its legacy in the food culture of the American South." His work is multifaceted, focused on three fronts:

Antebellum Chef emphasizes "the vast number of unknown Black cooks across the Americas that were essential in the creation of the creole cuisines of Atlantic world" and their contribtion to the overall "Southern food heritage. A corollary is the need for “culinary justice” in contemporary African American communities suffering from poor health, food deserts, and other symptoms of inequality.

Kosher Soul explains: "Identity cooking isn’t about fusion; rather its how we construct complex identities and then express them through how we eat.  Very few people in the modern West eat one cuisine or live within one culinary construct."

Finally, The Cooking Gene seeks "to document the connection between food history and family history from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom" as Michael "visits sites of cultural memory, does presentations on his journey, and visits places critical to his family history while conducting genealogical and genetic research to discover his roots and food heritage." It is not only an attempt to recover the Black heritage, but also "a proving ground for racial reconciliation and healing and dialogue" which thus "seeks to connect the whole of the Southern food family."

The nation's history, good and bad, black and white, is our collective history. The sooner we recognize that, the better off we will all be. As the foregoing examples show, historic preservation and public history have a crucial role to play here--and the individual with a vision can make difference.

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