HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 27 - Legacies of the Civil War
Chapter 1. Introduction: Legacies of the Civil War [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: I’m going to talk for a few minutes about this memory question. There’s an article assigned at the very end of the reading packet that you perhaps have read by now, I hope. A piece I wrote some years ago which gives you kind of a breezy take on some of the complexities of how the Civil War and Reconstruction have been remembered in the United States. It is arguably the most vexing piece of our past for our larger political, public culture to process. You can simply do it this way, though. This is one of the people that Tony Horwitz interviewed in his wonderful book Confederates in the Attic, which some of you may have read. A quite popular book; it came out about five years ago. Horwitz, a great journalist, did a travel book all over the South and tried to come to some grips and understanding of many things, but particularly of Civil War buffs and Civil War enthusiasm — of why this event endures so much in our popular culture. Among the people he interviewed was this guy who said, quote: “I think there’s a lot of people like me who want to get back to a simpler time: sandlot baseball, Cowboys and Indians, and the Civil War.” Just take me away. Wherever my present is, whatever my life is, just transport me, to the morning of July 3rd at Gettysburg, or some other place. There was a musician interviewed on NPR yesterday morning who’s been through a horrible life of drugs and alcohol addiction. At the end of it he was asked to give the biggest influences on his recovery and his survival, and he said, “Well, certain artists, certain people, but mostly the Civil War.” And that’s where the interview ended. I was dying to find out what the hell did that mean? Good God Almighty. But God bless him.
All right, legacies. Everything in history has a legacy. We use the term all the time, the legacies of this; the legacies of that; the legacies of that event; what are the legacies of World War Two? What are the legacies of the Civil Rights Movement? But what is a legacy? Stop for just a second with me. Let me attempt a definition, some attempt. It can be simply another word for historical memory, of how we remember things, and then how we use them. It always carries some current, present, and often political meaning. If you use the term legacy for something, it probably has a current political stake. Reconstruction, in our history, was an ongoing referendum on the meaning and legacies of slavery in the Civil War. And so much of our racial history, our constitutional history, our political history, ever since Reconstruction, has been a referendum on the meaning and memory of Reconstruction. Was there a reconciliation in the wake of these events, of sections, of states, of soldiers, of the political class, or of masters and slaves, blacks and whites? Who got reconciled and who didn’t? Legacies, I’d suggest, can be emotional. Test this with your parents or your grandparents. Legacies can be emotional, they can be intellectual, they can be physical, they can be financial, they can be about habits, they surely can be political, and they can be sacred or secular. My parents were the Great Depression and World War Two generation and it was all over them. My father always feared insurance. He always wanted to know exact — he had no money but he always wanted to know exactly where his money was. He almost kept it under a pillow. It was stupid, it was crazy, but after the Depression and five farm foreclosures that his family had, he couldn’t stand letting anyone else have his couple of thousand dollars. That’s a legacy of the Great Depression. It’s a habit, it’s a point of view and it’s a set of assumptions. This event had so many legacies that frankly we just keep adding to them with time. They just don’t really go away.
Sometimes a legacy is perhaps what is simply left over, out in public memory, in our behavior, in our policies, after historians have written all their books, museums have mounted all their exhibitions, teachers have taught their classes, elders have tried to instruct the young, at the grassroots level and in families. The legacy is that which endures all of our filterings, all of our debates, all of our struggles over controlling the story we say we live in. It is where the past and the present meet. And there’s no event in American history that’s caused more of these struggles — there are others that compare — but there’s no others that’s caused more struggles over just how the past and present meet than our Civil War. Just take some of these ideas as physical legacies, emotional legacies. If you took the number of dead in the American Civil War and you moved it to the present per capita, thirteen million Americans would die in a war today. Slavery was gone, anger at its loss had no end. In the South, the economy and the physical landscape was in collapse. Two-thirds of Southern wealth of the ex-Confederate states was destroyed, in four years, and a lot of that wealth, of course, was slaves; three-and-a-half billion dollars worth. Forty percent of all Southern livestock were dead at the end of the war. Fifty percent of all farm machinery destroyed. There was an enormous refugee problem. Mobilization had occurred unmatched; it will be unmatched until World War Two. And in the South, in particular, the war had killed approximately — killed or incapacitated, excuse me — one of every four males from the age of sixteen to forty-five. How do you process that kind of loss and destruction and violence in a society that must find a way to reconcile? You can’t send the defeated part somewhere else; well could’ve tried but Brazil wouldn’t take them all, certainly Britain wouldn’t take them all, Mexico couldn’t — wouldn’t. How would this reconciliation actually come?
Chapter 2. Catton’s “Lost Cause” Interpretation: The Dependence of Memory on Historical Period [00:08:29]
I was doing research at Huntington Library a couple of years ago. I was actually there to give a lecture and I had two days to kill and I was just playing around in the Allan Nevins Papers; Allan Nevins was a great Civil War historian, back in the ’50s and ’60s. I grew up reading his works. And I was actually giving a lecture named for Allan Nevins, so I thought I’d spend a couple of days in the Nevins Papers and just lose myself. There’s nothing better in the world, other than teaching this class, than losing yourself in a great library for two days, with no agenda. And I’m thumbing through the Nevins Papers, it’s a huge collection, and I just bump into an essay, in manuscript form, by my hero, Bruce Catton. I’ve mentioned him before. I grew up reading his books, Stillness at Appomattox, and so many others; the great popular historian of the Civil War in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. And here was this little essay, by Catton, entitled “The End of the Centennial, 1965.” Note the date, the centennial of the U.S. Civil War. Catton and Nevins had been themselves directors, executive-directors, presidents and vice-presidents, whatever they were called, of the U.S. Centennial Commission for the Civil War, a commission that was in many ways a debacle because it was all occurring — again, think of the dates — at the time of the Civil Rights Movement.
Anyway, I had just published a book on Civil War memory, this long tome, and here comes this little essay, and I was thinking, oh, Bruce Catton, I’m sure he’ll agree with me. Huh. Now in this essay, which was later published I discovered — and Catton wrote it in 1965 — he muses about memory, and he used the actual word memory. That was reassuring because I was writing about memory in a world of academics who were always — were very suspicious about what the hell this idea of memory was supposed to mean. He marveled in this piece at how Americans had healed — that was his word — from their Civil War, from this kind of blood-letting; how a nation over a hundred years had healed, he said. And that a nation could actually commemorate a civil war, so openly, all over the landscape, he said was truly remarkable, if not unprecedented in modern history. The war, he said, was — his word — a source of unity. “The memory of our civil war” — and I’m quoting Bruce Catton, 1965 — “has not been a divisive force in this country.” And I had one of those moments where I said, oh God, Bruce, say it ain’t so; you didn’t say that. Reminded me of the time I ran into my greatest baseball hero ever, in an airport — you probably don’t even know him, Al Kaline, the right fielder for the Detroit Tigers, the one and only Al Kaline; only Roberto Clemente could even come close to Kaline as a right-fielder. I ran him into an airport once, end of his career — and I was about 28 — and he was smoking a cigarette. Damn. Don’t meet your heroes.
How could Bruce have written that sentence? I’d just written a 500-page book that argued exactly the opposite. For forging all this unity — I read on in the essay — for forging all this unity he gave most of the credit to Grant and Lee at Appomattox and the nature of the surrender; the compassionate character of that surrender at Appomattox. But then he went on. He said primarily he gave credit to what he called the Confederate legend, which he described as — and I’m quoting him: “a mighty, omnipresent force in the land. In all seriousness” — still quoting Catton — “the legend of the Lost Cause has been an asset to the entire country.” Now that just blew me away. Oh Bruce, please tell me you didn’t write that. Catton’s portrayal of the Lost Cause in this essay was that of a benign, innocent, romantic cluster of legends about the Old South, driven by the assumption, as he put it, that, quote: “no hint of enmity should ever be kept alive.” His Lost Cause, in the brevity of one essay, was a story of noble sacrifice by the South, and heroism, of a nostalgia for an older civilization that had been some kind of bulwark against modernism. And in the end, as Catton put it, the Confederate legend, the Lost Cause, he said, quote, “saved us.” I couldn’t really take it anymore. At the very end of the essay Catton redeemed himself a bit. He acknowledged that in 1965 the war had left, he said, the unfinished business of black equality as its deepest legacy, and that, quote, “the Negro was what the war was about, somehow.” Now that was probably — given how closely Catton knew Lincoln, loved Lincoln — that was probably a riff on Lincoln’s use of the word ‘somehow’ in the Second Inaugural, where Lincoln says, “somehow, all knew the war was about slavery.” And we’ve been trying to explain that somehow in our 65 to 70,000 books on the Civil — well some of them have — ever since. Now, I remember rising up from that thinking well I just lost another hero.
How could Bruce Catton have said all this? Well for one thing he never did any research on the Lost Cause. He didn’t know the Lost Cause. He didn’t know that the Lost Cause became essentially a racial ideology, that it became a cluster of legends, as he put it, but a cluster of legends in the service of white supremacy, a few assumptions in search of a history, and an ideology that came to be the buttressing, the base of Jim Crow America. But then I started thinking more and more, and I began to realize, don’t be emotional about this, Bruce Catton was actually in 1965 capturing, absolutely capturing, the mainstream American conception of the Lost Cause and of Civil War memory. That the South’s heroism, that the Confederacy’s effort to stake all on the line for its independence, that the glorious figure of a Robert E. Lee, the steadfastness of a Jefferson Davis, had indeed become national phenomena. Catton was just summing up the mainstream of American thought by the 1960s. And that old cliché that you’ve heard, perhaps before many times, that the South lost the war but won the peace, or the South lost the war but won the debate over the memory, was basically what Catton was summing up. I think Catton believed this too. But I let him off the hook. Because by circa 1965 the understanding of the American Civil War in the broad mainstream culture — not among most African-Americans — and now a new young generation of historians who came of age in the wake of World War Two and were deeply interested in the problem of race in American history as never before, and deeply inspired by an anthropological, sociological, psychological revolution in the study of race, were beginning to write about it differently.
The great Southern poet, who lived much of his life, much of the second half of his life, right here, and whose papers are right there, at Beinecke, Robert Penn Warren, wrote brilliantly about this in a little book, a little essay — actually a big essay in a little book — that he wrote in 1961 called The Legacy of the Civil War. He wrote it for Life magazine. It was later published as a book. In that book, trying to capture what the meaning of the Civil War was in American culture 100 years after, Penn Warren said that “somewhere in their bones” — and I quote him — “most Americans have a storehouse of lessons drawn from the Civil War.” Now exactly what those lessons should be has been, I think, the most contested question in America’s historical memory, over and over again, at least since 1865 and probably even since 1863, when the war underwent a revolution. “Among all the possible lessons of our Civil War,” wrote Robert Penn Warren, “is the realization” — his words — “that slavery looms up mountainously in the story and cannot be talked away.” Our culture has spent nearly now a century and a half, and it is still at it, of talking away the place of slavery in this event and its place in the aftermath. “When one is happy in forgetfulness,” said Penn Warren, “facts get forgotten.” Or as William Dean Howells put in 1900 — and I think I quote this in the essay you’ve read — what the American people always like is a tragedy, as long as they can give it a happy ending. We have a tragic sensibility as a culture, as long as we can see an exit from it.
Chapter 3. Reconciliationist, White Supremacist and Emancipationist Memories [00:19:21]
All right, let me just give you three hooks to hang your hat on, in terms of how Americans have processed this memory. I’ve labeled them reconciliationist, white supremacist and emancipationist, and they simply mean this. There are some other ways of thinking about how Civil War memory was processed, but most of them can come under these categories. A reconciliationist vision of this war took root in the midst of the war. It took root especially in dealing with all the dead. And Drew Faust’s new book on this, called Republic of Suffering, is a must-read, if you stay interested in this subject. I’m conducting an interview with her tomorrow night in New York about that book. I’ve talked to so many people who keep telling me they can’t read past page fifty because it’s so depressing. And I usually say something stupid like, “It’s good for you. Take your pill.” The reconciliationist vision of this war, somehow putting ourselves back together, is rooted right there in putting bodies back together and in putting hundreds of thousands of bodies in the ground. In Faust’s book, as never before, we are taken literally into those graves. She has found tremendous evidence of what soldiers themselves did on battlefields to bury their own dead, and sometimes even bury the enemy, to give people decent, human burials after they’d been half eaten by dogs. Nothing like burying a dead man without a coffin, on a battlefield that you’ve known, will make you pray and beg to be reconciled with something. But a second kind of Civil War memory, if we can call it that, was the white supremacist memory, which took many forms early, including, of course, the terror and violence of the Klan and its many imitators, in Reconstruction, and then locked arms eventually, in the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, with reconciliationists of all kinds in our culture, and delivered the country a racially segregated memory, a racially segregated story of this experience, at least by 1900, and really even before.
A third kind of memory, always competing with these, we might call an emancipationist memory, embodied in African-Americans, complex — and they had no single memory of slavery, the war, emancipation and Reconstruction — in their own complex remembrance of what slavery and their freedom had meant to them. But an emancipationist vision of the Civil War was also rooted in the politics of Radical Reconstruction, also rooted in the three Constitutional amendments, and conceptions of the war as a re-invention of the Republic, and the liberation of blacks to citizenship — blacks and eventually others — to Constitutional equality. In the end what you have here is the story eventually of how the forces of reconciliation overwhelmed that emancipationist vision in the national culture, and how an inexorable drive for reunion of North and South, both used race and then trumped it.
But the story doesn’t just dead-end in this white supremacy victory, this Lost Cause victory, because eventually the Lost Cause wasn’t about causes lost at all. The Lost Cause ideology of the South became a victory narrative, and the victory, they argued, was a national victory over Reconstruction. If you want to ask what was the biggest success in the long struggle over Civil War memory, it was the success of the Lost Cause ideology in selling themselves to northerners who bought in and said, “yes, the nation has finally triumphed over the mistake of Reconstruction.” But there was a fledgling neo-abolitionist tradition, that emancipationist vision of the Civil War never died a permanent death in American culture, by any means, kept alive by blacks, black leadership, and white allies. There is a persistence of that memory that, frankly folks, made possible the Civil Rights Revolution of the ’50s and ’60s, and it was happening even before the ’50s.
But if one thing in particular happened to the memory of the Civil War, it found it its way eventually into a broad consensus, in the broader national culture — this was never unanimous of course — but in the broader national culture that somehow, in this war, in this Armageddon, in this blood-letting, everybody had been right and nobody had been wrong. You want to reconcile a country that’s had a horrifying civil war, how do you do it? Well, you start building thousands upon thousands of monuments. You start having soldier reunions. You’ve read about the Gettysburg Reunion in this essay of mine; I won’t even go into that, the biggest of all the Blue-Grey Reunions, which became the Jim Crow Reunion by 1913. And Ken Burns did not tell you that in his film, and played a very interesting trick on you with that editing button by showing you black and white veterans at the 1913 Reunion shaking hands — an irresistible, beautiful, emotional moment. The trouble is those veterans were shaking hands 25 years later, in 1938, at the New Deal Reunion at Gettysburg. They weren’t there in 1913, but in the film that’s certainly what it looks like. The power of filmmaking.
There was a popular novel published in 1912 — there were a zillion popular novels published about the Civil War. But this one was by a Southern woman writer, a very interesting writer we don’t read much today, if anybody reads her, although she was important in her time. Her name was Mary Johnston. She was a Virginian, born to the upper crust of Virginia planter life, born just after the war. She was imbued with the Lost Cause tradition, but grew up wanting to interrogate it a little bit. She was a Lost Causer but she asked questions about it. She became a suffragist. A progressive woman in so many ways. She wrote a trilogy of Civil War books. Her most famous book, and it was a huge bestseller, was called To Have and to Hold. But one of her trilogy is a novel called Cease Firing, which also was a near bestseller. And in Cease Firing, on the last page of the book, she has Lee’s Army retreating from Richmond, out toward their surrender at Appomattox. And she’s a good writer. And literally, on the last two pages, she has two Confederate soldiers, in their rags, half- starved, in conversation. And one of these old veterans asks the other what he thinks it all means — “what’s it all about brother?” And the other answers and says, “I think that we were both right, and both wrong, and that in the beginning each side might’ve been more patient and much wiser. Life and history, and right and wrong, in the minds of men, look out of more windows than we used to think. Did you never hear of the shield that had two sides and both were made of precious metal?” Why didn’t we just get along? We were both right. Now, that’s an honest sentiment she puts in the mouths of a half-starved Confederate veteran who’s lucky to be alive and is now either about to desert or surrender to the Union Army, neither option of which he ever hoped to live to have to face. And she also captures in that moment a very honest sentiment that had set in all over American culture, especially in veterans’ culture, at all those Blue-Grey Reunions — and the Gettysburg Blue-Grey Reunion was about to occur the following year after this book was published — and that is this sense of the mutuality of sacrifice among soldiers. Cure the hatreds of war by bringing the warriors together, because they have a mutuality of experience. And there was, of course, no lack of honor at Appomattox, on either side.
Chapter 4. The Shifting Grasp and Struggle to Control Civil War Memories [00:29:11]
But outside of all that pathos, that understanding, that sentiment that Americans had bought into by the millions, there was, of course, another whole story going on, out in American culture and in national memory. In 1912, the NAACP counted seventy-two lynchings, in America; about ninety percent of whom were African-Americans. By 1912, when that book was published, the entire Jim Crow legal system and all of its absurdities was fully in place, roughly by about 1910, across the South and in some of the border states, and to some extent even in the North. An erasure of cultural, historical, mnemonic erasure, had been going on for three, four and five decades, of emancipation, from the national narrative of what this war had even ever been about. That process led the great black scholar, W.E.B. Du Bois — same year, 1912 — in the Crisis magazine, the journal of NAACP, to conclude, as he put it, “This country has had its appetite for facts on the Civil War and the Negro problem spoiled by sweets.” They’d eaten too much candy.
Let me give you one other example, from one of these other Blue-Grey Reunions. By the 1890s — these weren’t easy to do, these Blue-Grey Reunions, bringing back Confederate and Union veterans to old battlefields or sites and cities and so forth, these weren’t easy to do. They first attempted doing it in the 1870s. Confederates didn’t want to come to these things. 1880s even it wasn’t easy to do. They had one at Gettysburg on the twentieth anniversary and on the twenty-fifth anniversary, but it was hard especially to get Confederates to go to Gettysburg, the scene of their worst defeat. But by the 1890s, twenty-five years out now, and thirty years out, from the war, with the transmission — and we know this about so many events and the way generations learned from one another and the way memory gets passed on — as soon as there is truly a generational transition, the old veterans, as they get older, are willing to come. The 1900 Blue-Grey Reunion was held in Atlanta. And by the way, Southern cities started to compete for these things just like Northern cites, because they were huge moneymakers. Thousands and thousands of veterans would come with their families and spend thousands and thousands of dollars. Anyway, in 1900 the Blue-Grey was in Atlanta, and during the major speeches at that reunion the Commander of the GAR, the Grand Army of the Republic, the big Northern veterans’ organization, was a guy named Shaw from Massachusetts; no relation to Robert Gould Shaw of the famous 54th Mass. And in his speech he lectured the Confederate veterans — this guy had a lot of New England chutzpah — he lectured them about their efforts to control school textbooks; which by the way all veterans’ organizations were absolutely doing. Every Confederate veterans’ organization had its textbook committee, and many Union veterans’ posts and organizations had their textbook committee. They were competing with one another to control the story in America’s textbooks and trying to lobby and control publishers. Anyway, Commander Shaw was a little exercised about this, and he said, among other things, quote — and you can almost see a sort of schoolmarmish finger-wagging in what he says. He said, quote, “Keeping alive sectional teachings as to the justice and rights of the cause of the South, in the hearts of your children, is all out of order. It is unwise and unjust.” Uh huh.
The Commander of the United Confederate Veterans was none other than John B. Gordon. John B. Gordon had been a Confederate General. John B. Gordon was the Confederate General in charge of the stacking of the arms and the surrender at Appomattox. John B. Gordon then went on to get elected Governor and then Senator from Georgia during Reconstruction. He was also one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, although he lied through his teeth in the KKK Hearings of 1871 about it. But John B. Gordon, by the 1890s, became one of the most ubiquitous and popular Confederate Memorial Day speakers. And he was good at it. He got up to respond to Commander Shaw — and this is a final passage in what he said. John B. Gordon, 1900, head of the UCV, United Confederate Veterans. “When he tells me and my Southern comrades that teaching our children that the cause for which we fought and our comrades died is all wrong, I must earnestly protest. In the name of the future manhood of the South I protest. What are we to teach them? If we cannot teach them that their fathers were right, it follows that these Southern children must be taught that they were wrong. I never will be ready to have my children taught that I was ever wrong, or that the cause of my people was unjust and unholy. Oh my friends, you were right, but we were right too.”
Everybody was right, nobody was wrong, in a war that killed 620,000 people and maimed about 1.2 million, and transformed the society. But no one was wrong. In fact, by the 1890s, as it is still today, it became very popular to be a Confederate veteran. If you’ve read Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, he showed how so many Civil War re-enactors, it appears still today, prefer to re-enact Confederates than to re-enact Unionist, although there are lots of Union re-enactors; and there are now lots of black re-enactors. Which raises a fascinating intellectual question, which we don’t have to dwell on now, and that is why is defeat sometimes more interesting than victory? Ask yourselves that. Why do those Nazis never disappear from the bookstore shelves, often right up front? Nazis, dogs, and the Civil War, as the publishers sometimes tell you, if you write about those we’ll buy it, we’ll sell it. Hate being in that category. And then there are those who will say things like Nazis’ Holocaust memoirs, dogs, and the Civil War — horses too, big deal, the horses.
Anyway, the Confederate Veteran magazine, which became a very popular magazine in the 1890s and lasted like thirty-five years into the twentieth century, ran this little story in 1894. It reported a story of a Southern woman, a white woman, and her son, attending a production, a theater production in Brooklyn, New York, of the play called Held by the Enemy. And theater productions, plays, about the Civil War, especially with some kind of reconciliationist theme, became wildly popular by the 1890s. The boy, sitting there with his mother, according to the anonymous author, asked his mother, “What did the Yankees fight for, Mother?” And as the orchestra strikes up “Marching Through Georgia,” the woman answers, “For the Union, darling.” Painful memories, we’re told, bring sadness to the mother’s face as she hears the Yankee victory song. And then earnestly the boy asks, “What did the Confederates fight for, Mother?” And before the mother can answer, the music changes to “Home Sweet Home,” which fills the theater, says the author, with its depth of untold melody and pathos. The mother whispers her answer to her son. “Do you hear what they are playing? That is what Confederates fought for darling.” And the boy counters, “Did they fight for their homes?” And with the parent’s assurance, the boy bursts into tears, and with what the author calls “the intuition of right,” he hugs his mother and announces, “Oh Mother, I will be a Confederate.” They just fought for their homes, that’s all you needed to know. Now it may be all a mother would want her little boy to know.
But all over American culture there were millions who didn’t really want to know any more. Everybody was right, nobody was wrong. There are a hundred ways to plant this story, or examples through which to tell this story, and I don’t want to take really any more time on it. You can read a book called Race and Reunion, if it ever so moves you. I want to get to our review; yes I am getting to our review. But I do want to leave you with this thought; two images, if I can; three images actually. Or two metaphors; one I guess isn’t quite a metaphor. In the second chapter of Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk— okay, I’m going to test you, how many of you have read The Souls of Black Folk? Oh, we got work to do at Yale. No one should have a degree from Yale without reading The Souls of Black Folk. No one should have U.S. citizenship without reading The Souls of Black Folk. But since I don’t rule the world, who cares? Chapter 2 of Du Bois’ masterpiece is an essay he called “The Dawn of Freedom.” It starts out ostensibly as an essay on, kind of a little history of The Freedmen’s Bureau and a little take on Reconstruction, but he turns it into much, more. He turns it into a meditation — not unlike Penn Warren will do in 1961 — but a mediation on the meaning and memory of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. And he goes into a discussion, as only Du Bois could, because Du Bois was really a poet-historian or a historian as poet. He begins to discuss how bleak life actually is on the ground, in the South, not just for the freedmen as sharecroppers, but for whites as well; that poverty is a black and white thing, he says. He’s got another chapter to come in the book called “The Black Belt,” where he shows that, that poverty is something Southerners share, if they would.
And then he stops and he says, in effect, see this picture with me through what he calls two figures. He says they’re two figures, in his view, that typify the post-war era and the power of its legacy. Here’s the passage. “Two figures,” says Du Bois, quote, “the one a grey-haired gentleman whose fathers had quit themselves like men, whose sons lay in nameless graves, who bowed to the evil of slavery because its abolition threatened untold ill to all; who stood at last, in the evening of life, a ruined form, with hate in his eyes.” Your first figure is an old white man, probably a former planter, who’s lost everything. He’s bitter, he’s really bitter. He feels a burden of Southern history. And then Du Bois says, “And the other, a form hovering dark and mother-like, her awful face black with the mists of centuries, had aforetime quailed at that white master’s command, had bent in love over the cradles of his sons and daughters, and closed in death the sunken eyes of his wife; and ay too, at his behest, had laid herself low to his lust and borne a tawny man child to the world, only to see her dark boy’s limbs scattered to the winds by midnight marauders riding after ‘Damned Niggers.’” The second image, an old black woman, former slave, mammy, but also broken, no future, doesn’t even know where that son might be, and the son is probably dead. But Du Bois presses the issue. Du Bois had a genuine sense of tragedy and he didn’t care sometimes whether he gave you a happy ending. He pressed the issue. He says then, “These were the saddest sights” — I’m quoting — “of that woeful day, and no man clasped the hands of these passing figures of the present-past” — legacy, where past and present meet. “No man clasped the hands of these passing figures of the present-past; but hating they went to their long home, and hating their children’s children live today.”
Now, unmistakably, Du Bois is using that language of clasping hands for a purpose, because it’s by far the most ubiquitous image used in all the Blue-Grey Reunions, by the ’90s. He first wrote this essay in 1897 and revised the Souls of Black Folk in 1903. But the most ubiquitous image in all the Blue-Grey reunions was — in fact the slogan was — clasping hands across the bloody chasm. And the shaking of hands, of the Blue and the Grey, the old Confederate vets, the old Union vets, was always the photo op; and it’s all over the ending of Burns’ film. And how can you resist it? In some ways, what can be more beautiful than old, old men, chests full of medals, shaking hands across the walls they tried to kill each other over? There’s something human about that, that we can’t quite resist. But Du Bois says, you know what? There are two other kinds of veterans of the Civil War, and no one’s ever clasped their hand.
Chapter 5. Echoes of the Civil War, Hope for Racial Equality: A Conclusion? [00:44:57]
And now I will just ask you to think — I’m not doing this for any political partisan reason — I don’t know if you’ve read it but at the very end of Barack Obama’s race speech. I’m talking about Obama now as a historian, not as a candidate. He’s got enough problems with… [Laughter] Reverend Wright right now. But this is Obama the writer. And I don’t know if he read Chapter 2 of Souls before he wrote that speech, in Philadelphia a month ago; it doesn’t really matter if he did. And I don’t remember, if you read to the end of it, if you’ve read it, or if you heard it — I’ve actually never heard it, I’ve only read it. But the way he ends that speech is the way a lot of politicians get up on the stump and talk. And at first you’re ready to dismiss it, it’s another one of those stories of “well, you know, I met somebody on the campaign trail and here’s what she said to me, and she had this terrible story to tell; let me tell you her terrible story.” And you start tuning out like “oh God, here comes another story of Old Aunt Something-or-other on welfare or whatever.” But no, it’s the story of a young twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia, who is his campaign manager in Florence, South Carolina. And he remembered the story of when he, during the South Carolina primary, he was doing an event in Florence, South Carolina, and he meets Ashley and Ashley tells him her story. And that story is, in brief, that she grew up with a single mother, poor, a poor white girl in the South. At age about ten her mother got cancer, lost her job. The family went bankrupt, etcetera, etcetera. In order to help out her mother — she told the story of eating nothing but mustard and relish sandwiches for a year or a year and half. Apparently her mother survived but they never really — survived with a bankruptcy. But somehow as she got older she got interested in politics. Now that’s a white, lower working-class, poor, southern girl who had every right to be in that group Obama had described earlier, who are the whites in America with a lot of resentment of all the racial changes in America. Instead she becomes his campaign manager, and she put together this whole gathering in Florence, in some, I don’t know, church hall or wherever they were meeting; mostly black folk.
And then Obama describes how everybody in the room had to go around and say why they were there, or what issue they were there for. And he says, with quite some directness, that most people did what most people do, they name a single issue; it’s about them, it’s about us, right? It’s not about the common good, it’s about us. I want a better job, I want healthcare, I want this, I want that, I want, I want, I want. Okay, fair enough. And they finally come around to an old back man who’s sitting there, kind of at the end of the aisle, and he’s asked, “So why are you here?” Obama doesn’t even name him. He says, “I’m just here because Ashley brought me here. I’m only here because of Ashley.” Now Obama says — in effect, he develops at the end of the speech a refrain about not this time, he says; not this time, we’re not going to let race divide us this time. Like Du Bois’ two figures, hating, till their death; and hating, their children’s children live today. Well, here are two children. But note what he’s reversed. We got a young white woman who should’ve been in the resentful white working-class, and an old black man who no doubt grew up in Jim Crow and probably has told story after story of the denigration or destruction of his dignity for the first 45 years of his life. But he’s there because of Ashley. Thank you.
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