|"Shirley, with Katharine, Mary & Helen Armstrong, Jan'y 1901."|
Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land."Do you know that song?" my grandfather asked me. No, I didn't. He was shocked and proceeded to teach me the words: In Dixie Land where I was born in, early on one frosty mornin', look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.
It was one of the two times in which I felt as if I were getting to know my grandfather, as if a loving connection were being forged between us. The second was the time that he asked me about my dreams and hopes of the future, and I described to him my plans of attending college and perhaps becoming a writer. Then one day, my grandfather overstepped those boundaries with a fumble at my breast and a thrust of his tongue in my mouth.
To me, that's what the Old South is like: it comes on as genteel, paternalistic (all those slaves were really so well taken care of, and the South was really just insisting on the rights of freedom, you know, states' rights). One imagines the large veranda of the plantation home, (white) women in hoop skirts and gentlemen in white jackets sipping mint juleps and bourbon and, of course, all that brave gray southern soldiery against the bright red rebel flag. Then, in the breeze come floating the scents and smells of slavery, the sound of whips against bare backs, the wails of parents being separated from their young children, the old master or the old master's sons or nephews fumbling at the breasts of the slave girls who have no power to resist them.
After the Civil War, the South did exceedingly well at perpetrating that proud, paternalistic myth, the myth of righteous rebellion. And it's a myth that has spread beyond the South. I am always shocked to see Confederate flags flying at the gates to western ranches or reproduced as bumper stickers and window clings on pick-up trucks driving down the streets of the small Arizona town where I now live and in the Northwest where I have traveled. What the fuck? I wonder. Are these people really glorifying the South and slavery?
Well, of course they are, even if they, themselves, don't recognize it, as they have been seduced by the myth of the South, of righteous rebellion against an overbearing government. So many people today still do not understand the continuing mythical power of all those statues glorifying the Lost Cause. As Garrett Epps writes in The Atlantic,
This was--and to a remarkable extent still is--a society embued with myth and propaganda. We were taught to believe that these marble men--who staked their lives and fortunes to fight for chattel slavery--were the equals of the nation's founders, and far superior to any Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses Grant.
There simply is no way to hold that belief and at the same time believe that blacks are equal before the law or even before God. That's not a coincidence. Defenders of Confederate iconography argue that the statues represent simple historical memory--reminders that the South was the cockpit of America's most cataclysmic war. But they are actually post-bellum propaganda. Segregation did not become Southern dogma [until?] well after the compromise of 1876. It was not firmly locked in place until Woodrow Wilson's ascent to the White House in 1912. In other words, segregation was constructed in precisely the period in which the monuments were put in place. They did not symbolize past battles, but present and future white supremacy.A commemorative statue that most illustrates how those statues of the Lost Cause represent "white supremacy" rather than some anodyne "historical memory" is the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans. This monument was erected in 1891 and celebrated that "day in 1874 [when] a few thousand armed men from a paramilitary group called the Crescent City White League, many of them former Confederate soldiers, squared off on Canal Street against a contingent of mostly black police and state militiamen." The group wanted the resignation of the recently elected Louisiana governor, a former Union colonel, and when he refused to resign, they charged, and kept him holed up until Federal troops arrived to rescue him and restore him to his state post.
The White League was responsible for racial terrorism in 1874-1875, and their racism is clearly illustrated in the group's platform:
Disregarding all minor questions of principle or policy, and having solely in view the maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization, we appeal to men of our race, of whatever language or nationality, to unite with us against that supreme danger. A league of whites is the inevitable result of that formidable, oath-bound, and blindly obedient league of the blacks, which, under the command of the most cunning and unscrupulous negroes in the State, may at any moment plunge us into a war of races...It is with some hope that a timely and proclaimed union of the whites as a race, and their efficient preparation for any emergency, may arrest the threatened horrors of social war, and teach the blacks to beware of further insolence and aggression, that we call upon the men of our race to leave in abeyance all lesser considerations; to forget all differences of opinions and all race prejudices of the past, and with no object in view but the common good of both races, to unite with us in an earnest effort to re-establish a white man's government in the city and the State.The statue commemorating that attack celebrated white supremacy. If there were any doubt it didn't, fifty-eight years later, in 1932, the year my father was born, "city leaders added an inscription explaining that the battle represented the triumph of 'white supremacy'":
McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and lieutenant-governor Antoine (colored). United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.Propaganda and myth, however, work so insidiously to undermine history:
Up through the 1970s, respectable opinion held that the battle really had nothing to do with race. As one newspaper editorial put it after the obelisk was defaced with black paint in 1970, it was a battle against "interlopers...sent to the community to loot, to confiscate lands and to otherwise misrule Louisiana."In much the same way, Civil Rights leaders and participants were called "outside agitators" in the South. I remember as a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s hearing that phrase used to describe those advocating for full civil rights, as if the South (and Texas, where I grew up) were a place where African-Americans were treated fairly and had no reason to complain. The myth is of blacks happy with their circumstances until someone or something outside the happy place/plantation--the federal government, "outside agitators," "northern aggression"--stirs them up. That myth denies the agency of slaves, the agency of later black citizens, and gives it all to paternalistic whites.
I keep in a china cabinet in our dining room two photographs. One is of a handsome, white-bearded black man, seated, holding a white child, about three years old, flanked by two young white girls leaning on his knees. The man has a very solemn expression. On the back of the photo is this inscription: "Shirley, with Katharine, Mary & Helen Armstrong, Jan'y 1901." Katherine is my husband's grandmother, and Mary and Helen are her sisters. "Shirley" is, as far as I have been able to discover, an old family retainer who worked for the Nugent family in their second home in Salem, Virginia, and maybe even in their previous home in New Orleans. The mother of these children was Mary Nugent Armstrong, my husband's great-grandmother. I have learned a lot about the Nugent family by reading some of the hundreds of family letters we have. Mary's father, Perry Nugent, was once a rich man in New Orleans, a president of the Cotton Exchange. [He lost just about everything in the 1880s.]
This photograph, however innocently intended and cherished, represents the myth of the South: the beloved servant, happy in his station, surrounded by the white children of his former mistress. The nostalgia is reflected in the inscription, where the black man is honored not with the title of "Mr." and his last name but with the name by which the family called him, Shirley. The nostalgia is reflected in the beautiful silver frame which encases the photograph.
Years later, I found a second photograph of this man in the large collection we have of Tom's family photographs, letters, and newspaper clippings. The photo was not framed. In front of a plain background, the man sits with two beautiful black children, one perched on his knee, perhaps the age of young Helen, another, leaning against his left leg, perhaps the age of Katharine or Mary. The people are not identified; the photo has no inscription beyond that of the photography studio, Maury Bros., in Roanoke, VA, & Salem, VA. What has always struck me is the contrast between the expression on this man's face, this younger "Shirley" surrounded by his two children or grandchildren, and the older "Shirley" surrounded by the white children of the family for whom he had worked for many years. The younger man has a much more open expression, less solemn, proud and happy.
This photo was taken long after the Civil War, but it's very possible that this man had once been a slave. Here he is "free," and his children and grandchildren might have lived long, enjoying his company, rather than being ripped from his arms and "sold down the river," where they would have worked hard in cotton fields and been subjected to physical and sexual violence. But the South then was on the cusp of instituting Jim Crow laws, laws that not only prevented blacks from voting but that kept them subjected still to white rule, "slavery by another name."
I framed the photograph and placed it with the one of my husband's grandmother and great-aunts, as an antidote to Southern white nostalgia, a nostalgia that negates the terror of white rule that continued far into the twentieth century and whose consequences we still reap today.
Those monuments to the Confederacy are steeped in nostalgia, a white-wash of history. As Garrett Epps writes:
[t]hose monuments, that reverence for the Lost Cause and its leaders, do lasting damage to all that live in their shadows....
...Formally segregation died in July 1964--but it lived on in the minds of those taught to weep for the red and the gray, and it lives on in the hearts of their children and grandchildren. It poisoned the heart of Dylan Roof, who killed nine African-American worshipers at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston; I suspect it lives on in the heart of the man who now sits in the cabinet seat once held by Robert F. Kennedy.
My city, state, and region is still troubled by the echoes of shots fired in April 1861. It is poorer, more violent, less welcoming, less democratic, less healthy, less educated and less livable because some of its people cling to the myth that men can be flawless demigods while taking up arms to maintain their human property.
The statues should come down, all of them, the way the Stalin statues came down in Eastern Europe, the Saddam statues in Iraq.And those who continue to fly the Confederate flag or promote "states' rights" with no recognition of the bloody and tainted history of that phrase should be educated of their ignorance. Michael Harriot reminds us that
[a]side from the fact that by 1860, many Americans had realized that slavery was cruel--so much so that they were willing to go to war to end the practice--the people who defend monuments that celebrate white supremacy and black genocide are just like their ancestors: indignant about continuing an evil practice.
Even if their descendants didn't think of it as evil then--we do now! Championing a bygone era that fought for human bondage is like sitting back and fondly remembering the good old days when a man could beat his wife for burning the pot roast.
Links in this post:
Dolores Monet. "Women's Clothing of the South in the American Civil War." Bellatory. 5 December 2016. https://bellatory.com
Garrett Epps. "The Motionless Ghosts that Haunt the South." The Atlantic. 14 May 2017.
"Louisiana White League Platform (1874)." Website: Facing History and Ourselves. https://www.facinghistory.org/
"Liberty Monument (New Orleans)." Wikipedia. Updated, 15 May 2017.
Andrew Vanacore. "Among contested New Orleans monuments, Liberty Place marker has always been a battleground." The Advocate. April 14, 2017.
Anita Dugat-Greene. "The Nugents: The Second Generation." blog post at Left for Texas. 16 August 2013. https://leftfortexas.blogspot.com
"Slavery by Another Name." Wikipedia. Updated 12 May 2017. [Description of Douglas Blackmon's book--more information here:
Michael Harriot. "Why Wypipo Love the Confederacy, Explained." The Root. 2 May 2017.