VA Governor Declares April Confederate History Month: Brief Thoughts

I can remember it like it was yesterday.  My 4th grade class was celebrating Black History Month in the usual fashion of the day.  Our classroom was papered with posters of historical figures and civil rights leaders like Carter G. Woodson, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth.  It was a Montessori school, so we also had Black Leaders of the Past Flash Cards—for the tactile African-American learning experience.   I don’t recall any direct classroom instruction about the tragic, storied, revolutionary, or resilient past of my people.  However, I do recall a Caucasian classmate requesting that we celebrate “white history month” in March.  Hmm.

A classroom full of prepubescent militant midgets, between the ages of 9 and 11, protested this request in visceral anger and disbelief far beyond our years.  I can recall an especially passionate classmate responding, “Why would we do that?  Every month is White history month“.   Despite our protest, I remember the teacher acquiescing to the request in some strange rationalizing mind-fog he considered fairness, and March was  officially declared White history month in my class. 

At the time it felt ridiculous, confusing, and even painful.  I knew even then that Black History month was a way of celebrating the accomplishments of a marginalized community and acknowledging the dignity of a people subjugated since the country’s infancy. 

Some twenty years later, I am left similarly confused and at the news that Virginia’s Governor declared April Confederate History month in Virginia.  The whole Dixie pride thing is removed from my experience and it creates in me a real cognitive dissonance.  Perhaps it’s because I love me some Scarlet O’Hara and Blanche Devereaux, both entertaining caricatures of or evoking a far-gone era.   

 You see I did not grow up in the South, but my Grandmother did.  I remember for years, she boycotted the entire state of South Carolina, after they refused to remove the confederate flag from the State House.  At 94-years-old, she carries the racial burden of living through the pre-civil and civil rights era and was no stranger to segregation and racial injustice.  Nevertheless, she raised me with a sense of history and racial pride and more importantly taught me to  love  all humanity regardless of race.  We are all children of God.

Yet, the controversy surrounding Confederate History month must be viewed in the context of the day.  Just last year, the country elected the first African-American President, a source of pride for millions of Americans of all races.  Strangely, at the same time, we have racial epithets and spit being hurled at members of the Congressional Black Congress during the recent healthcare rallies.  We also see the rise of militia and anti-government groups, who use blatantly racist propaganda in their messaging.  Furthermore, many states are becoming increasingly divided on issues of state and federal rights.  For example, Texas Governor Rick Perrythreatened to secede from the Union, after the Tea Party protest last spring.  Thus, we must be mindful; history as a way of repeating itself.

My critique of Governor’s McDonnell’s move is one of style, as much as it is substance.  The timing of this proclamations is poor considering the racial tensions in the country are already at a slow boil.  The symbolic move is not unlike waving the Confederate flag on the state house.  Perhaps it will instill pride in some, but to others it represents hate, fear, and intolerance.

 The original  proclamation language did not include language on slavery, which is much of the reason it garnered so much controversy.  McDonnell has since attempted to reconcile this issue by apologizing for leaving the language out and adding the following revised text:

“(I)t is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this (Civil) war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders.”

I understand confederate History Month will appeal  and even fill with pride those who trace their history, family members, and roots to Confederate Virginia.  Moroever, I am sure the history is rich and worth remembering.  Nevertheless, not unlike the original proclamation, the “good ole days” nostalgia and myths associated with Dixie, often fail to acknowledge the peculiar institution of slavery in any real way.  At worst this nostalgia is due to fragmented narratives  and at worst it is racist and ugly.  If you have read any message boards on matters of race, you will see plenty of comments by folks who have this warped world view.  I read a comment on the post today that suggested because the blacks kill each other in their cities, they would be better off on plantation today.  Ignorance prevails.

The Civil War was as much a war about economics, as it was abolition. Many argue that by holding on to slavery for as long as it  did, the South was working against its own economic best interest—especially poor plantations owners.  Similarly, today we see the Tea Party movement populated by mostly middle-income average Americans, rallying against a President and his liberal policies that are at least economically in their best interest to support.  Accordingly, this proclamation feels like calculated pandering to me.  It was a vapid empty-headed move that was completed just to appeal to McDonnell’s base.  Despite what the “mavericky ” governor will tell you, it was not about tourism. 

In close, I will acknowledge that Virginia’s history is closely tied to its Confederate past.  Richmond was the Confederate capital and sadly many confederate  soldiers–black and white–were lost on battlefields within the state.  To this end, perhaps April should become a month in which Virginia acknowledge the Confederate narrative in its entirety and within the context of present day.  Perhaps, it should become a teachable moment about what happens when fear, prejudice, greed, and the passions of men become wrapped in intolerance and incivility.  In short, people die.   

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

 George Santayana


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