Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pride & Prejudice

This is the earliest known photo of abolitionist John Brown, from 1846. To me it makes a point. In the discussions of the Virginia Governor's proclamation of April as Confederate History Month, in which he originally omitted any mention of slavery, I've read many (white) people saying that southerners should not be vilified. They point out that actual slaveowners were a minority in the south, and that the masses of poor whites defending the Confederacy were not necessarily taking up arms to defend slavery. While the governor weakly apologized for his omission, he did revise the proclamation with a strong repudiation of slavery. I think the evidence is clear that despite racism in the Union, despite hesitancy on the part of Lincoln to universalize the emancipation of the slaves, the North was on the correct side of history and the South was not. If Lincoln once said that "if he could have saved the union without ending slavery he would," in the end a bloody bloody war cemented the necessity of smashing the confederacy's secession, and in so doing smashing slavery. The North did the right thing, even if that was not its original intention.

John Brown, who despite the failure of his efforts to spark a slave insurrection, is testament to the fact that ordinary people can make heroic efforts; they need not sit by while monstrous institutions such as slavery were allowed to deprive African-Americans of their dignity and humanity and to make a mockery of all the pretenses of American democracy. The poor southern whites had their chance to throw their lot in with their oppressed and enslaved brothers and sisters: they chose instead to throw their lot in with the slave-owning landowners and industrialists. This should be the shame of those whose ancestors lived in the South in those times, not the pride. That anyone is attempting to downplay slavery as the core issue of the Civil War should be the shame of our times: tellingly it is instead the watchword of conservative politicians and right-wing infotainers.

It's sort of shockingly one-sided, in fact, that as we approach the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the focus in the South will be on white southerners celebrating their heritage. To me, the celebration in the South should be all about the hundreds of thousands of southerners who were liberated by the Civil War: the slaves and their descendants, and those, like John Brown, who laid down their lives to fight the racist evil of slavery.

Here is my great-great-grandfather William W. Scott and his wife Maria Decker Scott in 1865; he's still wearing his Union Army uniform. I don't know a lot about his life; I know he was a first generation American; that his father had immigrated here from England; and I know--I'm proud--that he was on the right side of history.

As horrified as I have been by people rushing to the defense of some kind of Confederate legacy, I've also been encouraged by a number of things I've read. Here are some of the best blog essays I've read recently in the aftermath of "Confederate History Month":

* An excellent post from brotherpeacemaker entitled "Thoughtless Thinking"
* "The Confederacy Can Kiss My Yankee Ass," by my friend Jon
* One of many excellent posts on We Are Respectable Negroes entitled "It Was Just An Inconvenient Fact"
* "Heritage Not Hate My Ass" from The Field Negro
* And a reminder of my own compilation of historical quotes detailing the Confederacy's commitment to slavery
(Thanks to Jon for pointing me to a couple of these)

Here is John Steuart Curry's famous painting "Tragic Prelude," completed in 1940, depicting Brown at the center of events leading to the Civil War. It hangs in the Kansas State House.

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