The Birth of a Nation, or B-B-B-but Wait It Gets Worse!

22 06 2015

When I wrote my last post, I thought I’d pretty well covered the emergence and perpetuation of the lies that have let white Americans tell themselves that the “black problem” was intractable, that racism wasn’t the cause and that they had no reason to feel guilty for the continued disadvantaged status and poor treatment of black people. I thought it was pretty damning.

I wasn’t even close.

A friend posted Doug Muder’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party,” and it lead to his “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor,” “Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex,” and “Ta-Nehisi Coates Goes There: Reparations.” (if you haven’t read that Coates article, read it now. Seriously, now. It’ll take a while, but you need to read it right NOW. I’m not kidding.) Reading those articles opened up a whole new frontier of the wrongs in which we’re complicit. We touch on some of the same points, the loving idealization of the Klan that sold like gangbusters in the form of The Clansman: A historical romance of the Ku Klux Klan, its movie adaptation in The Birth of a Nation, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind in book and movie form, for example, but Muder goes farther, reminding us that it wasn’t just lies and innuendo and the (all too frequent) individual brutalization and murder. It was, in indisputable fact, the wholesale re-enslavement of massive numbers of nominally free blacks. It wasn’t just a system to deny access to wealth, it was a system to reverse any and all gains made by free blacks and to claw back all the losses “suffered” by the southern aristocracy – along with plenty they hadn’t lost. It was the creation by that same aristocracy of an environment and a narrative that prevented poor whites and recently freed blacks from finding common cause in their similar situations. And it continued so much longer than we like to tell ourselves. How many of us have read Foner or Egerton? The history we think we know is so much more comfortable and easy. The real thing is an indictment stretching across centuries, with plenty of room for our own names on the list of the accused – our version let us off the hook before our grandparents were even born.

Muder asserts that the popularity of the Confederate Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and the statues of secessionist leaders like John C. Calhoun that dot the south are not wistful lamentations of a painful defeat, but rather symbols of victory in a war most people don’t realize was ever fought. To me (and likely to many white Americans), this was like cold water dashed in my face, a shocking, unpleasant realization. I have to imagine that to the black people who live near such a symbol, it was more like a constant icy drip, a slow torture reminding them over and over and over again that they are lesser, and that any freedom or nominal equality they enjoy comes at the pleasure of men in power who would be very happy to see it all taken away (or at least are too craven and cowardly to stand up against the voters who feel that way). They are constant reminders that victors write the histories, so it’s damned clear who won, right?

When I first started thinking about a follow-up to that last post, back before I read Muder’s posts, I had a very different post in mind – the much needed triumphalism of the good guys. It was going to be about how, in the long run, we keep winning. In the long run, things get better. In the long run, society at large comes to understand that our old beliefs and old ways were monstrous and cannot be accepted or tolerated among decent people. I may still write that post – in the face of evil acts, we need to cheer and celebrate the presence and persistence of good – but it will likely be far more muted. Even if we are moving in the direction of good (and I do believe we are), any honest look back at our past makes it achingly clear that we’re moving that way far slower than we should, and even slower than we imagine.

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