I’ve mulled over this post all day. All yesterday too, ever since I decided that I was going to write about it. It’s a tough subject – a potentially offensive subject. I don’t like writing about those – and like writing a public apology even less.
We all like to think that we’re open-minded and fair. No one likes smacking up against proof of their own priviledge, or evidence of subconcious racism. And this week, I did just that. I figured out that my ignorance was harmful and hurtful in a way that I didn’t think was possible.
A thread on a homeschooling page caused an uproar – a seemingly innocent query that ended up being a closet racist request by a member who since has been booted out of the group. The subject came up again in discussion and someone mentioned Civil War reenactments and how they didn’t feel welcome at them.
I’m a homeschooler. I look for opportunities to learn – fun opportunities for my kids to interact with history, science, and so on. Civil War reenactments seemed harmless – they seemed “educational” on the surface. Because I haven’t actually been to one due to the Engineer’s Sensory Processing Disorder, I didn’t know much about them. So I asked – as respectfully and politely as I knew how – if Civil War reenactments were considered racist.
Several people responded. I was told to check the NAACP’s official stance (I did, couldn’t find it) and was told that I should do my own research instead of asking those injured by racism to explain it. But one homeschooler, a POC (person of color) took the time to answer me in detail:
She said that we glorify war with these reenactments, and that when we play make-believe we’re actually mocking those who this war was truly about – the slaves whose quiet history has disappeared under a vast wave of nostalgia.
I’m not going to name the homeschooler who thoughtfully replied, and I wish that I could quote her powerful words verbatim. I am indebted to her graciousness to explain something that I was completely ignorant about. And you know what? She’s right. She’s absolutely, completely right.
Why would I want to teach my children to celebrate war? Why would I want them to think that it’s a fun thing? I, who studied the photographs of the Civil War battles’ aftermath for a research paper? I, who still have images of bloated, dead bodies seared into my brain from photographer Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan? War is horrible. War is disgusting. War is brutal and nasty and awful. War is sometimes the only option, but we shouldn’t celebrate it. We should remember it and strive to avoid it. Not play-act and pretend that it’s ok.
She’s also right about the reenactments ignoring slavery. Reenactments are touted as entertainment – a historical form of LARPing, if you will (Live Action Role Play.) I went looking for information on reenactments and found disconcerting accounts and images. Photographer Anderson Scott spent years photographing Civil War reenactments, and published a book of his images, Whistling Dixie. He discussed how there is a range of reenactors from those who love dressing up to the hard-core supremacists:
“But even for the folks whose motivations are ‘benign’ they are engaging in a willful ignorance. They are parading around under Confederate flags and that sends a message.”
I also read an article by Wilber Cooper, an African American who did a political-themed travel show for Vice in the summer leading up to the 2016 elections. As part of the show, he and his co-stars participated in a Civil War reenactment. He recounts comments he heard during the lulls in the battle, including:
“…that slavery wasn’t that bad for blacks, that enslaved blacks weren’t brutalised, that enslaved blacks loved the Confederacy so much they fought for it in the South’s “integrated” military… “
He goes on to talk about how the nostalgia for the “good old days” was truly a cancer in our collective conciousness:
“I thought a lot about the real and imagined history of slavery on my trip across the country. Time and time again, I came across distorted takes on its practice and ramifications, which have lead (sic) me to feel that even though more than 150 years have elapsed since the Civil War, the rot at the core of the American experiment remains. What distraught me the most was this sort of hate-filled nostalgia people I met seemed to have. They fetishised bygone eras that were defined by the brutalisation and subjugation of my ancestors.”
My husband pointed out that a lot of reenactors are history buffs. Many of them have ancestors who fought on one side or another. They want to honor their family and their deeds.
I think they should find another way to enjoy studying history. To realize that what their ancestors did may not be worth honoring.
According to one of my grandmothers who did a geneology search on my father’s family, I am descended from both Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant (who were distant cousins.) I highly doubt the veracity of such a claim, but I have no doubt that some of my ancestors fought in the Civil War, most likely for the South. After all, I am from the deep South – land of grits, collards, and hate served up with a side of biscuits.
I grew up hearing bitter tales of the scorched-earth policy of Sherman, who destroyed Atlanta and whole swathes of the countryside. I heard nasty grumbles from the old folks about the “War of Northern Aggression” (just so you know, that’s a clandestine way to advertise that you’re a white supremacist these days.) I heard tales of those who successfully “forced” African American families away from their neighborhoods. All of this from people who vehemently protested they were not racists.
As a child it made me sad. Why couldn’t we all get along? Why couldn’t we learn from each other, learn to live together? I didn’t understand the hate. I still don’t. But I do see things from a much deeper perspective now than I did as a child. It’s hard to come together as a people when there is so much pain, so much anger left over from the past.
Teaching The Truth
As I look at history curriculums for the Engineer, I realized how much of our nation’s history is shameful. It’s not just the Civil War and the legacy of slavery, it’s a whole host of things. Our nation collectively viewed anyone not caucasian as “less than.” Sub-human. Savages. It’s appalling how much that viewpoint shaped our history and our laws.
Like the transcontinental railroad – did you learn in school about Chinese immigrants shipped in for backbreaking labor with no way out? I didn’t. Not until I was an adult, because it just wasn’t in the textbooks when I was a kid.
What about the “No Irish Need Apply” signs that were so common around the 19th and 20th century? What about the tests that Ellis Island immigrants had to do to prove their intellegence and health? Flawed, ridiculous tests that could tear a family apart and send some of them back to the country they tried to hard to leave?
What about the Native Americans? How much of their stories did you actually learn in school? Did the textbooks spend a lot of time discussing how treaties were violated, what the Trail of Tears was like, and why reservations are such a blot on the collective soul of our nation?
What about the Alamo? We “remember the Alamo!” but do you really know what happened? Mexico allowed U.S. families to settle in Texas, and in return, they overwhelmed the fort garrisoned by Mexican troops and claimed it in a bid for independence. We attacked, not Mexico. And when Mexico took the fort back, they were vilified and hated for re-claiming what was rightfully theirs in the first place.*
How about the U.S. annexation of Hawaii? The forced removal of children to “teach” them to assimilate in the Native American boarding schools? There is so much that we need to remember – so much that our nation needs to acknowledge was shameful and horrible.
So What Can We Do?
I’m making a deliberate choice. As a homeschooler, I chose to end this cycle of hate. I chose to teach my children the truth, no matter how ugly it may be. And I chose to teach them that we need to try to fix the wrongs that our ancestors caused.
Practically speaking, what does that mean, aside from the civility to all that we’re already teaching?
It means that I strive to include history from a non-eurocentric viewpoint. That I share the truth of the impact Europeans had on Native Americans. I will teach the history of slavery right along with the colonial history: I learned while creating our timeline that Dutch slave ships brought African slaves to North America before the Pilgrims even set foot on Plymouth Rock. And I will teach them that even Abraham Lincoln, a revered figure, was flawed enough to try to deport former slaves to Panama.
I will teach them about the Salem witch trials, and the dangers of fear taking over. I will teach them the Trail of Tears, and how our greed broke a people’s pride and dignity just because we coveted their land. I will teach them about how our nation took over the sovereign nation of Hawaii – because they could.
I will teach them all the good and glorious, but I will not sugar-coat the bad, ugly, and horrible. History is a lesson – we need to learn from it.
I will do more than teach: we will act.
Every Christmas we pack boxes of toys and school items for children in impoverished areas of the world. This year instead, we’re getting involved with the Lakota at the Pine Ridge Reservation. I will be posting more about this project as we have more details, but SEA has been allowed to assist because we won’t proselytize. Among other projects, SEA is involved in a service opportunity helping to create a permaculture project to extend their growing season. There’s also a pressing need for blankets, for baby clothes, and for basic staples as well as school supplies. One former resident of South Dakota told us that Lakota elders routinely freeze to death in the harsh winters due to lack of heating and thinly insulated buildings (FEMA sent up leftover trailers from Hurricane Katrina relief. They’re not designed for South Dakota winters.)
Pine Ridge is our backyard – our neighbors. This reservation is in dire need in part due to a Supreme Court decision to not award a national park back to them, and to offer $3 million instead (far less than it’s worth.) The Lakota refused the money. The land is integral to their culture, their people: money can’t replace that.
In addition to the hands-on service projects, we will not attend Civil War reenactments. Instead, we chose to visit museums and living history museums that incorporate the history of slavery along with the plantation history. We will learn how that legacy impacts us today, and we will study how the end of the Civil War wasn’t the end of racism but a new chapter in a history of hate.
I’m sorry for my ignorance. I’m sorry for what my ancestors did. For what my country did. I cannot change what happened, but I can try to fix the problems they caused. And I can teach the truth of what really happened.
* It appears that I need to study the history of the Alamo more, as my viewpoint is too simplistic. A reader pointed this out – that Santa Ana was a dictator and the Texas bid for independence was more of a freedom fight than a land grab. I don’t know enough to comment, but I wanted to make a note of yet another possible mistake. Can’t win 😉