Sunday, April 11, 2010

(Stone Mountain Georgia, where these solemn Confederate generals now ride again each summer night by laserlight, to the tunes of Pink Floyd)

by Julia

As a southerner and student of Southern history, I couldn't let the recent decision of Robert McDonnell, governor of Virginia, to proclaim April 'Confederate History Month' slide by without note. It's been commented upon by NCPH on their Facebook page and by the NY Times (as well as other media outlets). Jon Meacham, author of the Times piece, makes a good point about McDonnell's move being part of a tradition of southern intransigence in the face of racial or social unrest (think Reconstruction, the Populist movement, and the Civil Rights movement). In this case, supporters of 'Confederate History Month' are responding to our new administration: "Whitewashing the war is one way for the right — alienated, anxious and angry about the president, health care reform and all manner of threats, mostly imaginary — to express its unease with the Age of Obama, disguising hate as heritage."

I would argue, though, that the bent on Confederate heritage hasn't really ebbed all that much during the course of the twentieth century, although it has faced growing opposition. From a public history standpoint, as Jennifer Eichstedt and Stephen Small made clear in their work on southern plantation museums, the Lost Cause myth is still alive and well, for example. McDonnell's decision seems but one iteration of a diffuse, long-standing assumption among many southern whites about (white) southern valor and rightness during and after the Civil War.

Most troubling to me is the implicit violence here. To whitewash the past is its own violence, of course, a coerced "forgetting" of the truth of slavery and oppression that cannot be separated from stories we tell about our national history. But beyond this, state-sanctioned recognition of Confederate "honor" is in danger of spurring on the growing number of hate groups in the South and elsewhere in the nation - check the Southern Poverty Law Center's "hate map" to see just how widespread these groups are. And, as exemplified by the recent attacks on black senators by Tea Party protesters, acts of violence are not limited to fringe groups.