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01 May 2010 @ 08:53 am
Confederate History Month / Identity  
Confederate History Month, often celebrated in April in the South, is so outside of my childhood and adult experience that I had to look up what CHM even stood for when I read this article that Kris sent me:

Commemorating CHM: "They Too Needed Emancipation" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I grew up in Kansas, which may now have a reputation as an ultra-conservative state, but there are a few bits of Kansas history of which I am proud. Kansas was a Free State, and Lawrence in particular, where I went to college at the University of Kansas, which to this day has a fierce rivalry with Mizzou founded in abolition-pro-slave animosity between the states (Missouri was indeed a slave state), proudly boasts such businesses as the Free State Brewery in honor of Kansas' participation in abolition and the underground railroad.

I then moved to Washington, which, in its history, was way too busy with exploding toilets, flourishing Asian businesses, outfitting gold seekers on their way to Alaska, hookers and sailors to spend too much of its history oppressing people for their race.

That isn't to say that Kansas and Washington don't have their share of modern and historical racial oppression, segregation and discrimination. It's still everywhere, and even my beloved Seattle participated in seizing Japanese businesses and sending its owners off to internment camps never to return during World War II. However, these incidents are very distant from my history and my identity. I do have some Native American and Black Irish in my ethnic makeup, and a lot of wildly varied European white along with a long familial history of being in North/Union America, but the records and stories of the ancestors who might have oppressed or been oppressed are lost to my family, and I have no anecdotes that cast me in either role.

So it is very good for me to read these words from Ta-Nehisi Coates, and to be reminded that many people must struggle with their identity in the context of their history.

I say all of this as a way of noting the many e-mails I've received from white Southerners, who also regard home as essential. Many of them are descendants of Confederate soldiers, and they now find themselves forced to seriously and honestly grapple with history. I've spent some time attacking that aspect of the South that claims the Lost Cause, but I think it's important to also acknowledge the Seekers, and extend some understanding to the difficult work of, as I've said, reconciling ourselves to the past.

Subbing in myth for history is a false armor to guard against the hurt--and yet somewhere inside the hurt still throbs. Some of us fear admitting what the Confederacy was about, because we don't want to cede the moral high ground to a bunch of Northern elitists. But why? Was the North really more moral than the South? Did the South embrace a slave society because there's something intrinsically evil about living below the Mason-Dixon line? I don't think any people should fear their history, so much as they should fear their ignorance of history. Don't fear the past that led to the assassination of Lincoln, fear the present that leads you to fly the flag embraced by his killers. True the hurt is in what happened, but the shame is in the pretense that it didn't.

His point is an excellent one. History that informs our identity, the notion that the history fundamentally makes us who we are, is itself a question to be questioned, a struggle in its own right.

It reminded me of the 3 years I spent dating a self-hating conservative Jew. From the outside, I saw an entire people deeply focused on two recent events: the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel. From the outside, it always struck me when I visited his synagogue, that the narrow focus on these 2 events had had a profound impact on the present - it seemed to have justified a combination of xenophobia and pride in Jewish culture while also fundamentally weakening Jewish religious faith. I don't know if that's actually true on any kind of a grand scale, but they were both issues by ex grappled with constantly. Early on, he had told me he wouldn't consider marrying me because I wasn't Jewish, but upon comparing notes, I'd dated more Jewish girls than he had. He did other baffling things like deny the existence of Palestine as if it was a myth some Arabs had made up. That horrified me, and, after I'd done some due diligence in my research, we often fought about it. He also fundamentally questioned his faith in G-d because of the atrocities of the Holocaust, but would become defensive, malicious, and uncharacteristically angry if I wanted to discuss some of the atrocities of G-d committed against the Canaanites in the Torah. It was a messy business.

It is good to be reminded as a white girl in my ultra-liberal multi-racial city increasingly full of beautiful mixed race children that I stand here in a somewhat blissful ignorance of the struggle with identity and history in the context of race. I find myself wondering: how much of an advantage is that? To not have to face and climb that wall at some point in my life? It was one less struggle I had to face in defining and confirming my identity, and I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the privilege, for lack of a better word, of that instead of just taking it for granted.
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King Ratgkr on May 1st, 2010 04:33 pm (UTC)
Lots of Seattle neighborhoods prohibited blacks from owning or living within their confines except as servants.
Kburgunder on May 1st, 2010 04:59 pm (UTC)
"except as servants". o.0

I had recently learned that Wyoming was the first to receive women's suffrage and that it was because they had to count the women as people or they wouldn't have enough people to qualify to become a state. However, I can't find any evidence supporting that via Google now that I'm poking around. Do you know more about that?
King Ratgkr on May 1st, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC)
I knew that Wyoming was the first. I had not heard it was because they needed more official bodies. I do not have any information on it, but I am skeptical. They were granted suffrage in Wyoming Territory in 1869, but statehood came 21 years later in 1890. In addition, for decades the census counted women and slaves, counts which were used for allocating number of votes in Congress, but not for allowing the vote. (Because, of course, the white men who did the voting knew best and could take women and slaves needs into account better than those people could themselves.)
vaxhacker on May 2nd, 2010 04:51 am (UTC)
Sounds like the opposite of what happened to Utah. They gave women suffrage when they were a frontier settlement, decades before statehood (although #2 behind Wyoming), but the US made them rescind suffrage out of fear they'd have too much voice in the region.
Kburgunder on May 1st, 2010 04:59 pm (UTC)
p.s. Do you know which neighborhoods? Where did you read about this originally? I'm interested in reading more.
King Ratgkr on May 1st, 2010 07:22 pm (UTC)
Here's a good place to start regarding Seattle neighborhoods that restricted blacks from living within.

Deirdreevillinn on May 1st, 2010 04:52 pm (UTC)
The impact of history, and specifically of familial history has been on my mind a lot over the last few years. Its something I think we need to study further, and think about further, as I believe it is the key to fundamentally addressing some of societies most painful problems.

I met a woman not long ago that is doing her doctoral thesis on the idea that white Americans focus on their ancestral lineage as a means of mourning the truth in white American history. Needless to say, it was more complex than that, but I found the idea compelling.
Deirdreevillinn on May 1st, 2010 05:00 pm (UTC)
also, I replied to your post, and just opened the article. I have to take someone to the airport momentarily, but am eager to get back to finish reading it.
Geek God-Kinggeekalpha on May 2nd, 2010 02:34 am (UTC)
Coincidentally, I was just going to do a post on Confederate history month. The quick summary is, being from The South, the story I learned was that slavery was entirely incidental and the war was really about state's rights. Interestingly, I had never ever been introduced to the Confederate Constitution or any of the state's Reasons of Secession documents. Turns out that the principal state's right they were interested in, was the right to own people, demand that other states recognize that right and return escaped slaves, and the right to make new territories fellow slave territories.

You can't live in Georgia without learning all about the War of Northern Aggression, the martial prowess and valor of the Confederate Army (which is pretty legitimate), and hear about the state's rights the Confederacy stood for. To most southerners it seemed, the rebel flag isn't seen as having anything to do with black people, but as a symbol of independence (yes, anyone would admit, it is also used by white supremacists, but that isn't its meaning). At least that is the way things were always presented to me.

Now, I always felt that most of the southern Confederacy wanking I was exposed to was a bit silly (barbershop quartets and the like) or too redneck (trucks with rebel flags, etc.). It was also clear to me that slavery was a key issue in the war. But, I was shocked when I actually read the secession documents themselves. Why were those never included or referenced in any of my education or discussion on the subject? The answer: they are damning. Confederate history month isn't about history, it's about a history that never was.
Varnvarn_ix on May 10th, 2010 06:30 am (UTC)
The waitress at High Fidelity on Bourke St is half-Indian, half-Chinese.

*happy sigh*

Hooray for mixed-race children.