Lessons from Confederate History Month
by Ezrah Aharone
Next year in April commemorates the 150th anniversary of America's Civil War. So under the pretext to "encourage tourism" in Virginia, which has over 100 Confederate monuments, GOP Governor Bob McDonnell dusted-off an old proclamation that declares April as "Confederate History Month." Not only did he revive it, he removed a clause stating "that slavery was one of the causes" of the war.
President Obama called this "an unacceptable omission," while members of Virginia's Legislative Black Caucus said the document was "offensive, one-sided, and a revision of history." GOP Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who declared April as "Confederate Heritage Month" in a similar proclamation which also excluded slavery, said all the fuss "doesn't amount to diddly." But McDonnell apologized and amended Virginia's proclamation to include and condemn slavery.
The real problem here however, supercedes the omissions and one-sidedness of any single proclamation, including Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. American history is largely promoted with slanted, bravado narratives of nationalism, whereby the means are always vindicated by glorifications of the end. And when it comes to the historiography of slavery, a taboo-blame of racism is transferred upon African Americans who veer from sugarcoated viewpoints.
As such, Americans are made to think that the Civil War was fought to end the Confederate immoralities of slavery. But based on unquestioned racism that lasted well into the 1960s, it's illogical that millions of Whites would actually fight and slaughter 624,000 of themselves over the rights of Blacks way back in the 1860s. If the Emancipation Proclamation was really predicated upon America's "goodness of democracy," why would Democrats and Republicans turnaround and willfully legislate a full century of segregation after so much self-bloodshed?
On the surface, this outlook certainly qualifies for a transferred taboo-blame of racism. But to lend historical validation, consider a quote from President Obama himself. As then-senator, he commented to Time Magazine (June 25, 2005) that: "I cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. I am fully aware of his limited views on race. Anyone who actually reads the Emancipation Proclamation knows it was more a Military Document than a clarion call for justice."
Speaking of "omissions and one-sidedness" in proclamations . . . Instead of mandating a unilateral "Military Document" (signed only by him and his Secretary of State), Lincoln and representatives of our forbearers should have jointly agreed and formally signed a binding "Bilateral Accord" that satisfied the ideals and demands of the 4 million "Emancipated" people in question. That would have been the honorable, non-racist, democratic thing for any offending government to do after nearly 250 years of enslavement.
What's lasting and telling about this affront and disingenuous nature of the Emancipation Proclamation, is the unspoken but undeniable lack of affinity and familiarity that African Americans hold towards it today. Although it presumably represents our long-awaited "triumph over slavery," it's hard to find a Black person who can recite a complete phrase from it. Simply ask around and you'll find proof yourself.
The unedited truth is that Lincoln ended slavery in the Confederacy for the same reason it was instituted -- to make capitalism more functional. By the 1860s the Industrial Revolution was in gear. Northern industrial businesses would outperform Southern agrarian businesses, making it necessary to restructure labor, commerce, and capital investments. Paying low wages to Black industrial laborers therefore made better economic sense and great social policy for a more civilized face of government.
But since Southern states stood to lose billions in property (enslaved) assets and wealth, the Confederates sought secession and war became an unavoidable consequence of this industrial shift. While a Confederate victory would have definitely prolonged slavery, this should not be politically misconstrued into the notion that Lincoln's fight against secession was thereby a fight for the justice of abolition.
To believe that the principal of the Civil War was to "free" Africans from the Confederates is as inaccurate as thinking the current war in Afghanistan is being fought to free Afghans from the Taliban. Although Afghans may eventually be liberated from Taliban influences as a by-product of the war, the underlying purpose and politics of the conflict are immensely more far-reaching. And likewise were the driving circumstances between the Civil War and the by-product of Emancipation.
But since the facts of American history are slanted with narratives to glorify American democracy, the Civil War is framed to unduly credit and equate the Union with noble motives. So it's acceptable to place taboo-blames of racism on supporters of Confederate History Month, since Confederates resided on the opposite side of the war. Yet, the prevailing mischaracterizations surrounding Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, now cause African Americans to reside on the opposite side of the truth.