Turning Away From The Past


African American History Month was observed in the United States in February this year. Events celebrating the contributions of African Americans to the Union take place across the country, as do those marking their struggles to gain civil and citizenship rights.

Barely a month later, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican elected to office in 2009, decided he’d claw one back for the white folks. He declared April Confederate History Month by issuing a gubernatorial proclamation — and he did it without mentioning slavery. Take that, African American History Month. Apparently McDonnell wanted to shift attention to the bits of the Confederacy that were "most significant" to Virginia.

Maybe McDonnell should have focused on spruiking the state by drawing attention to luminaries like George Washington or perhaps Thomas Jefferson. Actually, no wait — didn’t those guys own slaves too?

Virginia is deeply implicated in both the best and the worst of the American story.

Old Dominion was the birthplace of eight American presidents, including the third, Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence with its simultaneously audacious and mendacious claim that the fledgling nation held it to be a truth self-evident that all men were created equal. And who even as he wrote those words was a slave-owner. As was George Washington and General Robert E Lee, the hero of the Confederacy, who resigned his commission with the United States to serve his state of Virginia as the leader of the Confederate Army after secession. Indeed, McDonnell governs from the state capital Richmond — which was also the capital of the Confederate States of America.

So just which bits of Confederate history did McDonnell think were significant?

After a predictable, and entirely justified, hue and cry McDonnell apologised for his omission. The Governor then re-issued his original proclamation with the inclusion of a clause decrying slavery as an "evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights".

That’s better, right? Well yes — and no.

The revised proclamation obviously has the edge over one that doesn’t mention slavery at all — especially for the 20 per cent of Virginian residents who are African American. But as Gail Collins points out in an op-ed for the New York Times, this is setting the bar pretty damn low. The proclamation and the way it encourages people to think about America’s Confederate, slaveholding and Civil War history is deeply troubling.

For starters, the opening paragraph of the revised proclamation calls the American Civil War a "four year war between the states for independence".

Is this really the case?

Let’s leave to one side the fact that the Civil War was only a war for independence insofar as independence would allow the South to remain slaveholding states. When McDonnell designates the Civil War a "war between the states", he is using politically loaded language — and he is using it for a purpose.

Renaming the Civil War the "war between the states" was part of a campaign waged in the late 19th century by southern patriot groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy — a group that was at the forefront of campaigns to literally rewrite the history of the Civil War. They wanted to rename the war to draw attention away from the key causes of the conflict: slavery, treason and rebellion.

Most perniciously what these groups aimed to do was rewrite the outcome of the Civil War so that both sides could be victorious; the North, because they actually won, and the South because they lost with style. Once you take slavery out of the mix the Civil War becomes much simpler ideologically. It can be about states’ rights and both sides can be right, since both fought for freedom and both fought for an ideal America.

In order to rewrite the history of the Civil War, slavery had to be whitewashed out — and the whitewash that was used was the "Lost Cause". A myth that celebrated the Confederacy for its chivalry and honour, the term the Lost Cause came into broad usage in the 1870s, although it was first used as early as 1866. The Lost Cause valourised the Confederate soldiers as noble men fighting for a variety of causes — one of which happened to be a little ignoble. The myth became such a powerful version of Civil War history that slavery almost completely disappeared. Instead, the Confederates were fighting for states’ rights and independence from the tyrannous incursions of big government.

By effacing slavery from the Civil War commemoration and memorial, the Lost Cause myth sucked most of the politics out of the conflict. In doing so it expunged the African American experience almost entirely. It also helped pave the way for ongoing oppression of African Americans in the United States and it allowed the South (and the North) to abdicate responsibility for the profound racism of their theoretically reconstructed nation.

This recasting of history is not new in relation to the Civil War — nor is it exclusive to the southern US. There are blood-stained skeletons in the closets of most nations, but what is missing in this narrative of the Civil War is the significant part.

McDonnell’s Confederate History Month proclamation is redolent with Lost Cause rhetoric. We only have to look at the response of a pre-eminent African American scholar and Virginian to the news to see the profound impact the promotion of this kind of mythology has on contemporary America. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University, wrote recently in The Nation: "Virginia history is my history. Yet the story of the Confederacy that McDonnell seeks to propagate and profit from is unrecognisably alien." It is alien because it does not include her or any other African American.

She goes on to say that the version of history McDonnell promotes is "built on a false and romantic notion of an imagined Confederate past that refuses to acknowledge the ways that slavery degraded not only black labour, but white labour; how it destroyed the land; and how it starved the region of innovation."

McDonnell and his mates from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, one of whom found the Governor’s apology for the omission of slavery an insult, along with Mississippi Governor, Republican Haley Barbour, who recently said the controversy over slavery doesn’t "amount to diddly" and who presides over a state that has still not legally ratified the 13th Amendment (that is, the amendment that bans slavery), even Ken Burns, who is frequently lionised for his epic documentary about the conflict called The Civil War which was one of the most popular shows ever to air on PBS, are still perpetuating this same story. And in doing so they are all participating in promoting a vision of America that explicitly excludes the experiences of its African American citizens.

Someone should remind Bob McDonnell that if you lie down with dogs you will get up with fleas.

Not only is April the month Virginia joined the Confederacy, it is also the month the Civil War ended with the surrender of Lee, a Virginian, at the Appomattox Court House in — you guessed it — the state of Virginia. The Confederacy and the Lost Cause were born that April day in 1865 and their legacy continues to be felt nearly 150 years later.

More than ever it is time that the Civil War, the Confederacy and this mythological memorialisation were examined as part of US public history — and of the history of public commemoration. This is a point amply made by Ed Kilgore, who lived in the South at the end of Jim Crow and who remembers the ways the Lost Cause myth was used to justify that prejudice and discrimination. He writes, "it would be immensely useful for Virginians and southerners generally to spend some time reflecting on the century or so of grinding poverty and cultural isolation that fidelity to the Romance in Gray earned for the entire region, regardless of race."

Let’s be clear: the problem with Governor McDonnell’s proclamation is not that he is championing a Confederate History Month, and it is certainly not that he is commemorating the Civil War. It is not even the reference to the Confederacy itself, in fact it is essential that America continues to face up to, and grapple with its difficult past.

No, the problem with Bob McDonnell’s proclamation is that he has positioned Virginia’s commemoration squarely within the Lost Cause mythology — and in doing so he is perpetuating a racially selective commemoration that continues to deny African American experience and that is deeply political and highly exclusive.

This kind of problem cannot be fixed by re-issuing his proclamation with the "slavery was bad" inclusion. Why? Because the exclusion of slavery from his initial announcement was only the most obvious instance of the effacement of the African American experience from the Civil War and from the story of America. McDonnell’s decision to call the Civil War the "war between the states" speaks unequivocally to Lost Cause mythologising, and a whitewashed history.

The furore over Virginia’s Confederate History Month shows how high the stakes can be when it comes to public memorial. It also highlights the necessity of approaching the complexities of the past in ways that are sensitive and inclusive.

The Civil War happened, the Confederacy existed, as did slavery. They cannot be pretended away. But the United States has spent almost the entire post Civil War period trying to do just that. And therein lies the problem with Bob McDonnell.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.