After the tour I walked through the magnificent old town area down to East Bay Street near the water and had lunch at Magnolia’s. I ordered seafood on grits for the first time (I always thought grits were for breakfast!) and the meal was delicious.
My next stop was the Charleston Confederate Museum and I can’t say I arrived without preconceived notions. The New York Times had published a piece on how Southern museums were covering the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the review for Charleston’s museum was not complimentary.
(IN THE SOUTH CIVIL WAR HAS NOT BEEN FORGOTTEN http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/arts/design/in-the-south-civil-war-has-not-been-forgotten.html ) Spend some time in Southern museums, and it becomes clear that what seems evident up North is here clouded and contested. And if, in the North, the war seems part of a continuum of history, here it remains a cataclysm. The war was not a continuation of Southern history; it was a break in it. And that is still, for the South, the problem…Nearly every war site and exhibition I have seen in the South wrestles with double perspectives and conflicting sentiments alien to the North.
But there are also still places in the South where the sting of disastrous defeat and the lure of the Lost Cause stubbornly resist submission or reflection. In Charleston, the small Confederate Museum is run by the Daughters of the Confederacy, just as it was at its founding in 1899. Inside, you find relics from that Lost Cause, including items donated by Confederate soldiers and their families at the end of the 19th century: clothing, banners, weaponry, curios…There is no discussion of historical causes or effects, no narratives and no interpretation…By defining itself so narrowly, the museum indulges in a kind of fetishism…That museum is an extreme case: it avoids historical crisis by turning its back on history.
I found the museum fascinating. There were two ancient Southern dames at the entryway, just what one would stereotypically expect when imagining present-day Daughters of Confederacy. In polite whispers they drawled about old family lineages with an old man before and after my entrance. The exhibits were amateurishly presented, many with simple handwritten cards that looked like they hadn’t been touched in a hundred years. But this lent the museum an authenticity and unique idiosyncrasy. There were gray uniforms worn by officers, many with crimson circled holes where the bullets entered their bodies. There were rifles, sabers, boots, caps, artillery tattered battle flags and photographs. As the Times pointed out there was little context and often I wanted to know more. Yet it was thrilling to be so close to, so intimate with historical artifacts without the interpretations of a historian getting in the way. It was more like finding some old historical treasure in an ancient attic trunk! There was even a group photograph that included a swarthy gentleman named Blacqui Bey with no explanation of who he was or why he was in this group of confederates. An internet search later found someone of that name as Turkish minister in Washington after the war.
There were also letters written during and after the war. One written in the 1870’s had sentences highlighted and enlarged in a card hanging above the display case. I now wish I’d copied it verbatim but it said something like: “As long as I live I’ll never swear an oath to that damn Constitution or recognize that devil in Washinton they call president!” It didn’t take much contemplation to understand why that phrase was chosen to be emblematic over others. How many times in one Charleston day had I heard its citizens cry their refusal to accept an elected US president?
The museum is at the end of Market Street, a long avenue with stalls and stores of tourist merchandise. Many stores sold bright yellow Teabagger shirts and bush hats with the coiled snake and ‘Don’t tread on me’ imprints. Quite a few posters and T-shirts mocked Obama as well. None celebrated or respected his presidency. It wasn’t hard to recognize a historical chain running from antebellum Charleston to the present day.
I wonder if Southerners experience the same alienation I felt when they visit a Northern city?
I thought, at the very least, I would find something different at The Slavery Museum housed in an old Slave Market functional until 1863. There wasn’t much to the Museum; a handful of artifacts, some recordings and floor to ceiling placards with cartoonish illustrations and information. The panels insisted that there were three parties involved in the sale of slaves: the buyer, the trader and the slave. Slaves sold themselves, highlighting their skills to a prospective master so they wouldn’t have to do hard work in the fields. In some cases they chose their owners, attempting to find one known for kindness (or at least without noteriety for excessive brutality). One of the recordings (excerpted from WPA transcripts) told the story of a young girl about to be sold to an exceptionally cruel slave-master. She warned him she would slit her throat if he bought her and he stopped bidding so she could be sold to a kind Englishman. Isn’t that just great? The slaves were not only active players in slavery, they were also masters of their own fates! At least according to this Slave Museum. I’m not disputing the factuality of these events. It just seemed deliberately misleading to give them such importance in a museum so bare of larger context, to ignore that the institution of slavery itself was murderous, cruel and a debasement of humanity. There was a woman selling tickets at the door to the museum and I almost stopped to tell her she should be ashamed to promote such propaganda. But I didn’t.
Finally I took the ferry across the harbor to Fort Sumter, the scene of the commencement of the Civil War. The battleship USS Yorktown is docked by the ferry terminal and it is a proudly impressive sight (but the gift shop for the Yorktown likewise was filled with eye-popping yellow Teabagger shirts and hats. I guess they must be selling them if they carry the merchandise!).
Fort Sumter is a national monument so the guides and the presentation seemed much more balanced (at least to these Yankee eyes and ears). During the war the fort was occupied by both Confederate and Union forces, withstanding years of bombardment from both sides. Inside the museum, the flag on display, shredded by bombardment is the US flag. It has a peculiar field of 33 stars as you can see here. There is no Confederate counterpart but there is a flag of the Palmetto Guard which was the first unit to take the fort after Union surrender. On the other hand, the commemoration of the shelling was only days away and there were many re-enactors dressed in uniform at the fort preparing for the celebration. Only Confederates. Not once did I see Yankee blue.
Unlike Bill Maher, I have no problem with re-enactors. I don’t even have a problem with those who harbor a historical fetish with Confederate memorabilia. Heck, I have a fetish with Victorian military memorabilia and own an original Zulu War medal and a Victoria Cross replica surrounded by old postcards of military valor. But the British Empire, for all its glory was also an era of racism, brutality and imperialism and I don’t forget this while I appreciate the personal bravery of men who sailed to the far corners of the earth for Queen and Country. And with the possible exceptions of the Falklands and Gibralter there is no modern political expression rooted in the glory of Empire. Its over. Its dead. It’s not coming back.
Charlston doesn’t seem to realize this. It lives in a bubble denying history and its harsh judgement. And by not dealing with historical truth the unresolved resentment of that truth feeds an underlying antagonism.
As the sun set across the skyline of this beautiful town I drove away with sadness and strangely soiled by my visit. I was really looking forward to this day in Charleston and that anticipation highlighted my disappointment. The city was beguiling, clean, alive but it reminded me of a date I had once with a beautiful model. It had taken months to find the courage to ask her out. I was entranced, tongue tied, stunned by her perfection but over dinner she made silly, ugly racist and anti-Semitic remarks. Her values were shallow and materialistic (she was a model—silly me! What did I expect?!?) She seemed to actually like me but after a while I couldn’t wait for the date to end. I was no longer seduced.
And I was not seduced by Charleston.
Continuing on to Philadelphia, I visited The Constitution Center before the last leg of the trip to NYC. Visitors begin with a multi-media presentation about the history, the flaws, the process and the unique relevance of the US constitution. The presentation includes a diversity of Americans. Parts of it detail the progression so many citizens experienced over our nation’s history as Constitutional interpretations opened wider freedoms for larger groups of Americans. There were cruel diversions along the way but nothing halted the eventuality of greater freedom. A large black woman dressed in a suit crisscrossed the theater narrating the inspiring presentation. She did a superb job communicating pride and authority with neither emotionalism or partisanship.
As the lights came up I was shocked. Tears streaked my face. For a few moments I could not stop them.
I’m always a sucker for a good AMERICAN story…