August 19, 2017

NORTH vs SOUTH (cont’d)

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…

SOUTH VS NORTH

I spent the month of April in NYC looking after Kyle while his mother was in Brazil. Usually I fly up but I hadn’t driven the route since leaving NYC in 2009 so I decided spring might be a great time to hit the road stopping along the way to see the sights.

April 12th was the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War with the Confederate shelling of Ft. Sumter and after reading an intriguing article in the NY Times about how Southern museums depict the war years. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/arts/design/in-the-south-civil-war-has-not-been-forgotten.html) I made my first stop Charleston, South Carolina. Ft. Sumter lies in Charleston harbor, the city has a Confederate Museum and I booked a morning Civil War Tour that had been lauded on several websites.

Early that morning I was exhilarated. The City of Charleston is singularly beautiful with many antebellum homes intact or magnificently restored.Flowers and trees were blooming everywhere. The sun glistened on the waters along Battery Street across from mansions that had stood since the war. It was a Saturday morning, not much traffic a few locals and tourists on foot enjoying that same exhilaration on what felt like the first day of spring.

How could a day that began so promising leave me with such a bad taste, placing me under an onerous cloud by sunset?

The tour began at 9am in the lobby of the historic Mills House Hotel. Although renovated since, (and now under Holiday Inn ownership!) it was built in 1853. Robert E. Lee slept here during the Democratic Convention of 1860. (http://www.millshouse.com/amenities/history.html)

Our guide was what tourists often refer to as ‘a real character’. A man in his seventies with an animated face under a straw boater, he had directed this tour for over a decade, yet never once sank into rote delivery, always sparked with spontaneity as if telling the stories for the very first time and the war had occurred decades ago rather than a century and a half. He had compiled a picture book about Charleston (which we bought at the end of the tour) and was knowledgeable in every answer to questions. He had even memorized letters from Confederates in Charleston during Union bombardment and frequently stopped to recite their words.

There were two other customers for the tour, men about my age, both from North Carolina and descendents of Confederate veterans (one was the great-grandson of the designer of the first Confederate stamp!)

So far so good.

But strangely, before we began our guide asked if we wanted the tour ‘with slavery or without’, as if we were in a Chinese restaurant picking from column A or column B.

I was flabbergasted. “How can you have a Civil War Tour without slavery?”

“Well, some folks just get too sensitive about it. They can’t enjoy the tour. You have to understand the people who lived here at the time. Ya’ll can’t judge them by our present day standards. I try to get you to appreciate the world they were living in so you really can understand what happened here.”

That didn’t sound unreasonable. Taking national pride in the laudable, revolutionary achievements of the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slaveholders, has always been an American balancing act. But on the other hand, ‘many of the people who lived here at the time’ were enslaved. They lived in that world too.

We all agreed. We chose Column A: the tour WITH slavery.

The very first stop on the tour was a small, white house near the hotel.

This was the home of a free woman of color. We were told that Charleston had over 3,000 free blacks before the Civil War. (Later, doing my own research, I found that these were mostly mixed-race ‘mulattoes’, that their wages were regulated by law, that they were women by a ratio of 2-1 and that they had to wear little badges depicting a liberty cap when they were out in public like Jews in a ghetto. Our guide didn’t mention these historical facts). He pointed out curled spikes on a fence around the house. They looked like the anti-burglar fences you find in NYC but he cited them as protection against slave revolts. Yes, even black Charlestonians feared the slaves! And we were regaled with the animal viciousness of the slave revolt sparked by Denmark Vessey. Vessey and his followers planned to kill all the whites, women and children included, take over the city and then sail to freedom in Haiti. (Of course, there had actually been no revolt. Two slaves opposed to the revolt informed authorities. Vessey and 34 others were hanged.) Our guide pointed to a park with similar spikes above the fence, pointing out that this is where embattled whites would find a last redoubt against murderous blacks. The citizens could fire outward through the spaces in the iron fence and the curled spikes atop it would prevent slaves from climbing over.

So now we were seeing Charleston from the perspective of ‘the people who lived here at the time’. At least the white ones. They lived in constant fear of dangerous blacks.

The next stop was the Slave Market, (now a small Slavery Museum, more on this later).

“Now, what kind of darkie do you want to buy here today?” asked the guide helping us to ‘appreciate the world they were living in’.

“What?” I asked.

“What kind of darkie do you want to buy?” he repeated. “You know, you don’t just buy a darkie. You buy a carpenter, a wheelwright, a blacksmith or a field hand. Now the field hand is the cheapest. Maybe $500. But some of those others could run you into real money. Maybe a thousand dollars. Now what kind of darkie do you want to buy today?”

I demurred, explaining that I would do my own work and was remonstrated that if I insisted on not buying a ‘darkie’ I would face lifetime penury. My tour partners were more amenable to playing slave-master. One said he would buy a carpenter for $800, the other a field hand for $500.

When we got to the site of the ante-bellum insurance company I again refused to play the game and insure my ‘darkie’. By now, I must have roused suspicions that I was not a fellow-traveler and my companions on the tour began to ask questions; what I did for a living, where I was from etc. They were excited when I told them my TV show was cancelled the day after Bill Clinton’s mistress made an appearance and more so when I told them I was a political radio broadcaster in New York. ‘Did I know Sean Hannity?’ ‘Yes. I worked in the same studio as he did and used to follow him on the air.’ ‘What was he like in real life?’ ‘Well, one to one he was a likeable enough, if shallow fellow but considering the requirements of the job he wasn’t all that bright.’ I quickly added that Mark Levin, on the other hand, was an extremely bright, well educated individual who surely must know better about the things he tells his audience.

I wasn’t making any friends here.

‘And what do you do now?” one of them asked.

“I do a lot of fill in on Sirius Satellite Radio, but I’m on Sirius Left. You probably don’t listen to that channel…”

“You’re right. I would NEVER ever listen to that…” he assured me. He smirked: “So I guess you’re happy with YOUR president?”

“Not with everything,” I answered truthfully. “But you mean OUR president. He’s the American president. Just like George Bush. Bush was MY president even though I didn’t vote for him.”

“Obama’s not MY president!” he insisted and the others nodded in agreement.

Fortunately we were only halfway through the tour and as we moved on to General Beauregard’s house, the breathtaking homes on Bay Street, the Hunley Confederate Submarine monument, listening to our guide recite contemporaneous letters and compare scrap-book pictures of post-war destruction with modern renovation. There were only a few jibes about modern politics. I was told the slaves did not receive Obamacare and the plantation owners looked after their medical needs. That the mayor of Charleston was a lib supporter of Obama just like me. I held my tongue.

The end of the tour came to a big finale and our guide became agitated over the election of Lincoln and the war. “And all this destruction and death could have been avoided,” he railed. “South Carolina didn’t vote for Lincoln. He wasn’t our president, that damn abolitionist. If he had reached out to the South, if he had assured us about the continuation of slavery all this wouldn’t have happened and we’d all be a lot better off…”

I cut him off. I’d had enough.

“Wait a minute. First of all Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He wasn’t going to take slavery away from the South. The problem was over new territories and whether they would become free states or slave states. Second, South Carolina seceded in December, before Lincoln was even president! And what do you mean we’d be better off if slavery had continued in the South?!? For how long? How many generations of human beings would continue to live their lives as slaves? You had state sponsored segregation in the South until the seventies. Would we be better off having slaves through the 20th century?”

“Segregation is different. It’s not the same thing…” he insisted, waving his hands at me.

“So how many more decades would slavery have existed without the Civil War? And over all those years these slaves would be better off?” I continued.

“All I’m saying is that the country could have avoided the war and we would be better off…”

“What do you mean ‘we’? Yeah, Churchill could have avoided World War II too! England might have kept its Empire…good deal for England. Bad deal if you’re a Jew.”

We calmed as we returned to Mills House, our starting point and I bought his book which seemed a conciliatory gesture. I had one last question for our guide.

“Do you ever get any black people taking your tour?”

“Not many,” he replied with what seemed sincere regret. “I wish more would sign up. But not many do…”

Now, from MY point of view while based upon historical fact the tour began by downplaying slavery (there were over 3000 free Blacks in Charleston before the war), then demonized the enslaved (the whites were terrorized by the prospect of imagined bloody slave revolts), then we were prompted to enjoy the imaginary thrill of buying human beings and finally the Civil War was portrayed as Lincoln’s fault although the offensive actions of secession and military attack were initiated by the South.

Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and enjoyed his work. I did not want to destroy the experience for him or the others and until the end of the tour often restrained myself from commenting on presentations I found offensive.

Was I too sensitive about slavery (as I had been warned at the start)?

What would you have done?

(Still to come: The Confederate Museum, The Slavery Museum and Fort Sumter)

Her-story Lesson

Over the weekend Rep. Michelle Bachmann shared her understanding of American history with Iowans for Tax Relief (more tax relief?!?):

“How unique in all of the world, that one nation that was the resting point from people groups all across the world. It didn’t matter the color of their skin, it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status. It didn’t matter whether they descended from nobility or whether they have a higher class or a lower class. It made no difference! Once you got here, we were all the same! Isn’t that remarkable? It is absolutely remarkable!”Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Tea Party Leader
“THATS NEWS TO ALL OF US!”

“We also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”Michelle Bachmann

They did work tirelessly… to try to obfuscate their hypocrisy.

Yesterday she invited Justice Antonin Scalia to a special Tea Party sponsored instructional seminar to inform them about the Constitution.

Next time perhaps she should invite a historian.

Might I suggest Henry Louis Gates or Cornel West?