'Civil War History Shuts Out African-Americans'

Goldblog reader Elizabeth Christian writes, in reference to Haley Barbour's whitewashing of history:

I'm a native of Atlanta and a lifelong liberal. My dad was born in Birmingham. His mother's family owned a plantation in South Carolina before the Civil War. I don't know how many people they owned. They owned people is the important thing. I don't know what they were like outside of those facts. They fought for an evil cause. Still, history books assure me that they fought bravely.
 
No one says that about the Nazis. You might hear statements about the effectiveness of the German army, but you don't hear talk about their honor or valiance in mainstream history classes. The way American history is taught in the South, at least, shuts African Americans out of the Civil War. In the early 90s at a majority black high school, I learned that many factors whose roots all returned to slavery caused the war, and I learned about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, but the war itself was presented (though never explicitly stated to be) a whites against whites affair. In other parts of the South, students learn that two virtuous armies fought and by the way slavery is bad. Again, it's generally presented as whites against whites. The movie Glory came out while I was in high school, and it was the first significant representation of African American participation in the war. 
 
The public presentation of the history isn't much better. While battlefields and memorials are starting to include a fuller picture, many public monuments are very focused on deeds and heroes of the Confederacy. It goes beyond the Confederacy. I hate visiting the Capitol building because of the various statues of political luminaries like Senator Thomas Watson. Evil, racist motherfuckers all over the place. This was who had the power. Demographic shifts changed this in Atlanta, but for most of Georgia it took even longer. The facts of history got buried beneath the Myth of the South. I think a lot of African Americans (and other Americans who aren't admirers of the Confederacy) don't even realize there's history that needs to be reclaimed.
 
When Reconstruction ended, Confederates regained power. They couldn't reinstate slavery legally, so they created systems like share-cropping that reproduced the most profitable aspects of it and then set themselves up in metal and stone as heroes.
 
One of my father's friends has on occasion mused about how silly it was of the city of Atlanta to rename (Nathaniel Bedford) Forrest Ave. He thought it was an attempt to paper over history. As an adult, I've finally had the courage to argue with him about this. My father's friend is not a lover of the Confederacy, and he didn't want Forrest celebrated, but he thought that renaming the road whitewashed the fact that in the past Forrest was celebrated. My response was basically the road is our road now. Leaving it named after a racial terrorist honors that terrorist, so if we don't want to do that, we need to change the name. I do think that an acceptable balance between removing Forrest's name entirely and leaving the streetname honoring someone who deserves no honor would have been changing the name to Nathaniel Bedford Forrest Was An Evil, Racist Motherfucker Ave. The city of Atlanta chose to rename the street after Ralph McGill.
 
Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

From This Author

Just In