Monday, September 7, 2015

Civil War, "The Race Problem" and "Black Lives Matter"

by Bill Doughty

PBS will air a restored "The Civil War" series in ultra HD this week, 25 years after it first aired.

Those who tune in will hear haunting music and see the sacrifice, sadness and devastation caused by a war about freedom: The Union fought for human rights, national unity and the freedom of all people regardless of race and gender; the Confederacy fought for the freedom to enslave others. "States' rights" meant the right to treat people as less than human.

Over the past quarter century, America's renowned historian-documentarian Ken Burns took some flak from other historians for his stately portrayal of both sides in the conflict without, in their opinion, delving deeply enough into the racial disharmony before, during and after the war. 

On Face the Nation several weeks ago, Burns made it clear about the "centrality" of the cause – slavery as the "coiled serpent," in which the the Ku Klux Klan was a "homegrown terrorist organization," portrayed as noble and heroic in popular culture for decades (even in the movie "Gone With The Wind").

A slave family moving to Federal lands. (Library of Congress)
“It’s no wonder that Americans have permitted themselves to be sold a bill of goods about what happened," Burns said, but "the reason why we murdered each other ... was over essentially the issue of slavery.”

As the documentary re-airs this week, readers may be tempted to reach for the monumental works of Shelby Foote, James McPherson or Eric Foner. Each historian describes the land and naval battles, strategies and technologies that led to victory for the Union.

Foner, most of all, provides the context for why the war was fought and the results of slavery's racial divide.

Frederick Douglass as a young man.
But Frederick Douglass provides not only context but also a first-person account as a former slave. Twenty-five years after the war Douglass spoke about the aftermath in a speech to the Bethel Literary and Historical Association. Douglass addressed the terms of the day for the racial divide – "The Negro Problem" and "The Race Problem" – precursors for what's expressed by some today as "Black Lives Matter."*

In his remarks of 1890, Douglass lays out the case for understanding, respecting and speaking truth about the legacy of slavery:
"Truth is the fundamental, indispensable, and everlasting requirement in obtaining right results. No department of human life can afford to dispense with truth. The carpenter cannot join his timbers without having the parts of contacts perfectly true to each other. The mason cannot build a wall that will stand the test of time and gravitation without applying the plumb and making the wall vertical and true. No train or cars [are] safe on the road where the relations of the rails are not true. No shot is certain of its aim where the gun-barrel is not true. As in mechanics, so in politics, morals, manners, metaphysics, and philosophies, nothing can stand the test of time and experience that does not stand on the unassailable, indestructible, unchangeable, foundation of true. Considering how important this truth is, it seems strange that falsehood should hold such sway in the world. One main advantage by which error is able to darken, blight, and dominate the minds of men is the skill of its votaries in using language deceitfully, in pandering to prejudice by misstating and misapplying terms to the existing relations of men."
Douglass examines the reality of the republic as Emancipation unfolded and blacks were left out of the new "harmony" between North and South.
"Now that the Union is no longer in danger, now that the North and South are no longer enemies: now that they have ceased to scatter, tear, and slay each other, but sit together in halls of Congress, commerce, religion, and in brotherly love, it seems that the negro is to lose by their sectional harmony and good will all the rights and privileges that he gained by their former bitter enmity."
Douglass then reveals the real "problem" – not a race problem, but:
"The true problem is not the negro, but the nation. Not the law-abiding blacks of the South, but the white men of that section, who by fraud, violence, and persecution, are breaking the law, trampling on the Constitution, corrupting the ballot-box, and defeating the ends of justice. The true problem is whether these white ruffians shall be allowed by a nation to go on in their lawless and nefarious career, dishonoring the Government and making its very name a mockery. It is whether this nation has in itself sufficient moral stamina to maintain its own honor and integrity by vindicating its own Constitution and fulfilling its own pledges, or whether it has already touched the dry rot of moral depravity by which nations decline and fall, and governments fade and vanish. The United States Government made the negro a citizen, will it protect him as a citizen? This is the problem. It made him a soldier, will it honor him as a patriot? This is the problem. It made him a voter, will it defend his right to vote? This is the problem. This, I say, is more a problem for the nation than for the negro, and this is the side of the question far more than the other which should be kept in view by the American people."
Douglass's moral logic would resonate into the next two centuries. His words bridge the Civil War through the Civil Rights movement and into the civic discourse today in communities riven by racism. The sampling of quotes above, is just a taste of what readers can find in his collected works. In today's distracted Twitter and Instagram society, books can still offer deep and thoughtful perspective, cured over time. 

So can documentaries like "The Civil War."

"We live in a world in which we are being buried in an avalanche of information that comes from this mere constant present moment. And if you live in the present, in a disposable present, nothing else matters. We are desperate, though, for meaning. We're desperate for curation," Burns said.
A black regiment, circa 1861-65. Officers and civilian volunteers taught reading and writing. Some of the soldiers hold primers. (Library of Congress) 

* Regarding the term "Black Lives Matter," post Ferguson and Charleston, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a recent Time essay offers a carefully considered way of thinking about the term, echoing some of the same sentiments as Frederick Douglass. Abdul-Jabbar writes: "Most Americans are already in agreement that all life matters – it's just that blacks want to make sure they are included in that category of "all," which so many studies prove is not the case. In the future think of "Black Lives Matter" as a simplified version of "We Would Like to Create a Country in Which Black Lives Matter as Much as White Lives in Terms of Physical Safety, Education, Job Opportunities, Criminal Prosecution and Political Power." 

No comments: