On Confederate Memorial Day: Regional Memory & Knowledge Production

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Monday was a state holiday in Alabama and several other southern states: Confederate Memorial Day. State employees had a paid day off, and in a city where there are many state employees, the downtown district was eerily quiet. Confederate Memorial Day has a murky beginning. Following the American Civil War, towns throughout the North and South began to honor the memory of the war on Decoration Day. They would hold ceremonies, honor surviving veterans, and decorate the graves of those who died during the war. By some accounts, it was a healing day, a chance for Americans from all sides to pause and reflect on the terrible rift that had been the Civil War. Eventually, Decoration Day became Memorial Day, a federal holiday to honor the dead from all of America’s wars. Confederate Memorial Day continued in the South, along with other holidays like Lee-Jackson Day and Jefferson Davis’ birthday.

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As I have recently joined the ranks of state employees, I had Monday off. It was strange to be out and about on a Monday that the rest of the world — and yes, most of the state — thought was just a regular Monday. I was much more cognizant of the day’s meaning than I am on other holiday Mondays. But, I do not relate to the history of the Confederacy. I spent the day pondering the Civil War, the very existence of anything called Confederate Memorial Day, the production of historical knowledge, and, well… a lot of stuff, some of which is here.

When I tell people about Confederate Memorial Day, the reaction is usually one of shock and disgust. I’d like to step back from the content of the day and think more broadly around the regional production of knowledge in the United States and the way the North and South think about the Civil War. I think that the way we frame Civil War and slavery history in the US is hampering our ability to discuss modern-day inequality in this country.

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I am currently learning Alabama history so I can interpret it for the visitors to the museum where I work. It’s been interesting, because I am Northern-bred, Northern-born, and Northern-grown. I am from Connecticut, and have only otherwise lived in Massachusetts and New York prior to Alabama. I am also a white woman, most of whose family immigrated to the US in the years after slavery was abolished here. (Though, that does not mean my family was not complicit in the evils of our country’s complicated racial history.) In school, we spent a disproportionate amount of time learning about Colonial America and the Revolutionary War, because that is the history that feels most important to the soil on which Northerners stand.

Visitors to Boston often walk the Freedom Trail, a literal red line painted on the sidewalk connecting sites of colonial-era importance in the city. But Boston’s didn’t freeze in time once the Revolutionary War was won. It has a rich history full of fascinating events spanning across the decades. The Molasses Flood. The Great Fire. Southie’s Busing Riots. Just a few things off the top of my head. And yet, tourists in Boston today flock to its colonial-era sites, walking a path that was established in the 1950s, one of America’s great eras of reframing history.

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Montgomery, Alabama, has a complicated history, and it is one that is worn on its sleeve. Historical markers are all over town, noting the locations of things as mundane as a house Helen Keller visited often (her sister lived there) to sites with such gravitas as the location of some of the city’s several slave markets. The minor league baseball stadium downtown is on the site of barracks that held prisoners of war during the Civil War. The state capitol building was used as the capitol building of the Confederate States of America following their incorporation right here in this city, and Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as President of the CSA on the front steps. A hundred years later, following decades of codified injustice (all following more than a century of slavery), African-Americans and their allies marched these streets, boycotted the city bus system, and rallied on the steps of the very same capitol during the civil rights era.

My US history classes spent a lot — a LOT — of time on North America’s 17th- and 18th-century history. We learned and relearned the events leading up to and following our declaration of independence from King George III. And then, with the few months left in the school year, we hurtled through 19th- and 20th-century history at warp speed, lucky to even get to World War II before finals were upon us. I am confident that this was not the curriculum intended for us impressionable youngsters, but I left school with little knowledge of American events after we became the good ol’ US of A, and that includes the Civil War. But why?

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History is written by the victors. By those in power. The critique of history as the epic tale of the struggle of rich old white men is so well-known as to feel trite. But I would argue that this power dynamic is also inherent in the preference of certain histories in certain regions. We in the North have this idea that we were the good guys in the Civil War. This is, at its core, an oversimplified idea that does not take into account the North’s then-recent direct participation in slavery, and that ignores the fact that industry in the North relied on the free labor of slaves in the South. Those now-dead mill towns I knew growing up in New England grew in the 19th century on the backs of slaves who were growing cotton down here in the South. Shipping and ship-building, other major New England trades, supported the Triangular Trade. And, don’t forget, there were slaves in the North, though not on the scale of the great plantations of the South. There were also Southerners who fought for the Union, or opposed the secession and eventual war altogether. It is far easier to not deal with these complexities and instead perpetuate — either by actually saying so or through omission — the idea of a black-and-white, good-vs.-evil Civil War.

When we run out of time to cover the Civil War properly in school in favor of glorifying another period of history of which we are more proud, we deprive students of the chance to think critically about a hugely important moment in our nation’s history. I think the lack of serious thought about the Civil War, its causes, and its outcomes in the North leads to a misguided belief that the North is morally superior to the South, even today. It leads to a belief that racial and other bigotry is only a problem faced by Southerners, that we in the North are in a post-racism era, that racism encountered in the North today is an incidental accident rather than the product of systemic discrimination. It perpetuates an ahistorical approach to solving systemic problems. And, it creates a whole lot of bad blood in the South, some of which gets repurposed as pride.

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I come from a dead New England industrial town, one known for its poverty, its recent immigrants, its crime, its nothingness. I am lucky to have been born white and middle class, to have become educated, to have left. Even still, I, like most of my hometown friends, have a fierce pride for the scrappy, terrible town where I was raised. The alternative would be to be ashamed of it, which is what outsiders have been telling me I should be for as long as I can remember. I am not saying the former Confederate states shouldn’t reflect on their history and try to right the wrongs of the past. I am saying we all should. I am saying that simplifying history to fit into a primitive good-guys/bad-guys narrative is harmful to our ability to discuss race, economics, inequality, and justice in any way productive way. It damages our ability to administer any sort of reparations. It reduces Southerners to a monolithic population that feels they need to take a defensive stance when it comes to their history, and, therefore, when it comes to the present.

It is very important to be consciously critical of all historic information, because the past is contested territory that is always being co-opted for the present. That is true of Civil War history, too. So, in place of Confederate Memorial Day, I would suggest something different. A Civil War Remembrance Day, perhaps, to be celebrated across our nation, so that we can mourn those who died as a result of the horrific institution of slavery, heal the persistent wounds of the institution and the war, remember those who died in the war even as we think carefully about their reasons for fighting, and try to begin a better, more complete dialogue about our past, present, and future.


 

Photos: 1) E and me with a giant Abraham Lincoln head in the visible storage at the New York Historical Society. 2) Alabama’s state capitol building. 3) A “Rosa Parks” civil rights era city bus. 4) the plaque embedded at the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office when he became President of the CSA. 5) the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was pastor and where the Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized. 6) The one-room schoolhouse used by African-American schoolchildren at Old Cahawba, Alabama’s first capital city. 

New Beginnings: Alabama the Beautiful

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 As I write this, I am sitting on the couch with my cat draped across my shoulders, with the window open and sunshine filtering in. It is 11:30 am on a Monday, and I don’t have anywhere to be. I am unemployed for the first time since the dark months immediately following my college graduation 7 years ago, and I’m not quite sure what to do with that.

On January 26, three men showed up and carted off 95% of my worldly belongings. On January 30, I said goodbye to my wonderful coworkers over one last round of drinks at the office. On January 31, I boarded a plane bound for Montgomery, Alabama with the other 5% of my worldly belongings. And here I sit.

Seven months ago, my husband took a job that brought him here. We loaded the car with about 50% of his worldly belongings, including 2 cats, and drove him down here over the course of two days. Then, after a week of getting him settled, I boarded a plane back to New York City.

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 I had an intoxicating Summer and Fall in New York, meeting people, sharing ideas, enjoying exhibitions and cultural events. In the dizzying pace I set for myself, things like writing fell off my to-do list, because reflection was too complicated, because I had too many thoughts and feelings and experiences to convey. And then, the cold and grey of Winter set in, and E came up to visit for two weeks over the holidays, and we rung in the new year without ever really talking about what I think we both knew to be true: I had to choose my personal life over my professional life and move to Alabama while E finished out his fellowship.

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 It was a decision I had been avoiding, because quitting my job and upending my life meant relying on someone outside myself, trusting that I would be able to figure it out at some point. It felt like I was betraying a part of myself, and my place in the sisterhood. I was paralyzed by the knowledge that I could get hurt in the process. But, hey, eventually (hopefully not for a while yet) I’ll just be dust in the ground and all my potential for hurt and for joy and for experience itself will be spent, so let’s go live somewhere where the seafood looks different from what I’m used to.

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So, I’m in Alabama full-time, with an emphasis on exploring a new place (as always) and investing in things and activities that will enable me make good choices once we’re back on the move in June 2015 (this is a new one for me). My furniture is scheduled to arrive this week, after which I’ll finish settling in and get back to writing and sharing and trudging through the backlog of REALLY AWESOME STUFF that I’ve been up to in the last seventh months. In fact, just yesterday I stumbled on an everyday object here in Montgomery that led me on a path right back to my beloved New York world’s fairs of the 20th century. The world is a strange and mysterious place. And I am, truth be told, pretty stoked to get to know a new-to-me part of it.

Down South: Roadside Alabama

A quick change of pace and locale. Even though I live in beautiful Astoria, Queens, my husband is currently homesteading in the wilds of Alabama. That makes it sound much more dramatic than it is — he’s a lawyer, and he has a fellowship with an incredible organization in Montgomery. He’s been there since June, and has settled in nicely. The pace is slower, the air is thicker, and the sun sets a little earlier than up here, which is to say that he’s pretty pleased.

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Montgomery’s riverfront on the Alabama River.

We drove E down to Alabama when he moved: 17 hellish hours in a tiny car over two days, with two drugged out cats in the backseat. It was one of the least fun things I’ve ever done. BUT! We did get to do one awesome thing, and it’s all thanks to one of my favorite websites, Roadside America. If you’ve ever been on the website, you know that it’s an amazing wonderland where you can learn about things like the World’s Largest Ten Commandments or Trundle Manor.  And, when we were dragging all of his personal effects down to Alabama the Beautiful in my tiny, beat up Hyundai Elantra, we used it to find Foamhenge.

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Foamhenge is a roadside attraction located in Natural Bridge, Virginia. It is, as the name suggests, a full-size replica of Stonehenge made entirely by one man, completely out of styrofoam. The foam is painted with a faux stone finish, and there is a fiberglass wizard keeping watch over the whole site. It. Is. Amazing. And when you’re six hours into a road trip where the cats won’t stop meowing directly behind your head, it’s even better.

My last trip to visit E was over Labor Day weekend, and I was there for nearly a whole week! We had a pretty jam-packed agenda of stuff that E wanted to show me after spending a month and a half getting acquainted with the place. One day, we drove up to Birmingham to visit the inspiring Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and see some of the nearby historic sites. On our way back, I got to thinking that we must be passing some awesome sites that we just didn’t know about because we weren’t locals, and that’s when I found my new favorite app: the Roadside America app!

It can use your phone’s GPS to figure out where you are and recommend attractions in the area for you to check out. Our first stop was Alabama’s Statue of Liberty, a one-fifth scale replica of our copper gal striding above the highway near Birmingham.  Originally built to perch above an insurance company’s offices in Birmingham, it now has its own park near the headquarters for Alabama’s Boy Scouts of America, which is also in an interesting building. Seeing Lady Liberty peeking above the trees almost made me forget I wasn’t in New York. And! Her torch is actual fire, lit by Alabama natural gas. (Sidenote: There are SO MANY replica Statues of Liberty! I want to see them all.)

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Our second stop on our drive back to Montgomery was this amazing water tower in the form of a peach in Clanton, Alabama. This sucker holds half a million gallons of water, and is placed within sight of the highway, near an extensive peach and peach-products market. It is a thing of beauty.

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As we were getting back in the car after one of these stops, E asked me why I love stuff like giant peach water towers and replica Statues of Liberty. I suppose that I love them because they are completely absurd, but are usually taken totally seriously by their creators. Often, I feel that we’re all falling into that trap — we take our lives, our decisions, our needs so totally seriously, but in reality there is a certain absurdity to this world and to this life, and as humans we’re just lucky that we have brains big enough to notice the absurdity of others, but rarely of ourselves. That sounds really cynical, but I actually really love that about our species. We can impart importance even when we suspect that the test of time will render us all rather absurd.

(Post Script: I just found out about Bamahenge. Rest assured that a visit to this will happen, too.)