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Sunday, April 11, 2010

A month to celebrate slavery

When Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signed a proclamation declaring April Confederate History Month without any reference to slavery, it was much more than a failure to acknowledge something in history that is part of America's holocaust.  (The other part is the systematic genocide against the aboriginal people.)  The economy and culture of the Confederacy derived almost totally from slavery.  Most of what the Confederacy was is covered in February--Black History Month.   It would seem impossible to celebrate the pageantry and elegance of life in the Confederate states without citing what made it possible and on whose backs the economy and culture was built.

Gov. McDonnell apologized profusely for his negligence, but that negligence is a characteristic of our time among certain factions.  The celebration of the ignorant and belligerent is practiced by some who are regarded as leaders, political stars.   It is impossible to dismiss the Governor's oversight as merely a  slip of mind:  it was declared in the same month as Lincoln's assassination.  It is more in line with the mounting attacks on any criticism of America's history and present courses of action as anti-American.

The view that confrontations of America's faults are a betrayal, are unpatriotic, and anti-American represents a resurgence of mindless boosterism and and jingoism from those who resent knowledge and informed criticism.  The insistence that America is fundamentally a Christian nation is done in oblivion to the fact that its most influential  founders were Deists.  That is not to say that the teachings of Christ in the New Testament did not become part of the American psyche, and that the New Law was embraced because it was democratic law, which espoused equality, freedom, and justice based upon those conditions. 

What makes America America is its willingness to confront the depredations and violence of the past and to seek redemption through a principled assurance that human evils are eliminated in the present and the future.  America did not have a pristine virgin birth that knew none of the degradations of humankind.  It began with people who conceived in democracy the basis of a tolerable and honorable existence, but who fought and killed and labored and sweated, often involving atrocities, to forge the country we dream of.  As Henry David Thoreau said,  "The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine."  Nor in the dreams of people who thought it their Christian calling to kill Indians, hold blacks in bondage, and subject women. 

A huge part of American history is reflected the reconciliation and healing that took place after the Civil War and extends up to our time.  When Gen. Grant framed the terms of surrender with Gen. Lee, he did not insist that all Confederates give up their arms and present themselves to huge prison camps.  Rather, he let them return to their homes with the horses and firearms needed to resume the productive pursuits of their lives.  That can be studied and celebrated, but not without acknowledging the malignant history of slavery as central to what happened.

It would be better to declare a Walt Whitman month.  Although anti-slavery, he refused to adopt a hostile attitude toward the South.  Instead, he dedicated himself to maintaining a benign acknowledgment of slave-holders as humans and he treated wounded Confederates along with Union soldiers in field hospitals and he spoke and sung of their mutual  humanity and the act of reconciliation.
He did not, however, spare his readers the imagery of slavery:

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn'd with the ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.
Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
For many, America's purpose is to acknowledge the atrocities in American history so that we can rise above and beyond them.  But there are those who prefer to hold them in their hearts with fondness.

American dreams of aspiration are beset with nightmares of  hatred and injustice and kept alive in those dark rooms of ignorance and intolerance and bad will.  The struggle is never-ending and the outcome is never certain. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States