I grew up right outside Richmond, Virginia. Yes, the former capital of the Confederacy. A place with a deeply-rooted history and heritage of the Civil War. Where the Confederate flag is just as recognizable and prevalent as the American one. Where our public schools carry the names of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. National battlefields pepper the central region, and not even 5 miles from my childhood house sits the Cold Harbor Battlefield and cemetery with some of the most well-preserved earthworks from the war. I grew up in the heart of the deadliest war this country has ever fought.
And I didn’t have a clue that it was still wreaking havoc across this country. Sure by the time I hit my early thirties I didn’t romanticize it like I had as a child, but it never really occurred to me that the statues or the Confederate flag actually hurt people – until I realized the privilege I live with. So when I had the chance to review Rachel Boynton’s documentary Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are), I went into it thinking I had done some significant deconstructing already. But if there is one thing I can count on, it’s learning that my work of unlearning is never done.
I could say it’s no secret that racial tension continues to be at peak levels, but there are still many Americans who aim to sweep it out of sight and out of mind. People say “I never owned slaves, it’s not my fault.” And yet, often those individuals are the same ones proudly displaying a Confederate flag, crying out “heritage not hate.” But if slavery was far enough in the past that we don’t need to talk about it anymore, why do we fight to preserve a flag and statues that are literal symbols of the blood shed over owning other human beings?
Boynton addresses this in a way when interviewing a couple of gentlemen in Tennessee, who ardently deny slavery as the reason their ancestors fought against the Union army. So if we aren’t in agreement over the fundamental cause of a war that we are still very much fighting, then we aren’t going to get very far. Things like flags and monuments aren’t going to seem all the bad to people who believe they stand for something different.
Now I’m not going to totally dismiss the other factors that lead up to the Civil War. Those Tennessee gentlemen had a point when sharing how their ancestors (who didn’t own slaves), found themselves fighting a war that arrived on their doorstep, defending their homes and families. That part of the story has a place in this narrative as well.
Just as the overlooked racism of the North has a place.
There is so much to unpack from Boynton’s film, and much insight to be gleaned from guests such as David Blight (author of the 2001 work Race and Reunion: The Civil War in AmericanMemory); professors Greg Carr (Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University) and Melissa Janczewski Jones (historian of the 1875 Clinton Massacre; visiting professor at Mississippi College). The time spent in both Mississippi and Boston classrooms is also illuminating on how this war continues to shape the identities of the next generation. But the main part of it that hit me was what I just typed above: the overlooked racism of the North.
The history books tend to paint the Northern army as saviors and true Americans. They dismantled a violent industry and left behind a wave of freedom as they returned to the North.
But if that was accurate, how are we still here?
“Slavery doesn’t survive. But white supremacy does.” Even with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments passing during the time of Reconstruction, recently freed Black men and women were still at the mercy of the white majority. In the South it was overt with segregation and Jim Crow laws (which is when many of the Confederate statues were built). In the North it was subtle, but still in power and obvious when you looked at the make-up of neighborhoods and schools and educational opportunities.
I had never thought about this like, ever, until this film pointed it out. North and South reunite and rewrite the story together, but there is no racial justice. And it’s obvious from both the Mississippi representative who “doesn’t see the pain in the symbol” of the Confederate flag and the young man in the Boston classroom who still doesn’t think racism is as bad as people say it is. White supremacy and racism isn’t limited to the South – it’s a national problem.
It’s hard to find a stopping point when writing on something as complex and crucial as racism, and there will always be those who want to continue to dismiss the Civil War in today’s conversation, so I will end with this: we all play a role. Who we are has been shaped by who came before us. No, we weren’t here 150 years ago but we were 100 years ago..60 years ago…30 years ago…we are here today. And if we aren’t willing to own up to past mistakes, we won’t be able to create a future that finally sees progress. Instead we will keep fighting an old war, destined to make the same mistakes.