“Confederate” and the Uses of the “Alternate” Past

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, creators of HBO’s Game of Thrones, are already working on their next big project, an alternate history in which the Civil War did not end with the United States defeating the Confederacy and reuniting the nation. The show will be called Confederate, and includes writers Nichelle Tramble and Malcolm Spellman. The proposed show has been a hot topic of conversation among my social circle, especially my historian friends.

Game of Thrones Season 7 posterThis show is terrible idea. I am a GoT fan, but I fully acknowledge that the show has serious issues in how it presents violence, especially sexual violence, particularly against women. In some cases, scenes representing consensual sex in the text are filmed as rape. Plenty of viewers abandoned the show after that moment (if they hadn’t already), and I actually spent the entire season reading recaps before deciding if I wanted to watch each episode. My point here is not rehash these scenes, but to point out that Benioff and Weiss have done nothing in their largest, most popular project to convince me that they are capable of handling sensitive subjects with grace or thoughtfulness. Since rape was a critical part of the institution of slavery, I am deeply concerned about their ability to engage with that in a thoughtful, non-salacious way (which 12 Years a Slave did very successfully).

Poster for CSA The Confederate States of AmericaI also wonder about the point of this. Alternate history, like regular history, is often about social commentary. What is the commentary value gained here? I’ve seen the Confederate States of America mockumentary, which supposes the South won and makes scathing commentary on race relations. In the case of Confederate, I’m unsure what would be gained. Supposing the South could have won is deeply counterfactual; while slavery remained profitable, the South lacked the necessary infrastructure to sustain a war effort. Desertion became a serious problem as yeoman farmers and poor whites realized they were fighting not for some lofty dream, but for the ability of the rich man to build his wealth through human property at the expense of poor farmers. Supposing that the South could have won is a dangerous engagement with the Lost Cause narrative and the century(ies) of white supremacy and anti-black terrorism it fed/feeds.

I’ve seen people defend this project by comparing it to The Man in the High Castle, a dystopian show about what life might be like if the Axis Powers had won World War II. I haven’t yet seen the show, buMan in the High Castle TV series postert there are significant differences between Nazi Germany and slavery in the United States. Without engaging in some sort of misery Olympics, the duration alone should give anyone making this comparison pause. While we are far from done dealing with Nazism and its consequences, I think it’s fair to say that we have made significantly more progress in engaging with it than we have with centuries of chattel slavery in the United States.

If you disagree, consider how we approach sites of memory for each. Concentration camps are sacred spaces, full of monuments and solemn visitors. Plantations, the forced labor camps of the antebellum South, are wedding venues. Holocaust denial is shameful, while referring to enslaved people as servants and downplaying slavery and its long-term impacts are commonplace. White people routinely claim that slavery was not that bad, that African Americans should just get over it, that Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. As a nation, we have yet to deal with the political, social, economic, and personal consequences of slavery.

Add to that the current sociopolitical climate, which has emboldened white supremacists and seen a sharp increase in hate crimes, and there is no good argument for making this show, especially given Benioff and Weiss’ track record on Game of Thrones. This show does not ask an interesting question about history, and I don’t think it should exist. I would, however, be interested in an alternate history of the United States in which Reconstruction continued past 1877, but I won’t hold my breath.

“I cannot live without books”

I’ve recently seen a number of things on the social media with this quote of Jefferson’s:

“I cannot live without books”

The quote is from a letter to John Adams, and I can understand why it appeals to people. I love books so much that I am dragging a shocking number of them halfway across the country, but I don’t own or want any of the myriad items floating around with this quote on them.

I cannot live without books -Thomas JeffersonJefferson was a brilliant man who played a pivotal role in the founding of this nation. He also owned thousands of human beings throughout his life, despite his extensive writings on liberty, and repeatedly raped Sally Hemings from the time she was 14 (he was 44). Jefferson’s lifestyle was possible because of the labor of enslaved people, and he periodically struggled with bankruptcy because of the instability of agriculture and because he consistently lived above his means, in part because of his compulsive purchasing of books. In order to fund this lifestyle, Jefferson often mortgaged his property, including his human property. Baseball cap with "I cannot live without books" and Jefferson's signature embroidered on it

Jefferson mortgaged human beings to pay for his lifestyle. He only ever freed two enslaved men during his lifetime. He claimed that black people were not suited to freedom, and that they should be sent back to Africa rather than permitted to live in the land of their birth. He claimed that they could not be integrated into white society. These beliefs were convenient for a man who wished to justify keeping human beings as property and capital, able to be mortgaged or sold to cover his debts when it suited him.

Yes, Jefferson loved books, but he purchased his books with the lives of the people he owned, and that is worth keeping in mind when you see that brief quote stitched on a pillow or emblazoned on a tshirt.

 

 

The Past, the Present, and Whitney Plantation

 

Yesterday, June 13, I sat through a public hearing on new rules for the Tennessee Historical Commission to grant waivers to change the names of historic sites and monuments. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the speakers were members of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, a group ostensibly dedicated to honoring Our Glorious Confederate Dead, but who more often find themselves defending the Myth of the Lost Cause against those who would interpret history as it actually happened.

I decided to live-tweet the meeting, and it turned out that I was the only person reporting what was going on.

Live oak trees lining the drive, looking away from the manor house. Row of cedar trees at the end.
Alley of live oaks at the front of the Whitney Plantation near New Orleans

As the slew of SCV members worked through their prepared talking points, it became clear that they were primarily concerned that any easing of the process to rename or remove monuments would lead the removal of the Confederate monuments that dot Tennessee’s landscape. Amid some real nonsense (including the idea that this was part of a conspiracy by “communists and progressives,” and that these rules would eventually lead to the removal of WWII monuments by all of the Germans who would soon be in the US fleeing Muslims), their central message was fear that history would be rewritten. Many of them stated repeatedly that “history doesn’t change” and expressed fear and anger over the idea that any removal would be taking down real history and replacing it with politically correct but inaccurate myths. They are deeply emotionally invested in this narrative, and one SCV member even interrupted an African American man as he discussed what Confederate monuments, especially those dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest, meant to him.

The irony, of course, is that those monuments were never about the Civil War. They were and are about sending a message of white supremacy, to remind black people of their place.

The meeting also made me think about my recent visit to the Whitney Plantation when I was in Louisiana visiting family. I managed to squeeze in a visit on my way from Lafayette to New Orleans for my flight home, and I was excited to finally have chance to visit. I’m in South Louisiana fairly often, but I rarely get to go exploring.

Bronze sculptures of enslaved children with one actual child in a church at the Whitney Plantation
Bronze sculptures of enslaved children at the church on the Whitney Plantation

The Whitney Plantation is unique for its explicit focus on the lives of enslaved people. Most plantation tours focus on the daily lives of the planters who inhabited the big house and treat the lives of the enslaved population as peripheral or incidental. This means that often when white people see plantations, they often see Gone with the Wind-style romance and beauty rather than what some historians term forced-labor camps. The Whitney re-orients the visitor experience, educating them about the reality of slavery, the difficulty of learning about enslaved people as individuals, and the unrelenting physical labor required for sugar production (the primary cash crop at the Whitney Plantation).

I was surprised by how unsurprised I was by my tour of the Whitney. It felt comfortable in way that many other plantation tours do not. This is not because the subject matter was easy to absorb–quite the opposite–but I think because the Whitney knows what it is. There’s no docent blithely discussing how well they treated “the servants.” There’s no pained glance at the African American family on the tour. There’s no pretense that this tour, this place, is about anything other than slavery. It is painful and overwhelming, but the truth often is.

View of the manor house through the open door and bars of an iron prison box
View through an iron prison box used to hold enslaved people for sale or transport

The white men and women who spoke at the public hearing were anxious and fearful, in part because they know they are wrong. When they attempt to ground their arguments in history, they are grasping at straws because history is not on their side. When the African American men spoke about their view of the Confederate landscape, the SCV members and their sympathizers, shifted uncomfortably as they were forced to confront their own white supremacy.

They won’t change their point of view. There is no smoking gun you can show them that will make them realize the error of their thoughts. They are the products of Gone with the Wind and a construction of lies designed to make slavery seem benign in order to justify segregation and race-based inequality. Millions of visitors each year wander through the historic homes and plantations of the South, and they absorb these subtle messages. Imagine if instead, they found themselves in sites that used the Whitney’s approach. If they learned about the realities of slavery and its long reach into the 21st century.

I have my own concerns about the rules proposed for waivers, but I am more concerned that Tennessee and other states will double down on the landscape of white supremacy out of fear and spite.

View of the rear of the manor house at the Whitney Plantation.
The back of the manor house at the Whitney Plantation; the first and only view of the house the visitor gets.

Letting Go: A Semester of Experimental Teaching, Part II

This is Part II of a discussion of my Fall 2016 Introduction to Cross-Cultural Studies class. Read Part I here.

Self-Reflection: What Worked & What Didn’t

In my previous post, I talked in general terms about my approach to the class and the outcomes. In this post, I’ll break down which elements of the class worked and which didn’t, and examine how I might incorporate the successful elements in my current and future classes.

Journals

Each week, students turned in journal entries on the assigned readings. The entries were due on the day of class discussion, which helped ensure that students came to class having read and prepared to discuss the readings. These are the guidelines for journals from the syllabus:

  • The journal entry must contain at least one substantive comment or question for each of the assigned readings. You can state this in one sentence, and a rambling paragraph is not a substitute for substance. Your journal should include at least two questions about the topic to discuss in class.
  • You can write informally (use bullet points, etc), but your writing must be intelligible. I won’t be marking you on grammar, but I have to be able to follow your thoughts.
  • You must be prepared to discuss your comments and questions in class.
  • You will not receive credit for entries that only restate what the article says. I want to know what you think about it.
  • You will not receive credit for vague comments like “The article was interesting” or “I agree with the article.” Why do you agree? What was interesting?

I expect your journal entries to reflect your growth as a scholar and critical thinker. An “A” journal entry at the start of term may not be one at the end.

I had both under- and upperclassmen, and the journals helped put them on more equal footing for class. I gave students substantive feedback on their journal entries, and most of my students grew in response to the feedback. I enjoyed getting to read the journals.

Detail of the facade of Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa, OK
While in Tulsa for a wedding last fall, I got to see Boston Avenue Methodist Church, a beautiful Art Deco building. Once again, using images to break up long blocks of text.

I also gave more specific journal entry questions for some readings. When they read about AIM survival schools, I asked them to reflect on how education developed or erased tribal identity. When they read about the history of rap in Cape Town, I asked them if any artists or songs spoke to their sense of who they are. These questions helped them focus their reading, especially my students who had less experience with critical analysis.

The major drawback to the journals was the time it took to mark them and give feedback. It was easy for me to get behind, given my extremely intense schedule (I taught three different preps and worked 20 hours a week at the Tennessee Historical Society), and this is something I would want to do better with if I assigned them again. It is unfortunately not something I see as practical in much larger classes, but I am considering different ways to get the same outcome. Suggestions in the comments or directly to me are greatly appreciated.

Participation

I wanted thoughtful, informed discussions with as many students involved as possible. I did not want to spend discussions with a list of students rating the number and quality of their comments. After reading around, I decided to ask my students to set participation goals for themselves. This seemed like a cop out to me, since I prefer to control and predict everything that goes on, but the concept made sense. They wrote their goals on the first or second day of class. I asked them to think about their personalities and strengths. If they tended to talk a lot in class, maybe they wanted to work on listening and participating without dominating the discussion. If they were introverted and nervous, maybe they wanted to work on having a prepared comment to share once or twice a week and build up to spontaneous engagement.

They held onto their goals, and at the midterm and final I asked them to briefly reflect on their goals in a paragraph to me, and to include a self-assessed grade. I gave them substantive feedback at the midterm, and met with some students individually. I also asked them to give me feedback on how I could encourage better participation. Many of them suggested having them speak in smaller groups, rather than to the entire class. Since the classroom was arranged with small tables, I took this on board and had them discuss questions at their tables before opening the floor. I was able to visit the tables and get a sense of who was engaging, who was quiet but attentive, and who was just texting. This also helped them bond with each other, and the more talkative students were thoughtful about drawing out their more reticent classmates.

We did the same exercise at the final, and I found that most of  my students worked harder on their goals to get better, and that the changes they suggested worked well. This is something I’ve tried to incorporate into my larger classes. It’s more difficult with a survey of 35 students, but they are better at talking to each other in groups than they are at talking to me in front of their classmates.

Congressman John Lewis on stage near a podium
I also got to see my hero John Lewis speak at MLK Magnet School (formerly Pearl High School) in Nashville. I am an excellent photographer.

The combination of the participation component and the journal worked well. When I met with students individually, I was able to tell the quieter students that I could tell they were doing thoughtful reading and had good ideas that I wanted the entire class to benefit from, so that it was constructive feedback (“Share your insights with your classmates”) rather than criticism (“Why don’t you talk more?”). It also helped create the sense that this was a group effort; it wasn’t about me pulling teeth, it was about us creating a good discussion together so that we could all stay awake and enjoy our 9am class.

Final Thoughts (for Now)

This isn’t a complete postmortem on this class, so I may revisit these posts or turn this into a series on teaching. I really enjoyed teaching this class, and I want to find ways to make all of my future classes as enjoyable as this one was. There are a lot of intangible factors that make for a successful class. I had a wonderful group of students whose company and conversation I enjoyed and who were willing to go along with me as I figured out what I wanted to do. I learned a lot about relaxing and going with the flow last fall, and hopefully that has carried forward into this semester and will stay with me as I continue teaching and learning.

Letting Go: A Semester of Experimental Teaching, Part I

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process

In August 2016, I found myself in a bit of a bind when the grant funding my work ended unexpectedly. I scrambled and picked up an extra class teaching Introduction to Cross-Cultural Experiences for MTSU’s Global Studies program. I had two books, neither of which was a traditional text book, a few vague syllabi, and an even more vague course description. Most of the instructors in that program are cultural geographers, but Doug Heffington, the program chair, encouraged me to play to my own strengths and interests.

Photo of students in historical costumes
This is my US History to 1877 class from the same semester on Halloween. It’s important to break up long stretches of text with photos.

With no restrictions and only 18 students, I set out to create a class where we explored how cultures create identity for themselves and others in thoughtful, informed discussions. I had the beginnings of a syllabus that rewarded participation, encouraged reading and reflection, and eschewed tests and quizzes for journal entries and a final project. I had two weeks’ worth of content set out and no backup plan if it didn’t work. Go big or go home, right?

Public history is, and probably should be, uncomfortable and a little terrifying. Community work involves variables that are beyond our control that can make or break a project. For me, this uncertainty is exhilarating. Some people jump out of planes; I ask for community feedback. I think some of this is because my first community meeting felt like a train wreck. A former elected official laid into me about preservation and questioned my motives for the project. I remember feeling unprepared and convinced that I had irreparably damaged a years-long project. A community member I knew well jokingly offered to escort me to my car. But, while I stood there, numb with failure, Henry Allen approached me about starting an oral history project. People came to the next community meeting, and the project continued. The experience taught me to embrace the process and its messiness, rather than obsessing over the product.

I drew on that experience when I planned my Global Studies class. I dug up articles on engaged learning and sharing authority in the classroom. I talked to colleagues and read up on creating safe spaces for dialogue. The major takeaway from my research was that I needed to give the students a real stake so they would feel responsible for the success of the class. It was scary for this control freak, but ultimately, it was the best class I have ever taught. We had thoughtful discussions on complicated, challenging topics. We bonded as a class, and some of my students became friends with each other.

Photo of the author in front of a sign reading DinosaurLand
Visiting Dinosaurland near Winchester, Virginia, less than 24 hours before stomach flu round 2.

It was tough semester on a lot of levels. Our schedule got out of whack when I got the stomach flu not once but twice. The 2016 election threw us all for a loop. As I had the rest of the semester, I opted for transparency and sharing authority. I was honest with them about my own feelings, and told them that if they didn’t want to be here today, that was okay, they could leave. I took a blind survey on whether they wanted to have class as usual, or talk about it. They voted to talk about it, so we did. We had an honest, respectful, and open dialogue about what it meant and their fears. No one tried to convince anyone of anything. There was no gloating and no accusation. We listened to each other, something that’s too often missing in our democracy.

This was not a class at a small liberal arts college. Of the 18, only five were women. Most of the men were white STEM majors. In my next post, I’ll do some self-reflection: break down a few elements of the class, looking at what worked and what didn’t, and consider how I can incorporate successful elements of my Global Studies class into current and future teaching.

To be continued.