If You Think the Civil War Ever Ended, Think Again
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When I first moved to Washington, D.C., I had hardly a stick of furniture, so I boarded a bus to take me to the nearest Ikea, which was in a Virginia mall. Quite unfamiliar with the territory, I watched out the window with curiosity as the bus traveled along the chain-store lined route.
Soon I noticed we were traveling along a road called the Jefferson Davis Highway. I was stunned, and a bit sick to my stomach. How could it be that a highway was named after a man who made war against the United States, all so the citizens of his region could continue to hold human beings in chains? All so slave masters could continue to rape the women they claimed to own. The children of these unions were usually enslaved by their own fathers, often acting as servants to their white half-brothers and -sisters.
That throughout a significant swath of the nation, men who committed treason for the sake of maintaining chattel slavery are lauded as heroes speaks to a terrible illness in the American psyche -- one that continues to fester 145 years after the last shot was fired in the War Between the States.
African-Americans know that the Civil War never ended: as the descendants of the slaves freed by the war's outcome, they've been subjected to continuous stream of terrorism and discrimination, whether they live in the South or the North.
But in the South, black people, for 100 years after the war, faced orders of terror higher than elsewhere in the country. Chattel slavery in America was reserved primarily for those of their race (although, in some areas, Native Americans were also traded as slaves), marking them by skin color as the living legacy of the Confederacy's final humiliation.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's proclamation this week naming April as "Confederate History Month" raised eyebrows for its omission of a mention of slavery. That is indeed telling, of a piece with the trope about the Civil War being fought merely over the constitutional provisions concerning states' rights. Even though I grew up in the North, my schoolbooks perpetrated this idea.
It's a twisted argument, one that leaves out what the states were demanding the right to do: maintain slavery.
But the larger issue is the notion that a Confederate History Month should be celebrated at all, with or without an overt mention of slavery. If anything, the era of the Confederacy should be regarded as a dark and shameful episode, as should Sherman's burning of Atlanta -- a war crime if there ever was one.
In America, we don't like to look at our history, and this veneration of the Confederacy in the states of the South only feeds the "America, right or wrong" ethos that imbues our notion of patriotism. We, as a people, maintain willful ignorance of what our government does to other nations, allowing us a stream of righteous indignation when our more lethal interventions blow up in our national face.
The election of Barack Obama, the first U.S. president of African descent, has energized the Confederacy-lovers and others bent on defying his legitimacy as the nation's leader. The cause of states' rights is again on fire, with 10th Amendment groups sprouting up around the country.
Although Obama has initiated no change to existing gun laws, gun-rights advocates tout him as a far greater threat than any president before him. On April 19, a "Second Amendment march on Washington" will take place, somewhat hampered by the District of Columbia's gun laws. But on the outskirts of the capital, gun-owners from the group, Restore the Constitution, will gather at a park in Northern Virginia, where the gun laws are far more lenient, even allowing the carrying of concealed handguns if the bearer has a permit. (A permit is not required to walk about with a firearm in a holster.) Virginia has reciprocity on its conceal/carry law with all but three of the states that formed the Confederacy.
April 19th marks the date in which the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775. It is also the date on which the FBI burned the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, to the ground in 1993. And it is the date on which Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children.
It's easy to make fun of the wing-nuts. But there's a storm brewing, egged on by the veneration of the Confederacy.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that only Africans and people of African descent were enslaved under the chattel system in the U.S. (Chattel means that they were deemed a piece of property, owned outright, to be bought or sold.) Native Americans, too, were captured and traded as slaves. The correction has been made in the body of the text.