Our House Divided

On the occasion of the July 4th 2015 national holiday and in view of the recent events in Charleston, South Carolina I am posting this except from  Trauma: Time, Space and Fractals.

“A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”                                                                                   — (Abraham Lincoln, 1858)

“…and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of time.”                                                         — (Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men).

Historians, terrorists and media-savvy politicians know that anniversary dates of events involving unresolved trauma can serve as temporal markers for whatever remains unfinished from the past. In the view of Southern novelist Shelby Foote, “If you look at American history as the lifespan of a man, the Civil War represents the great trauma of our adolescence. It’s the sort of experience you never forget.” This conflict which raged from 1861-1865, killed at least a half million, maimed countless others; and traumatized families and devastated a humiliated South for generations. Now, as we are in the midst of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of this American tragedy, echoes of our blood-stained fratricidal conflict continue to reverberate throughout our politics and culture. Until today, there is still no agreement as to what this war was really about.

By way of disclosure, I grew up in the Northeastern US, where Calvinist roots still fed the public faith that our government had the ability to do good; and a middle class work ethic still prevails.  More specifically, we lived just outside of New York City, modeled on its original namesake New Amsterdam. From the start, this area served as an international commercial trading society; multi-ethnic, multi-religious and materialistic, where no one ethnic or religious group has ever been truly in charge.  This region has a profound tolerance for diversity, an unflinching commitment to freedom of inquiry and a great respect for intellectual achievement.

Most public schools taught that the American Civil War was fought to preserve the Union and free the slaves. While there was mention of the fact that factories and marketplaces of northern industrialists profited from commodities delivered by slave labor such as cotton, rice, indigo and tobacco, this was not the emphasis. While I am glad that the Northern forces won and our Union preserved, I remain saddened by the excesses and atrocities visited upon our southern brethren who held distinctly different values.

The culture of the Deep South was founded and developed, in a large part, by Barbados slave lords; and the region continued as a bastion of authoritarian white supremacy where democracy was the privilege of the few. Southern society was militarized, caste-structured and deferential to authority. There remains a deeply rooted, faith based distrust of secular education. This area was also the wellspring of African-American culture, whose obedience to their Caucasian overlords was enforced by state sponsored racism. As a schoolchild, my only exposure to a southern view of the war was of a beloved aunt taking me to see the epic production of, Gone With the Wind (1939) with its picturesque plantation-lands of gentility, romantic Cavaliers and cotton fields; masters and slaves. Southern aristocrats, isolated from the realities of war, hope for, glamorize and welcome their rebellion against the North. Any who dare to disagree are branded as cowards or traitors.  Mounted upon their magnificent steeds, Confederate soldiers ride off to war dressed in ribbons and silk sashes, after promising loved ones that they will soon return unharmed and victorious.

I still remember being alternately enthralled and then horrified by the epic cinematic sweep through the Old South, Civil War and the bitter aftermath of the Reconstruction Era. This three hour and forty-five minute version of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning (1,037 page) novel, (first published in 1936), was made in a time when segregation was law in the South and reality in the North. After the Bible,this novel is still the most popular book in America and the film is considered to be something of a national treasure. Gone With the Wind has re-appeared in a series of revivals featuring a gauzy patina of antebellum luxury, soon followed by a broken and bleeding Confederacy. A number of these now classic scenes, and memorable dialogues, have become an integral part our national psyche. Many of us remember them now, exactly as they were penned, by a novelist’s dream of a fantasized civilization … gone with the wind.

In our region it was generally agreed that the Civil War was long over, and brave Northern Yankees had won a moral and political triumph. This aspect of our history was most certainly not a topic of daily conversation. In the South however, where this conflict is known as, “The War of Northern Aggression”, regional and cultural perceptions are very different. Mark Twain’s contention that in the South, “The war is what “AD” is everywhere else; they date from it”, may be an exaggeration, but not by much . The “scourge of the Damn Yankees” is still a daily topic which lives on in their collective folk-memory. Un-reconciled Southerners maintain that the main thrust of this war was to establish Northern domination in commerce and culture. This also meant that Yankees intended to deny them their “way of life”, which happened to include owning an inferior race of slaves. African Americans take a dim view of this self-serving revisionism. From their point of view, the South fought for the freedom to enslave their fellow men, women and children.

These vastly differing views recently surfaced with a sharply focused view of Charleston, South Carolina’s December 19th, 2010, “Secession Ball”. This fancy dress gala and other events were organized to celebrate the glory days of secession, when eleven states declared their sovereignty under a banner of state’s rights and broke from the Union to form their rebel Confederacy. The Palmetto State was the first to secede declaring that “All are united now with few exceptions, in the belief that a stand must be made for African slavery or it’s forever lost”. Ninety percent of delegates attending this secession convention were slaveholders.

Even so, this inconvenient subject of slavery was dismissed during an hour long anniversary play organized by the sponsoring Confederate Heritage Trust in order to re-enact this convention of December 19, 1860. “Secession delegates”, their narrator concluded, “did not act for glory, riches, honor, or to preserve the institution of slavery. They acted for freedom alone”. At their glittering evening gala (for the price of a $100 a ticket, an invitation promised a joyous night of food and drink) many of these 300, all white attendees donned antebellum attire. As the liquor flowed, Cavalier planters and hoop skirted, corseted belles were inspired to join the chorus in a rousing rendition of the Confederate anthem; Dixie (a synonym for the Southern United States):

I wish I was in the Land of Cotton, Old times there are not forgotten…
Look away! Look away! Look away, Dixieland.

The overall mood of this “Look Away”, rose colored , denial-laced costume gala,  was festive, and defiant. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that the whole town of Charleston had travelled back in time. Outside of South Carolina’s commemorative ball the mood was anything but festive and there was no mistaking the time as any other than the 21st century. More than a hundred, mostly black protesters, carried signs saying, “Don’t celebrate Slavery and Terrorism” and, “It’s not About Heritage”. “Slavery is what you defend when you have a party, a celebration, get drunk, holler loud like a rebel, and talk about how you’re celebrating your heritage,” said National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader Reverend Nelson B. Rivers III. “No matter how you dress it up, it is still slavery.” I can only imagine what kind of celebration they would have if they had  won”, added Lonnie Rudolph, President of the South Carolina NAACP. As darkness fell, protesters lit candles and sang, We Shall Overcome, an old gospel song from the Deep South that became an anthem of the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968).

In writing about what she terms Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Joy Degrury Leary, describes our former slave based economy as a kind of African-American Holocaust involving an estimated 20 to 30 million blacks captured and sold into captivity.

The distance between these two realities underscores how divisive the topic of the Civil War has remained. These two sides can’t even agree on something as basic as the names of battles. Southerners tended to name battles after nearby towns such as Manassas, which the North refers to as Bull Run. One could imagine, and in fact it was the hope of many, that the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States could go a long way toward the healing of this long standing national wound. In his inaugural address Mr. Obama acknowledged the change his election represented, describing himself as the son of an African father, who less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a restaurant. After taking the oath of office on the same Bible used by President Abraham Lincoln at his first inaugural in 1861, President Obama emphasized his determination to unite Americans in meeting the challenges facing our nation. Obama has often referred to Lincoln, the great emancipator and nemesis of the Confederate South, as an ongoing source of inspiration.

The ascension of a black man to the White House was indeed historic in light of the fact that back-breaking black slave labor was used in its construction, twelve of his presidential predecessors held slaves and some brought them along as servants. Michelle Obama, our new First Lady has both white and Native American ancestors and is descended from South Carolina slaves. Mrs.Obama now has a staff of 26 attending to her needs. While Mr. Obama identifies himself as black, his mother was white. These mixed race people, and their children, taking up residence in the White House was received as an insult and a provocation by southern and other white supremacists.

Not surprisingly the Ku Klux Klan was swift to react. The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan ,  one of our nation’s earlier terrorist organizations, was founded during the aftermath of the Civil War as a white supremacist insurgency of former Confederate rebels. Best known for vigilante violence, hooded, white sheeted hangmen, disguised as ghosts, cried out for societal purging. These racist zealots launched terrorizing night rides through dark forests, bull whips cracking, eager to gather in local pastures for ceremonial burning of their hate filled crosses of warning. While in present time the media-savvy face of the contemporary incarnation of the Klan has changed, their organized bigotry has not. As long as this mindset exists, it will find some means of expression. This modern Klan has close ties with neo-Nazis and other radical right hate groups and they remain a political and societal force to be reckoned with. Membership in these groups has grown exponentially since the candidacy and election of Barack Obama and they maintain a bold presence on the internet.

Neo-Nazi, former Grand Wizard of the KKK , former Louisiana State Representative, and candidate in both Republican and Democratic presidential primaries; David Duke describes himself as a “nationalist” and “racial realist” who maintains that “all people have a basic human right to preserve their heritage”. In response to Obama’s meteoric rise in national politics, Duke rallied his supporters with an essay entitled, “A Black Flag for White America”:

“Obama is like that new big dark spot on your arm that finally sends you to the doctor for some real medicine….Obama is the pain that lets your body know that something is dreadfully wrong. Obama will let the American people know that there is a real cancer eating away at the heart of our country and Republican aspirin will not only not cure it, but masks the pain and makes you think that you don’t need radical surgery.”

For white supremacists, especially in the South and Southwest, having a black man in the White House represents an insult to their honor. The relationship between cultures of honor and violence is a subject in itself which is here limited to its relevance to the history of our country. According to Psychology Professor Richard Nisbett, the South radiates a “culture of honor” where any affront or sign of violence is to be avenged. A key aspect to this culture is the importance of the insult and necessity to respond to it. An insult implies that the target is weak enough to be bullied. Since a reputation for strength is the essence of a culture of honor, any individual who issues the insult must be forced to retract. If the instigator refuses he must be punished with violence or even death.  This is particularly important if an insult involves a woman. In Bill Bryson’s memoir of the Fifties he cites this following example of “southern honor” avenging a lady in segregated Alabama:

Mobile: The Alabama Supreme Court yesterday upheld a death sentence imposed on a Negro handyman, Jimmy Wilson, 55, for robbing Mrs.Estelle Barker of $ 1.95 in her home last year. Mrs. Barker is white.

Although robbery is a capital offence in Alabama, no one has been executed in the state for theft of less than $5. A court official suggested that the jury had been influenced by the fact that Mrs. Barker told the jury that Wilson had spoken to her in a disrespectful manner.

A spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called the death sentence “a sad blot on the nation” but said the organization is unable to aid the condemned man because it is barred in Alabama.
— The Des Moines Register, August 23, 1958

The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture is replete with accounts of feuds, duels, lynching, ambush and bushwhacking. The South evolved this way, Nisbett argues, because it was settled by a number of swashbuckling Cavaliers of noble and landed gentry who coveted “knightly medieval standards of manly honor and virtue”. Next to arrive was a wave of Scottish and Irish immigrant herders. These newcomers were tribal, pastoral and warlike who steadfastly upheld an ancient tradition that a man’s reputation is central to his economic survival.   During and after the Civil War many of these immigrant Celts spread out to settle the territories of the western frontier. Out there in the Old West, the culture of honor continued onward in a colorful guise of cowboy To this day, western regions maintain a strong attachment to all manner of firearms, deep distrust of Federal Government and widespread suspicion that Obama is planning to take away their guns. Bumper stickers such as “You can have my gun, bullets first” are fairly indicative of the regional mood. There are many similar messages out and around our national highways, “Gun control is not about guns, its about control”, “ ll those in favor of gun control raise both hands”, “Stick to your guns” and my personal favorite, “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands” . And yes, many of these people are willing to die rather than give up their guns.They don’t trust any centralized authority and “there might be another civil war.”

Lincoln’s “house divided” analogy was perfect for our country in a time of crisis. Our sixteenth president offered an image that evokes the psychic architecture of a nation as a collection of rooms under one roof. Yet, his profound commitment to an authentic, family-like, post-war reconciliation was not continued by his successors. If the United States of America is a family, it has come to resemble one that has resolved to never speak with much openness or honesty about the terrible things that have transpired within our divided house. On a recent trip through the South where Civil War culture was presented as “authentic”, journalist Peter Birkenhead observed that it was indeed, all very interesting, but not authentic. While their okra was outstanding, black-eyed peas delicious, and  hospitality gracious, he couldn’t help noticing that they just left out “the slavery part”. Upon reflection, he asks, “what is willful forgetting of slavery if not cover-up of a crime, an abdication of its victims and to ourselves?” In unresolved trauma, the past is always with us. The path toward historical resolution entails a cultural  necessity to acknowledge and integrate, the good, the bad and the mythic, if we are to be fully present with our current crises.
— A.St. Just: Trauma, Time,Space and Fractals (2012, pp.173-184)

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