The Arrogance of Now

Each year I prepared for two major wars, the finale if you will, of second semester US History. With a combined sense of dread, and anticipation, I led the kids through the causes, and progression of the Civil War (with 10th graders), and WWII (with my Juniors). 

A lifetime of study in these eras, especially Antebellum America, tells an anxious story, as two passionate belief systems came to blows. Sophomores learned that our nation, a democracy born in such promise, plunged into the abyss over America’s original sin, slavery.

Meanwhile, for Juniors, the failures of the uneasy peace that followed WWI shaped a broader corrosion. The world after 1919 disintegrated into deadly factions, underscored by exaggerated entitlement, racial hate, and lust for revenge.

Much like America’s 19th Century plunge into the breach, the 20th Century also debased human life, sliding into scapegoating, unthinkable cruelty, and massacre. This record is hard to face, let alone study. 

Real monsters masqueraded as heads of state; Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and the War Lords of Japan. All, to varying degrees, convinced regular people that the “worth” of others was suspect, and targeting civilians an acceptable strategy. Yet, as awful as both conflicts were, it’s hard not to stare, and to hopefully recognize the signs when hate again emerges as a justification for horror.

The heresy of exceptionalism, normalizing violence on the vulnerable, and extremism, unleashed evil on the world. Andersonville Prison, Fort Pillow Massacre, the Rape of Nanking, Bataan, the Warsaw Ghetto, and death camps. More than one a student wondered aloud, how could that happen?

In increments.

These signs are clear again. Those same pre-conditions have resurfaced, right now, here in our communities, states, and nation. 

A white nationalist parade in Charlotte that kills one, where there were “good people on both sides.” Normalized daily murders of people of color, and incendiary rhetoric that ends with an attack on the US Capitol, killing five. All offenses excused and minimized by a once great political party, that has forsaken its moral underpinnings. 

The only difference between the Proud Boys and the Brown Shirts is the Brown Shirts didn’t wear Carhartt and flannel.

This endless playlist has looped over repeatedly, cursed by the “blind arrogance of now.” But dear reader, now is then, and deluded people do not change with time. The descent into barbarity is more predictable than exceptional. 

When reasonable folks are manipulated by the chorus of the Big Lie, the era doesn’t matter. Society inevitably falls into depravity.   

Gail Chumbley is a career history educator, and author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Mixed Emotions

This is a reprint of an earlier post.

th

It’s been uncomfortable to watch the media coverage from Louisiana about the removal of General Robert E Lee’s statue in New Orleans. As a life-long student of the Civil War the idea of removing reminders of our nation’s past somehow feels misguided. At the same time, with a strong background in African American history, I fully grasp the righteous indignation of having to see that relic where I live and work. Robert E. Lee’s prominence as the Confederate commander, and the South’s aim to make war rather than risk Yankee abolitionism places the General right in the crosshairs of modern sensibilities. Still, appropriating the past to wage modern political warfare feels equally amiss.

Robert Edward Lee was a consummate gentlemen, a Virginia Cavalier of the highest order. So reserved and deliberate in his career was Lee, that he is one of the few cadets who graduated West Point without a single demerit. Married to a descendent of George and Martha Washington, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, Lee added stature to his already esteemed pedigree. (The Lee-Custis Mansion, “Arlington House” is situated at the top of Arlington National Cemetery. And yes, this General was a slave holder, however he appears to have found the institution distasteful).

When hostilities opened in April of 1861, the War Department tapped Lee first to lead Union forces, so prized were his leadership qualities. But the General declined, stating he could never fire a gun in anger against his fellow countryman, meaning Virginians.

On the battlefield Lee was tough to whip, but he also wasn’t perfect, despite his army’s thinking him so. Eventually, after four years of bloody fighting, low on fighting men and supplies–facing insurmountable odds against General Grant, the Confederate Commander surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.

Meeting Lee face-to-face for the first time to negotiate surrender terms, Ulysses Grant became a little star-struck himself in the presence of the General, blurting out something about seeing Lee once during the Mexican War.

After speaking with General Grant, in a letter addressed to his surrendering troops Lee instructed, By the terms of the agreement Officers and men can return to their homes. . .

But Robert E. Lee’s story doesn’t end there.

Despite outraged Northern cries to arrest and jail all Confederate leaders, no one had the nerve to apprehend Lee. And that’s saying a lot considering the hysteria following Lincoln’s assassination, and assassin John Wilkes Booth’s Southern roots. The former general remained a free man, taking an administrative position at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. It was in Lexington that exhausted Lee died in 1870, and was  buried.

Robert E. Lee led by example, consciously moving on with his life after the surrender at Appomattox. He had performed his duty, as he saw it, and when it was no longer feasible, acquiesced. He was a man of honor. And from what I have learned regarding General Lee, he would have no problem with the removal of a statue he never wanted. Moreover, I don’t believe he would have any patience with the vulgar extremists usurping his name and reputation for their hateful agenda.

This current controversy isn’t about Robert E Lee at all. It’s about America in 2017.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available on Amazon.

We All Knew

th

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war . . . .If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due . . .Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, March 4, 1865

Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the early 19th Century. Both men, devout followers of the Methodist faith, often found personal worship disrupted by white parishioners, bent on limiting black presence and participation. Enduring decades of bullying by white clergy, these men and their followers established their own church in Philadelphia, “Mother Bethel.” At this site Allen and Jones, with their congregation witnessed the racial turbulence of the antebellum period, with the rise of Abolitionism, and finally culminating in bloody Civil War.

Richard Allen and his congregation were forced to draw away from the established Church because they longed for freedom of worship. And though this schism seems small today, the move toward religious independence indicated the real need for black equality in all spheres of life, but especially in this case of spirituality. “Mother Bethel,” and many more churches like it supplied the moral courage to risk all in the pursuit of public justice.

It was from African-American Churches, (all rooted in rejection by white congregations) that real advances began. Richard Allen and the AME is one example. But Dr. King provided the same succor for the next social-political push in the Civil Rights era of the 1950-1960’s. Faith and song propelled this hopeful movement forward, lead by blacks for blacks.Though a Lutheran, Rosa Parks was approached by the leaders of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to ride that bus in Montgomery and not be moved.

The African-American church was the anchor feeding the spirit of justice.

But yesterday a serpent was welcomed (with love) in to this timeless sanctuary of solace. This lost soul, channeling the rage of hundreds of years of hate, sprayed deadly venom to try and kill the timeless promise of hope. The message registered–we know hate still runs riot among the fearful. The church is no safe place from the legacy of ignorance and racism in America.

President Lincoln grasped that truth–slavery presented the worst kind of sin, a sin of such magnitude that oceans couldn’t wash America clean. He states in his Second Inaugural that “we all somehow knew.” And we indeed do know that racism is the defect that turns us into monsters. The president implored Americans to accept that racial conflict is our nation’s Achilles Heel, and it won’t go away without courageous action.

We must deal with inequality on a national level, a state level, and each in our own hearts. White and Black. Folks, the strife will not go away on it’s own–it never has.

And, yeah, maybe Rachel Dolezal has identity issues, maybe she acted the fool in front of us all. But I would suggest that we could all make a little effort to generate some empathy for the guy next to us.

If you enjoyed this message, please share.

Gail Chumbley is a historian and author of River of January