How African-Americans can celebrate 'Confederate History Month'

OPINION - There are two ways that the black community and their progressive allies can use this controversy to move the ball forward on this issue...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

We have learned a lot about where we stand in terms of race relations and our collective memory since Governor Robert F. McDonnell issued a proclamation declaring April “Confederate History Month”:http:// in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The rush on the part of the nation’s leading editorial pages to condemn McDonnell’s edict as revisionist history shows that at least the elite media have reached a consensus that the southern states fought the Civil War to preserve the evils of slavery.

Since most of us who came of age in the twentieth century were often peddled the nonsense that the Civil War was about tariffs or some unspecified states’ rights during our K-12 education, this development represents a major shift in our public culture. The fact that Haley Barbour, the Republican governor of Mississippi, which has the largest black population in the United States, callously dismissed McDonnell’s critics as “trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t amount to diddly,” shows that we have much work to do to achieve a healthy collective memory of slavery and the Civil War.

There are two ways that the black community and their progressive allies can use this controversy to move the ball forward on this issue. First, we must apply what political scientists call the “politics of re-articulation” to the Confederate History Month.

Re-articulation is simply giving a political act or symbol a new meaning based on one’s own interests. Progressives can easily achieve this end by staging a remembrance ceremony in Richmond (and other state capitals where there are Confederate History Months) to honor the slaves whose toil provided the foundation for America’s rise to global supremacy.

Instead of the normal histrionics that accompany most modern political rallies in America, these ceremonies should be solemn affairs akin to the NAACP’s protests against lynching in the early twentieth century. Moreover, instead of speeches, these ceremonies should simply feature the testimonies provided to the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s by African-Americans who lived through the horrors of slavery. Imagine the moral and spiritual clarity that would fill Richmond as Americans of all races—rich, poor, famous, and unknown—took turns at the microphone reading the lived experiences of these survivors. Could men like Governor McDonnell or Governor Barbour deny the importance of slavery in the face of this testimony? Would they even continue to issue these proclamations if progressives showed up at the beginning or end of Confederate History Month to wreck their fantasies with the power of truth? The answer to both of these questions is likely a resounding no.

Bringing order to their own houses with regard to the celebration of Confederate symbols is another way that the black community and progressives can help the cause. One of the main arguments that Governor Barbour used to deflect criticism of Confederate History Month is the fact that Democrats also engage in this behavior. Consider, for example, the fact that at least four prominent black Americans—including the civil rights leaders Vernon Jordan and Andrew Young—are members of the Alfalfa Club, an elite Washington, DC social organization founded in 1913 to throw an annual dinner in honor of the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Because the club did not admit blacks until 1974, both President Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton refused the club’s invitations to address the annual gathering. President Obama broke with this boycott tradition when he addressed the group in January of 2009.

Of course, the black members of the Alfalfa Club and President Obama do not intend to glorify Confederate History. Indeed, President Obama acknowledged the tension surrounding his decision to break the boycott by telling a joke about how confused General Lee would be by the spectacle of a black president if he were in the room.

Despite their intentions, participation in such organizations definitely provides cover for men like Governor Barbour. It also shows that even our most enlightened leaders still do not guard the legacies of the slaves as jealously as they should. Can you imagine any respectable Jewish leader or mainstream politician attending a dinner or joining a club that organized initially to celebrate the birthday of General Erwin Rommel? Even 150 years from now, I suspect that such a gesture would be unthinkable. Until progressives begin to adopt similar standards, and stop whistling Dixie even when no one is watching, we will never stamp out Confederate History Month.