Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Encore: United Daughters of the Confederacy

Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, and he is the forty-fourth president; and much has been made of him being the first African-American president, a distinction trumpeted so much on his inauguration day that it sounded like an official title. I thought the iterations of the man's ethnicity were a sign of how simple rather than how sophisticated Americans are, but days ago, I was in a south Louisiana library that is getting rid of some of its magazine stock and I saw copies of the United Daughters of the Confederacy magazine being sold for ten cents, and I looked through some of them and bought two copies as historical items. The United Daughters of the Confederacy publications are dated 1972 and they are reminders of how recently racism has been a proud fact of southern life.

The members of United Daughters of the Confederacy were not only old women whose fathers or grandfathers were involved with the American civil war on the side of slavery, but individuals who were very young, and both female and male, in 1972 (there are photographs of members in the magazine; and, I wonder, where are they now?). The September 1972 United Daughters of the Confederacy magazine issue features a "Beliefs of Our Forefathers" article on page 29 under the rubric "Children of the Confederacy," a regular feature of the publication. In the article on confederate beliefs, the writer, who goes by her husband's name, and styles herself "historian and news editor," Mrs. Charles L. Deevers, discusses a confederate "catechism" that includes a defense of states' rights, saying that what led to the war between the states was "the disregard of those in power for the rights" of the southern states, the right to self-regulation. She, Mrs. Deevers, asserts that the "people of the south did not believe that slavery was right, and many felt that the south could work out their own problems and would eventually free the slaves because they were becoming the white man's burden." The writer discusses the economic concerns of slave holders (the economic loss if enslaved Africans were freed; and the high tariff proposed by northerners) and the "historian" Mrs. Deevers insists that enslaved Africans were well-cared for because they were valuable property ("They were well cared for because they were important to their owners") and goes on to note the "many stories" of kindness shown to Negroes; but, she says the Dred Scott decision "caused more trouble" and Abraham Lincoln's election "was the final blow." These unreconstructed views are interesting to read, though repellent; and I am reminded--thanks to Wayne Parent's book Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics, from LSU Press, 2004, that even after the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution were passed, the south resisted respecting Africans and African-Americans; and southern states passed laws to disenfranchise blacks and prevent voting and civic participation, an exercise of states' rights, matters that made necessary the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. (I recall, too, W.E. B. DuBois's commentary on the south's behavior after the civil war in The Souls of Black Folk.)

In the November 1972 issue of the United Daughters of the Confederacy magazine, in an article under the heading "Children of the Confederacy" on education by "historian" Mrs. Charles L. Deevers (page 27), the author Mrs. Deevers notes that there were no public schools in the south before the war, that planters' children were educated at home, that northern textbooks drove "intelligent" southern male teachers out of the teaching profession (just as later, southern boys were inclined to leave the classroom for the battlefied), that a southern or confederate teaching assocication was formed in 1862, that girls schools were expensive, etc. It is a rather feeble attempt to affirm white southern intelligence and education, the kind of thing that is rebutted with even small research or logical thinking. For instance, in the book The History of Southern Literature, edited by Rubin, Jackson, Moore, Simpson, and Young, from LSU Press, 1985, Lewis P. Simpson in "The Mind of the Antebellum South" and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld in "The Civil War and Authorship" discuss the limits of southern intellectual and literary life. The south did have artists, intellectuals, and scientists, but because of their irrationalism and pride--because of their commitment to refusing to register or respect the humanity of Africans, and the southern dependence on and defense of slavery--the antebellum south had few lasting or significant intellectual or literary accomplishments. It is a great example of how response to others can lead to self-betrayal: limiting the empathy and imagination with which we view others can lead to intellectual limits that curtail what we can think and do.

It was just a few years after 1972, when Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, an event I watched with my class: and one of the students, a southern white boy, said something on the order of, "Well, we have the niggers to thank for that." (It may have been the same white boy who wrote me, just weeks ago, wanting to get in touch with me, his old classmate. I wonder sometimes, more and more, if other people do not remember the things that I recall.)

Politics, the struggle over resources and values, a struggle that determines the social order, is a realm of compromise and reconciliation at its best; and Barack Obama is a figure of reconciliation. Obviously the election of Barack Obama is a sign of enlightenment, though it does not augur a perfect age or a perfect people: for one thing, the United Daughters of the Confederacy remains an active group, with an online presence, and its current leader states, "I am a member of The United Daughters of the Confederacy because I feel it would greatly please my ancestor to know that I am a member. It would please him to know that I appreciate what he did and delight his soldier love to know that I do not consider the cause which he held so dear to be lost or forgotten."

(Original Post: January 29, 2009)