By John Hennessy. (On this blog we do a lot of history, but also explore some issues of public history. This is the latter–something of a follow-up to an op-ed piece I did in the Free Lance Star last weekend, which you can find here):

Not long ago I did a program in Spotsylvania County on the 1862 exodus to freedom in the Fredericksburg area, something we have written about a good deal. The event was at the new John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania County, a great exhibition dedicated to the history of African-Americans in Spotsylvania. We had a good crowd–60-70 people, about half black, half white.

The program was fine enough, but what occurred afterwards dropped jaws all around. I can’t explain how it happened, but the Q&A turned into a public forum on the place of the Civil War in our culture, and specifically how African-Americans view the War and slavery. It was as open an exchange about history among people with different backgrounds as I have ever seen. If we could bottle it and repeat it a thousands times, we’d make a difference in the world…

There were harsh, honest words. One man in particular declared that he viewed everything associated with the Confederacy as “toxic.” Another suggested that the Civil War has been and is simply a popular vehicle for helping to maintain white supremacy in America. Others pitched in–politely and productively, though often intensely–and through the room swirled a current of feeling that everyone who was there will remember the rest of their lives.

It wasn’t that everyone agreed; it was that everyone understood from whence other opinions came.

In public history we deal with lots of contrasting ideas and interpretations, for the Civil War was clearly the most complex event in our nation’s history. But every once in a while, from the swirl emerges some clarity–and so it was for me on this day.

I have written fairly extensively about the distinction between personal motivation and national purpose, and how we as a nation have, when it comes to the Civil War, often merged the two.

As these people spoke that day in Spotsylvania (the majority of the speakers African-Americans), the source of the chasm that exists between how African-Americans view the war (mostly as it relates to popular culture and politics) and how many white Southerners see it emerged. Virtually every person in that room who rose to speak saw of the Confederacy purely in terms of its national purpose–most prominently, its avowed intent (embodied in its constitution) to perpetuate a white supremacist nation that sustained slavery.

Many white Americans–with their intensely personal connection to the war and the Confederacy–speak of the war in terms of the personal motivation of participants (sometimes imperfectly understood), often their ancestors. To those Americans the war is defined not by national purpose, but by personal motivation.

And therein lies the great American chasm as it relates to the Civil War.

To many people in attendance, efforts to deny or redefine the national purpose of the Confederacy in order to reflect more positively on an ancestor or the South is simply offensive, and so the war evokes no connection or inspiration, only hostility.

 As I have written elsewhere, at least some African-Americans view the National Park Service as party to an ongoing “celebration” of the war that only glorifies the Confederacy and its heroes. Hence, African-Americans stay away from the sites the NPS manages.

I think we can all “get” white Americans’ personal connection to the Civil War, and we “get” their discomfort with talking about the issues that surrounded it, and we can even understand why some (spanning generations) would try to redefine the war to something far simpler and neater than it in fact was (though we may not agree). But it would be impossible to be at John J. Wright that day and not also “get” why African-Americans see the war (and its heroes and symbols) so differently–through the lens of national purpose–and why they find the war’s and the Confederacy’s place in American culture today so troubling.

For both public historians and the nation at large, this chasm represents a great challenge.

It also emerged in our discussion that there is serious collateral damage amidst all this: in disconnecting from the Civil War, the African-American community has also separated itself from the history and evolution of slavery–and freedom. The nature of slavery has, of course, been a pawn in the larger effort to redefine the Confederacy–the images of the “happy slave,” the myth of black Confederate soldiers, the relentless effort to minimize slavery’s harshness. Add to that the historical hesitancy of public history sites to talk about slavery, and we are left with a monolithic view that in subtle ways continues to degrade the victims of slavery and does nothing to inspire modern Americans to connect with the story.

In fact, of course, the history of slavery is in part the history of slaves’ struggle for freedom, be it within the bonds of slavery or absolute freedom beyond. Historians have shown that this is a rich, textured story, fraught with both ugliness and inspiration. By disconnecting from that story–by throwing the story of slavery out along with the legacy of the Civil War, and by seeing slaves as simply the recipients of freedom rather than participants in its creation–have we as Americans done a profound historical injustice to those who struggled so mightily for generations to endure, change, or end bondage in our nation?

Isn’t it time to stop forgetting and start remembering?