Harris-Perry: Remnants of Civil War era still inform U.S. politics today


Melissa Harris-Perry responds to audience questions after her lecture on Friday. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Josh Cooper | Staff Writer

Author, professor and columnist Melissa Harris-Perry said there is much Americans can learn from history.

“History is, in many ways, the collective project of making meaning out of the events of the past,” Harris-Perry said. “But history is also much more than an academic exercise.”

Her lecture focused on what current generations can glean from history and how historical events, specifically attitudes in the decades surrounding the Civil War, still have relevance in today’s socio-political world.

She said four main realities emerged from the Civil War era that live on in various forms: anxieties about federalism, Confederate nostalgia, the legacy of Reconstruction and how it affected black voting, and the lingering racial anxieties of the South.

Federalism, she said, is “the core Civil War moment that we are continuing to work with.”

Harris-Perry said the issue of federalism and the issue of slavery both had bearing on the Civil War.

“It is impossible to suggest that the Civil War is only about one of these issues,” she said. “It is, obviously, at all times, both about the question of intergenerational human chattel bondage and about the relative autonomy of the American states relative to the national government.”

The two moments that bring about enough stress to tear the union apart, she said, were the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed enslavers to pursue former slaves into free states to return them to servitude, and the Compromise of 1850, which allowed new states to enter the union as either slave or free states.

She said these two issues were at the heart of the debate about federalism, a debate that remains unresolved.

“One might suggest that the bloody battles of the Civil War resolved these questions of 1850 … once and for all,” Harris-Perry said. “That once Lincoln and the Union win, once the Union is preserved, that it is clear that we have established the primacy of the federal government. But it would be a mistake to think that those questions were resolved with the final truce.”

The recent debt ceiling debate, she said, is an example of how this debate lives on. The Civil War was among the first times the federal government took on massive debt and imposed income taxes. Lincoln was willing to go into debt and impose income taxes to preserve the Union, she said, and did not see taxes and debt as inherently evil. The debt ceiling debate, she said, is centered around these issues of debt and taxation.

The question of Confederate nostalgia is less political and more social, Harris-Perry said. A recent example of this, she said, came when Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell proclaimed April “Confederate History Month.” He called for Virginians to “understand the sacrifices of Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”

“By focusing exclusively on these three categories,” Harris-Perry said, “the governor refuses to acknowledge the existence of black people in the South. The vast majority of African-Americans contributed to the Confederate effort through violently coerced, unpaid labor that was part and parcel of the experience of dehumanizing, totalizing intergenerational bondage.”

She said politics isn’t the only social sphere in which this Confederate nostalgia is presently seen. She says the troubling aspect of Confederate nostalgia is the willingness to allow a revisionist history about secession to be part of our American understanding.

American films, for example, allowed former Confederates to tell the stories of the past of slavery in a way that recognized them as the center of the stories, she said. Films like “Gone with the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation” affect our understanding of what pre-Civil War America was about, particularly in the South. They portray it as a simpler time, she said — a time “when black women made us pancakes.”

“Mammy and her various formations, such as Aunt Jemima, remain Madison Avenue’s most powerful marketing tool in all of history — her ability to sell domestic products by recalling a time when the white domestic sphere was undergirded by faithful black women who willingly contributed their near magical capacities to ensure that white households… were supported,” Harris-Perry said.

The Reconstruction period had a lasting impact on black voting, she said. During the Reconstruction, former slaves at once had the ability to hold office.

She made the distinction between descriptive and substantive representations of African-Americans in government.

“There is a deep and profound yearning among people of color and other marginalized individuals, not only for substantive representation of political interest but also for demographic and descriptive representation,” she said.

President Barack Obama, she said, is facing the criticism from some that say his physical blackness is overwhelming his actual policy orientation toward black communities.

Finally, she said, the Civil War continues to give us a legacy for white racial politics. Obama’s election, she said, exposed profound anxieties about American citizenship and its intersection with marginal identities.

“When I teach race and American politics,” she said. “the first thing I do is say to my classroom, ‘Race is a social construction. It is not real.’”

The evidence that race is a social construct came during the 2008 presidential election. First, Harris-Perry said, the pundits said Obama was “not black enough.” Then the controversy over Jeremiah Wright occurred, and he was portrayed as “way too black.”

Following that, she said, the anxiety shifted to a question of whether or not Obama was a “secret Muslim,” a category Harris-Perry said does not exist. Then the “birther movement” was about contending that whatever he was, “he just wasn’t American,” she said.

“This was, for me, the moment that reminded us that at the core of Reconstruction was the definition of American citizenship,” Harris-Perry said. “It was about what it meant to share power with the formerly enslaved.”

Ultimately, we must engage our current political sphere with an accurate view of history, she said.

“To remember that our country comes from somewhere is a critical moment in us engaging in this political moment with more history,” she said.

Today’s lecture by Harris-Perry was the final 10:45 a.m. Amphitheater lecture of the season. Chautauqua President Tom Becker reflected on the occasion before Harris-Perry took to the lectern.

“This is always bittersweet for me, the final 10:45 lecture of the season. You think, Oh my God, it just went by so fast,” Becker said. “And yet, if it lasts a day longer, I’ll die.”

Q: You mentioned Governor McDonnell and the celebration of the secession period. Within a fairly short period of time, because of the work of Ed Ayers at the University of Richmond, and others, McDonnell issued an apology for that statement. I guess my question to you is, given all the misstatements of fact and this sort of rosy recollection, are there enough players at play, and is there enough light on them that there is a response to these things that has effective traction in the public consciousness?

A: This goes back to my point about the ways in which this moment is different and needs to be celebrated and recognized as different, even as we remain in struggle around these questions. The fact that we are appalled by it, the fact that it makes national news in a way that leads so many Americans to pause and say, “Wait a minute, it is inappropriate for us to talk about fighting for the Confederacy as an equally patriotic choice as fighting for the Union?” It’s inappropriate to erase the lives of black Americans or to pretend that slavery was not a part of this. I want to always be careful about celebrating resistance in and of itself, because the resistance is there as a requirement over and against the challenges, but I do think that we are clearly in a very different sort of moment of empowerment now than we would have previously seen. That said, elections matter, and although a news story like McDonnell’s April Confederate History Month gets exposed, the fact is that the sort of daily grindings of the general assembly often don’t, and those mindsets are not exclusively cultural. They have very, very real policy implications that we often don’t pay as much attention to, so the election of someone like McDonnell, the revelation of that sort of Confederate nostalgia in McDonnell’s own perspective, then ends up having an impact in the sorts of policies that govern a state like the commonwealth.

Q: Can you respond on why the South perpetuates the Civil War nostalgia, i.e. keeps fighting the Civil War? It seems to this person, as a native New Yorker who’s adapted the Wouth as their home, that this is what’s going on.

A: A couple of things. It’s definitely not just the South. I mean, the South has an engagement with it that is more both imminent and more visceral. When you say, “the war” or “after the war” in most places, you mean World War II, but when you say “the war” or “after the war” in many parts of the South, you are referring to the Civil War. That’s sort of part of the cultural rhythm of the space. I have been most frightened when I have seen the Stars and Bars, the Rebel Flag, displayed in Indiana and in downstate Illinois, actually more afraid when I see it there than when I see it in South Carolina, in part because in Illinois or in Indiana, because it isn’t part of any historic moment of specificity; it can only be about a kind of aggressive, racial statement. When my Civil Rights husband is wearing it, he is wearing it with all kinds of mixed, difficult, messy meanings, but when it’s flying out of a Notre Dame dorm room, then it just really feels like it’s about one thing. The sense for me of the need of the South to think of the Confederacy as an equally patriotic choice, I believe, is about shame. Post-World War II Germany is a fascinating study in how a defeated nation with a moral and ethical dilemma addresses the problem of national shame. We were in Germany during the World Cup last year, and people kept apologizing to my husband and to me for flying the German flag. They were saying, “We don’t normally behave this way. We don’t normally fly the German flag this way. Don’t take it as an act of aggressive nationalism. It’s just about the World Cup.” Of course, Americans are pretty aggressive flag wavers and USA chanters and that sort of thing, so I hadn’t noticed it as troubling or problematic, but for my German hosts, there was still a sense of what it meant to be shrouded in a kind of national German shame in a post-Holocaust, post-World War II Europe. Part of the way that the defeated Confederacy dealt with its collective shame around the loss of that war was to revise and rewrite that history as though they had in fact not lost it — or if they had lost it, that it was a great injustice to have lost the war. It’s part of why slavery gets written out of the story, because you don’t want to say, “It’s really too bad that you’re not my slave anymore.” Instead, what you say is, “It’s really too bad that we no longer have this place where we can celebrate this particular culture.” For me, it’s about a profoundly unresolved regional shaming, and it’s a regional shaming that, by the way, continues repeatedly. We keep shaming the South. It’s one of the reasons that I have started the new center in the South is this idea that every meaningful political activity occurs between D.C. and Boston, and if you can’t — if it’s west of the Hudson, it might as well be California. If it’s south of the Mason-Dixon, it might as well be Brazil. Part of it is that we consistently behave as though the only backwardness is occurring in the South, even as, for example, Wisconsin becomes the center of labor stripping rights. But we don’t talk about that as a Midwest problem. “What’s wrong with those Midwesterners? Why can’t they get their culture together?” We do certainly continue to shame the South in that way.

Q: There are several questions having to do with Hayes-Tilden, and basically what they’re all asking is, could you familiarize people more with what that compromise was about?

A: Sure. I wasn’t sure how much the real historians had done on this, so I glossed it a bit. From the end of the Civil War until the election of 1876, the Union armies were occupying the former Confederate states. In their occupation of the former Confederate states, they were ensuring that black citizenship was protected; that black men could vote; that black men could hold office; that some nominal levels of integration were beginning to occur. Even some integrated populist political movements were beginning to occur in the late 1860s and early 1870s, because of course there were many, many, many white, poor farm workers who did not benefit from the system of slavery, and so in a new context of freedom, begin to imagine economic solidarity with formerly enslaved people. In 1876, you had basically something very equivalent to the Bush-Gore election of 2000. A contested election with the question of who had truly won this. Had the Republican won it, or had the Democrat won it? Of course, in this case, the Democrat is the party of the Confederacy. The Republican Party made a choice at that point to compromise and allow that as long as their candidate, Hayes, was allowed to accept the U.S. presidency, they would do so under the condition of ending reconstruction in the South. In this moment of contestation in the American presidency, the Republican Party cut a deal, and the deal was, let Hayes take the White House, and Hayes will withdraw Union troops from the U.S. South and let you return basically to a state of Jim Crow. From 1877 on, once Hayes took the White House, the end of reconstruction, the end of that project of the Union armies in the South — you begin to see the imposition of Jim Crow, so Jim Crow doesn’t start in the 1860s. It doesn’t start in the 1870s. It doesn’t even really quite start in the 1880s. It’s really in the 1890s that we begin to see the imposition of Jim Crow laws of these local, former Confederate states pushing to see how far we can go. How far will the federal government let us go in rolling back the voting rights and the economic rights of these new black citizens? It’s why, of course, you end up with Plessy v. Ferguson at the very turn of the 20th century defining “separate but equal,” which accelerates this process of Jim Crow so that by 1905, in most of the U.S. South, you have a fully segregated-by-law system that does not get overturned, at least in the courts, until the 1950s — and in practice, really until the late 1960s.

Q: I don’t know how you do this briefly, but here you go: Property and voting rights for women, black and white, took a back seat to abolition in the Civil War, and understandably so, but women played a major role in the anti-slavery movement as Frederick Douglass did in the women’s rights movement. How do women’s rights and civil rights interact historically and politically?

A: It’s so interesting even to hear the questions phrased in quite that way. I’ve talked a bit about the DuBois and double consciousness between blackness and Americanness, but there is also the fact that DuBois never imagined the complications of gender overlaid across those other identities and rarely even thought very much about class or geography or those questions. That’s not completely fair, but in souls of black folks, I guess I’d say a few things. No one’s hands are entirely clean on the question of the intersection between — and I’m going to phrase it this way — white women’s rights and black rights. I don’t want to call it civil rights, because I think civil rights is the broad category that is everybody. LGBT rights are civil rights because civil rights are rights about who we are as citizens under the law. Women’s rights are civil rights. It’s just that the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century sort of created a statement where we think civil rights focuses exclusively on race. But at every point — I think this goes back to my point about the Federalist Papers — we are engaged in political processes. They are not pure ideological movements, where coming forth from the minds of good people are good policies. At every point, white women, in their engagement for suffrage, were trying to think about the arguments they needed to make in order to get suffrage. There were points at which they made profoundly troubling racial arguments and racist arguments in their efforts for suffrage, saying, “How dare you give the vote to these beasts of burden and not to your daughters and wives?” Sort of a reasonable argument, but troubling, right? Similarly, those who were fighting for universal male suffrage often made those arguments in language that, on the one hand, we wanted the extension of that universal male suffrage, but was made in these clearly anti-woman language around suffrage. This story, about how the 15th Amendment becomes an amendment just to extend universal male suffrage and not women’s suffrage, is also reflected in our current politics around the painful process around the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama primary fight, and the ways in which the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama primary fight forces us to ask, “Who’s first?” “Whose turn is it?” “Who’s next?” We just never really imagine, let’s just get rid of all the white guys. How about no more turns for them? No more turns. There’s consistently a notion that there are these limited resources that all the marginal groups have to battle together. I’ll make a very quick point about the Supreme Court here. Please tell me Justice O’Connor has gone. I do a little thought experiment with my students, and we were doing this in the context of the presidency. When I was doing radio this morning, I was asked if I’d ever thought there was a black president, and I said, “I don’t really like the presidency that much. It’s just not a very powerful office, so I hadn’t really ever dreamed of a black president.” I got excited about it, but it wasn’t something I was striving for. My fantasy is around the Supreme Court, and here’s my Supreme Court fantasy, and I just want you to — because it will tell you a bit about where our limitations on imagining citizenship are. I just want you to remember that, of course, the Supreme Court operates on a basis of, decisions now always have to reflect back on previous decisions. That’s the fundamental theory of the Court, which means that when we think about the Court, we can’t think about it in its contemporary moment, in its snapshot. The Court is always the entire Court, going all the way back to the beginning forward. That is the Court. It is the accumulation of all of those decisions, so if we were to think about gender parity on the Court, gender parity cannot be achieved by half the Court being female. Gender parity would have to be the entire Court being female for some hundred-plus years, and I make no assumption that an all-woman court would have any particular ideological viewpoint. Let me be really clear. It’s not that that would therefore create Progressivism or something. No. Women are as diverse as men in their interpretations, but the very idea that we could leave women alone in a room with no grown-ups to make decisions about the Constitution — but I’m going to push you, because I’m not going to allow you to leave this Court in your mind just as a court of all women. I want you to make every woman on that court black and Latino. I want you, in your head, to imagine what it would mean for 100 years to have a court of exclusively women of color, and then I want you to make all those women gay, and if that seems like the craziest, nuttiest, wackiest thing you’ve heard, I want you to remember that our current Constitutional interpretations rest and reside on the choices made by all white, male, presumably heterosexual, courts. That is exactly, in fact, precisely the America that we live in, and our inability to do anything other than imagine that as sort of a funny thought experiment is indicative of the fact that we are not quite prepared to say that queer women of color, for example, are equally capable of exercising citizenship without oversight.

—Transcribed by Suzi Starheim