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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August 23, 2011: Virginia, Cradle of AmericanStudies

Yes, that’s literally true, as this AmericanStudier was cradled in the warm embrace of Central Virginia throughout his young life. But here are five additional reasons, one per post-contact century, why Virginia exemplifies America at its complex best (I could have easily gone for the worst, but what kind of way would that be to start a vacation?):
1)      Bacon’s Rebellion (1676): Back in the dark ages when I took high school American history, this late 17th century revolt was portrayed as a distant predecessor to the Revolution; now, as the essay at the first link notes, scholars see it more as a power struggle between equally elite Virginia blue blood types. But whatever the causes or rationales, one thing has always been clear: the rebellion itself represented an unprecedented collaboration between poor whites (many of them indentured servants) and African Americans, illustrating just how racially interconnected this seemingly divided state has always been.
2)      Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in 18th Century Virginia (1988): Bacon’s Rebellion might seem to be an isolated and extreme situation, but Sobel argues that when it comes to racial interconnectedness, it was anything but; in this book, one of the most exciting and inspiring works of AmericanStudies I’ve ever read, she lays out in impressive and convincing detail how much these distinct but equally American cultures influenced each other, and how much every aspect of 18th century Virginian life—from architecture to spirituality, work to worldview—was the result of those mutual influences.
3)      The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831): The 1831 Southampton slave revolt led by Turner was one of the bloodiest and most divisive moments in the decades before the Civil War, and thus, despite its justifiable causes, would to my mind belong on a worst-of list. The “Confession” apparently narrated by Turner to a local white lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, from the prison where he was awaiting his execution, is no less fraught with racial tensions and conflicts, not least because it’s impossible to know just how much of the text’s striking voice is really Turner’s and how much was altered in some way by Gray. But that complex and confusing authorship does not elide the power nor the pathos of Turner’s perspective—and if anything, it yields a text that extends Sobel to illustrate that even for the worst of Virginian history and community it was by this time impossible to separate white from black with any certainty.
4)      William Styron, Confessions of Nat Turner (1967): I blogged about Styron’s novel, and particularly its striking and hugely controversial first-person narration by a fictionalized Nat Turner, here, and won’t restate those thoughts. While I find many of the direct critiques of the novel to be as fictionalized as anything within it, I certainly know of a great many AmericanStudiers whose opinions I deeply respect who feel similarly inclined to criticize the novel on many levels. But for me, as I wrote in that earlier post, the fact that a Virginian novelist chose to write this novel during the 1960s, and even more so the fact that he tried to construct a version of Turner’s voice for his narration, is an inspiring and profoundly American move; whatever we think about the novel that resulted, I believe we can and must agree that such cross-cultural sympathies and connections are worth our respect.
5)      Governor McDonnell’s Apology (2010): As will surprise precisely no one, I wasn’t a fan of Republican Governor Robert McDonnell from the jump, and wasn’t at all surprised when his April 2010 proclamation in honor of Civil War in Virginia (aka Confederate History) Month made no mention whatsoever of slavery. But I will admit to being both surprised and impressed when, admittedly after a week or so of angry responses and protests, McDonnell issued a revised proclamation apologizing for the elision. Most impressive to me was that McDonnell did not just apologize to “anyone I may have offended” or the like—he explicitly noted that slavery “led to the Civil War” (far from a given in much of the right’s recent historical revisionism). Whatever the motives or purposes of this second statement, it was, as former Governor Doug Wilder put it, the right thing to do, and the way that McDonnell did it added at least a bit of important and accurate historical context into what could be seen as simply a political controversy. Can’t argue with that!
Virginia, here we come, making some new 21st century memories for the next generation of AmericanStudiers! More tomorrow, my next piece,
PS. Six links to start with:
1)      National Park Service piece on Bacon’s Rebellion:
3)      Full text of The Confessions of Nat Turner (multiple pages):
4)      Styron and his novel at the century’s end:
6)      OPEN: Any Virginia moments you’d add?

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