[To say that the 2020 presidential election was a pivotal one in American history is to significantly under-state the case. But while in some clear ways this moment feels singular, this is of course far from our only such crucial election. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of others, leading up to this special weekend post on this year’s results.]
On our 21st century neo-Confederates, and how we can make sure this time is different.
From a certain perspective, the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in my hometown of Charlottesville could be said to have used that city’s Lee and Jackson statues as simply an excuse for far broader and deeper expressions of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi rage, hatred, and violence that have fueled the Trump cult and era. Yet the renewed emphasis throughout 2020 on the battle over Confederate monuments and memory has revealed the opposite: that these forces of 21st century exclusion are quite specifically the heirs to the Confederacy, and more exactly and crucially to the neo-Confederate movement that dominated the century and the nation between 1865 and the Civil Rights era and through which, as Heather Cox Richardson’s new book provocatively and to my mind accurately puts it, the South won the Civil War. It’s no coincidence that much of the best and most vital public scholarly AmericanStudies work published over the last year, from Richardson’s book to Adam Domby’s The False Cause to Kevin Levin’s Searching for Black Confederates to Nina Silber on Gone with the Wind and much more, has focused on the rise and persistence of Confederate memory in so many corners of American society and culture.
As I draft this post at 9:15am on Friday November 6th, and while knocking on every available piece of wood, it seems that the cult leader of this new neo-Confederate movement has been defeated by a challenger who made Charlottesville the literal and symbolic starting point for his presidential candidacy. But as armed cult members stage angry protests outside election centers (and target them in domestic terrorist plots), and that cult leader and his allies stoke their fires of victimhood and resentment (I’m not going to hyperlink to news stories about any of those evolving horrors, but we all know it’s happening), it’s worth remembering that it was precisely the narrative of a “Lost Cause” that fueled the late 19th century neo-Confederates—even, or perhaps especially, as they and their perspective quickly and thoroughly regained prominence and power on the national political scene. This movement managed to convince much of the rest of white America that it was a tragic victim in need of sympathy, forgiveness, and a welcoming embrace, all while constructing (literally and figuratively) monuments to and representations of a nation (not the Confederate States of America, but the United ones) defined by white supremacist exclusion. When they met resistance, especially from Americans of color, they targeted them with horrific racial terrorism that was at best ignored and at worst sanctioned by far too much of white America.
Those last two sentences could describe where we’ve been over the last few years and where we are in 2020 America without much revision. So what can we do to make sure that this moment doesn’t play out in those same destructive ways? You know me well enough to know that my first answer is that we need to better remember our collective histories, including those highlighted in every hyperlink in this post; until we can truly grapple with how white supremacist and neo-Confederate America was between 1865 and 1965 (and beyond), we can’t possibly respond to the parallel trends in our current moment. But more specifically, we need to remember, listen to, and amplify the voices of African Americans and Americans of color, both from across our histories and in our present moment. From Ida B. Wells to Nicole Hannah-Jones, W.E.B. Du Bois to Ibram Kendi, Fannie Lou Hamer to Stacey Abrams, A. Philip Randolph to John Lewis, Jack Johnson to Colin Kaepernick, Carter G. Woodson to the 1619 Project, and so so many more, these figures and voices, communities and stories reflect the worst of our history and identity but also model the best, exemplifying the inclusion and critical patriotism that have always resisted white supremacy and pushed toward a nation truly defined by liberty and justice for all. For the last 150 years we collectively failed to live up to that vision or hear and support those exemplary American voices—this time, let’s learn from the worst and be our best.
Special 10th anniversary post drops on Monday,
PS. What do you think?