In Laying Claim: African American Cultural Memory and Southern Identity, Patricia Davis identifies the Civil War as the central narrative around which official depictions of southern culture have been defined. Because that narrative largely excluded African American points of view, the resulting southern identity was monolithically white. Davis traces how the increasing participation of black public voices in the realms of Civil War memorybattlefields, museums, online communitieshas dispelled the mirage of “southernness” as a stolid cairn of white culture and has begun to create a more fluid sense of southernness that welcomes contributions by all of the region’s peoples. Laying Claim offers insightful and penetrating examinations of African American participation in Civil War reenactments; the role of black history museums in enriching representations of the Civil War era with more varied interpretations; and the internet as a forum within which participants exchange and create historical narratives that offer alternatives to unquestioned and dominant public memories. From this evolving cultural landscape, Davis demonstrates how simplistic caricatures of African American experiences are giving way to more authentic, expansive, and inclusive interpretations of southernness. As a case-study and example of change, Davis cites the evolution of depictions of life at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Where visitors to the site once encountered narratives that repeated the stylized myth of Monticello as a genteel idyll, modern accounts of Jefferson’s day offer a holistic, inclusive, and increasingly honest view of Monticello as the residents on every rung of the social ladder experienced it. Contemporary violence and attacks about or inspired by the causes, outcomes, and symbols of the Civil War, even one hundred and fifty years after its end, add urgency to Davis’s argument that the control and creation of public memories of that war is an issue of concern not only to scholars but all Americans. Her hopeful examination of African American participation in public memory illuminates paths by which this enduring ideological impasse may find resolutions.
About the Author
Patricia G. Davis is an assistant professor of communication at Georgia State University.
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African American Cultural Memory and Southern Identity
By Patricia G. Davis
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2016 Patricia G. Davis
All rights reserved.
Ghosts of Nat Turner
African American Civil War Reenactment and the Performance of Historical Agency, Citizenship, and Masculinity
The American Negroes are the only people in the history of the world ... that ever became free without any effort of their own. ... [The Civil War] was not their business. ... They twanged banjos around railroad stations, sang melodious spirituals, and believed that some Yankee would soon come along and give each of them forty acres and a mule.
W. E. Woodward, Meet General Grant, 1928
[Performance] ruptures and rattles and revises history; it challenges the easy composure of history under the sign of objectivity. It discomposes history as myth, making of it a scene awaiting intervention by the performing subject.
Della Pollock, "Making History Go," in Exceptional Spaces: Essays in Performance and History, 27
"This whole thing is mind-blowing, I knew nothing of this. ... If I'd have known this, it would've taken away the inevitability that I was gonna be nothing."
Comedian Chris Rock, upon learning of an ancestor who fought for the Union during the Civil War, as seen on the PBS series Finding Your Roots.
The eleventh annual reenactment of the battle of Fort Pocahontas — held in Charles City County, Virginia — displayed most of the elements of a traditional Civil War reenactment: a large, well-maintained battlefield, a sealed-off area under a tent for spectators to gather, engage each other in conversation, and watch the battle, and a small number of vendors selling food, books, T-shirts, and other memorabilia. The scene conveyed a striking mix of the old and the new, as men, women, and children dressed in antebellum period attire talked on cell phones and sported digital cameras and camcorders. A short path led visitors away from the battlefield toward a small plantation cum museum, where a docent casually announced the guided tours taking place every thirty minutes. There was also a long trail leading into the woods beyond the battlefield to the encampment area — the living space where the re-enactors congregated before and after the battle, eating hardtack, singing songs, cleaning muskets, and engaging in other acts deemed authentic simulacra of the daily existence of a Civil War soldier.
This reenactment, however, also contained some decidedly nontraditional elements. Down the hill from the encampment area, on the north bank of the James River, was a prayer circle made up of approximately thirty African American men and women, all descendants of many of the men who had fought in the original battle. Some of them wore T-shirts bearing the names and regiments of their ancestors. To the melodic beat of an African drummer, evangelist Sallie Mae Collier — an elderly black woman — led the prayer: "We need to get this history into our souls so we can tell our children that these people died for them. That's why they have it so easy. There is blood in this ground. We as a people, we [are] a rock. We need to tell our children. How can we tell our children if we don't know? This is the truth, this is history. ... We need to know we are a somebody because our forefathers fought for us to be somebody. We have lost our heritage, but praise God it's coming back. ... We can commend our forefathers for what they did for us. They had to take the banner and honor the flag. How come we can't take this heritage and pass it to our children? What happened here ... was the beginning of freedom."
Prayer circles and African drumming may seem out of place at an event commonly perceived to be the exclusive domain of conservative white men. The invocation of ancestral spirits is an African-centered expressive practice which, when performed at a battle reenactment, is evocative of the union of spirituality and militant rhetoric characteristic of African American discourse. As such, it exemplifies the resistant interventions put forward through African American Civil War battle reenactment. Black participation in the hobby is a relatively new phenomenon involving increasing numbers of men and women motivated by a desire to reconstruct the experiences of the nearly two hundred thousand black men who fought for the Union in the war as United States Colored Troops (USCT). The participants come from a diversity of backgrounds — from a high school student in Kentucky who participates in local living history events with his father to a municipal court judge in Chicago who travels south on selected weekends to engage in combat enactments. Some of them took up the hobby after genealogical research yielded the discovery of a USCT ancestor. Many of them participate as part of civic groups that have incorporated living history performance into their community engagement objectives. Regardless of the various factors that motivate their interest in reenactment, they share a common goal: finishing the work initiated with the 1989 film Glory, which for the first time presented the story of African Americans' roles in securing their own freedom. In fact, many black reenactors were first inspired to pursue the hobby after viewing the film. However, the cultural work they engage in through their performances extends well beyond that offered through a Hollywood-produced historical drama. As Collier's prayer indicates, they see it as their duty to represent these forgotten memories in a much more meaningful, productive arena: the discursive space of the Civil War battlefield.
Since its revival as a cultural practice during the centennial celebrations of the 1960s, battle reenactment has provided a means by which historically conscious individuals and groups may construct memories of the war by traveling to various sites to recreate its battles and skirmishes. Most of these events take place on or near the actual battlefields, but their reach extends well beyond the region: California plays host to many very well-attended reenactments each year, as do a few overseas locations. Contrary to mass-mediated images of reenactments consisting of a bunch of scattered individuals engaging in loosely organized gunplay on the weekends, it is a hobby that is highly structured, hierarchical, and ritualized, with formal chains of command, rules of engagement, and safety regulations. Though there are some exceptions, most reenactors belong to organized units with designated roles, such as those of officers and chaplains. Reenactment demands substantial commitments from its adherents, both in terms of time and money. Participants' motivations vary, from the enjoyment of the experience of camping out to the thrill of engaging in gunplay without the physical, psychological, or moral consequences ordinarily attached to such activities. Estimations of the numbers of reenactors range from a peak of fifty thousand in the 1980s to between thirty and forty thousand in 2011. The overwhelming majority are white men. As its more traditional practitioners, it is their interpretations of the war, its causes, and consequences that constitute the dominant memories advanced through reenactment, which draw crowds ranging in number from a few hundred to tens of thousands.
While the practice attracts participants enacting the experiences of combatants on both sides of the conflict, it is the Confederate performances that are tied most closely to regional identity. Reenactment reflects an understanding of history that is inherently masculine and constructs a regional subjectivity largely predicated along the codes of idealized masculinity. In the Civil War era-South, hegemonic assumptions of white southern manhood were rooted in ideals of honor, civic identity, and — especially — masterly authority over blacks and women, all concretized and given expression on the battlefields of the Civil War. Part of the attraction for white men to reenactment lies in the desire to recover this diminished ideal.
The production and expression of heritage through enactment ensures that underneath the thrills of camping out and engaging in gunplay lie concerns that are more ideological in nature. Central to these concerns is the belief that one's ancestors — in both the literal and spiritual senses — fought with valor for an honorable cause. This agenda is advanced through the production of narratives in which the Confederacy instigated and engaged in the war as an act of heroic resistance to federal tyranny. In broader terms, the reordering of Civil War memory enables traditional southern identity to sustain its social and cultural power by maintaining the core assumption of whiteness as historically benevolent. One will find instances where the Lost Cause narrative underlying this belief is advanced overtly, such as through the staging of antebellum cotillions and period wedding ceremonies during the reenactment weekend or the selling of neo-Confederate screeds in the sutlers' area.
However, these values are advanced more subtly — and powerfully — through traditional reenactment's shift away from the causes and consequences of the war in favor of a central discursive focus on the ostensibly neutral values of masculine camaraderie, authenticity, and battle minutiae. This is manifested in many ways, most notably through the distinction between "hard core" reenactors — those whose sense of authenticity is absolute — and "farbs," whose commitment to the same is perceived as questionable. Moreover, Leigh Clemons has suggested that the tendency of most reenactors to portray common soldiers, as opposed to specific historical figures, enables them to circumvent the ideological dimensions of war. The result is a set of historical performances in which slavery and emancipation are symbolically annihilated from the represented narratives. Nevertheless, despite many white Confederate reenactors' insistence that race plays no part in their activities and, indeed, played no (or an insignificant) part in the war itself, racial politics are located squarely within the performances, if expressed only through their attempted marginalization or erasure.
It is this discursive terrain that African American reenactors must negotiate when mobilizing the same history to construct their own identity. Some of these living historians (as many prefer to be called) eschew battle recreations, instead preferring to reenact the USCT experience in schools, museums, churches, juvenile detention centers, and other educational venues, as well as in parades, roundtables, and festivals. They are popular speakers at Black History Month events and Juneteenth celebrations. By centering their reenactment activities on these events, they are able to shift the focus away from battle onto the broader history and its historiography, and to direct their cultural work to those who, in their estimation, will derive the most benefit from it. For these men, performance allows them to tell their story on their own terms. Members of one of these "non-battle" units described their activities as consisting solely of giving lectures at educational institutions because they are less interested in ceding any part of the story to white reenactors on the battlefield than they are in getting it out to audiences who, they believe, most need to hear it. As one member from a USCT unit in Kentucky put it, "most reenactors exist for battle. Our concern is telling the story of the USCT. We resist 'reenactor' and prefer 'living historians.' This is about being a black male and our image. This story is something to be proud of and needs to be told correctly. Getting out on weekends and rolling around in the dirt ... is more for whites. Our mission goes beyond that. Some folks out there don't know. That's what we're here for." Nevertheless, most do engage in battle reenactment, enabling a direct challenge to the normative assumptions dominant in the discourse of "heritage" underlying these events.
Through my own participation as a spectator, I met many white Confederate reenactors who were quite happy to tell me their version of the events that precipitated the war. Though I was encouraged to find that the reconciliationist code phrase "defense of home" and its inherent suggestion of white southern victimhood did not figure among their answers, I also noticed a steadfast reluctance to place slavery at the center of the conflict. Slavery was a cause, but not the cause, was the typical response given before the launch into the stock explanations of "states' rights" and "taxation." Others suggested slavery played no role at all. The greater the African American presence at reenactments, the scarcer these elisions became.
While black reenactors and spectators represent a very small portion of the general population of reenactment participants, they have a significant impact on the narratives that are constructed at the events in which they partake. The very presence of African Americans represents their claims upon the memories and subjectivities that form the basis for reenactment and works to reorder these battle narratives in a way that re-centers its focus on the war's causes and consequences. This recovery of the emancipationist vision of Civil War memory destabilizes the dominant images of black contentment and passivity subsumed under the discourses of authenticity and battle minutiae and reconstitutes them for African American (and white) consumption. In other words, it initiates a dismissal of the myth of Uncle Tom and advances a subjectivity more aligned with the image of the insurrectionist Nat Turner. In crafting this new representation of southern blackness, African American reenactors mobilize the rhetorical power of live performance and do so while engaging in combat, both literally and figuratively, with white men.
In this chapter, I analyze the construction of African American southern identity through the performance of Civil War battle reenactment. I begin with a discussion of battle reenactment as a mode of black vernacular performance that features a rhetorical and contextual history particularly suited to the production of pastiche and mimesis, cultural syncretism, and corporeality in the construction of narratives of masculinity and citizenship. I then continue this discussion with a detailed analysis ofthe ways in which African American participation in reenactment has initiated a reconstruction of the battlefield as a dialogic space in which its public nature and rhetorical positioning as sacred ground facilitate the production of alternative narratives. In the third section, I use as case studies three reenacted battles, paying particular contextual attention to their rhetorical histories in order to highlight the alternative frameworks through which we might view reenactment as a resistant practice productive of black southern identity.
African American Reenactment as Vernacular Performance
Shortly before going into "battle" in Florida at a reenactment of the Battle of Olustee, Andre, a reenactor with the Tallahassee-based Second Infantry Regiment of the USCT, explained the utility of reenactment as a vehicle for advancing Civil War memories centered on the African American experience. "[This is a] story that needs to be told," he said. "To me, it's not a hobby; it's a mission to get the story told to as many faces as possible." This view, which was expressed by a majority of the USCT reenactors at this and other events, exemplifies their project of transforming the practice from an instrument of hegemony into a vehicle for the production of alternative historical narratives. The selection of enactment as a representational practice is far from arbitrary. It mobilizes the key features that emerge from the intersection of performance, African American rhetoric, and vernacular discourse to construct a set of black vernacular performances offering resistant readings of history and transformations in the meaning of southern identity.
One of these features is opportunity. For African American performers and spectators, reenactment provides access to spaces of cultural production unobtainable through other venues. Though it requires considerable time and financial commitments from the participants, it does not impose the significant barriers to entry that characterize other memory-making structures, such as film and archives. For the spectators, it affords opportunities to join reenactors as active agents in the construction of history, a capacity inimical to the hierarchical arrangements characteristic of more conventional modes of representation. Moreover, the nation's post-civil rights cultural milieu, which has facilitated the production of a more critical attitude toward dominant national and regional narratives, has afforded African Americans and other disenfranchised groups expanded ideological access to historical production. James Beatty, a National Park Service ranger and reenactor in Philadelphia, described the significance many black reenactors attach to using this platform to emphasize the importance of exploiting this access and using it to adopt a more critical stance toward accepted history. In describing the content of the presentations he and his fellow reenactors from the Third USCT give to school, museum, and prison audiences, Beatty quoted a line from the John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. "The first thing I tell them," he said, "is don't get your history from Hollywood. [The Hollywood mantra is] when faced with a choice between truth and legend, print the legend."
Excerpted from Laying Claim by Patricia G. Davis. Copyright © 2016 Patricia G. Davis. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Figures vii
Cultural Memory and African American Southern Identity: An Introduction 1
1 Ghosts of Nat Turner: African American Civil War Reenactment and the Performance of Historical Agency, Citizenship, and Masculinity 24
2 So That the Dead May Finally Speak: Space, Place, and the Transformational Rhetoric of Black History Museums 71
3 From Old South to New Media: Museum Informatics, Narrative, and the Production of Critical History 122
Conclusion: Southern Identities in the Twenty-First Century 148