Slavery, the Civil War, and historical sites…

Posted: January 3, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

Someone posted this article by Peter Birkenhead the other day, titled “Why we still can’t talk about slavery.”   Very interesting, well-taken, and provocative, I think, if occasionally a bit harsh.  I know I would definitely feel uncomfortable in staying in what used to be slave quarters, all refurbished and done up nicely with curtains and faux-antique lamps.  And I’d feel very uneasy at staying in homes that appeal to potential tourists by informing them that they can be Scarlett O’Hara for a day. Good grief… I grew up watching Gone with the Wind, getting angry at Sherman, etc., and I have no desire to go back to that mentality–we gradually realized what all the romantic razzle-dazzle was covering, and thankfully left the Lost Cause behind. (And regarding Sherman, do see my friend Wes Moody’s new study, Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History.)

The only problem I can see with Birkenhead’s analysis is that  he hasn’t entirely thought through the role and multi-dimensional history of landmarks in general. Papering over the history of these houses, and actively promoting  the fairy-tale Old South, is unacceptable; and at the moment I would say that big plantation houses CAN’T be admired for the architecture and the furnishings and NOT at the same time be put in the context of their time. That is, a slave-society context, with all the misery, racism, and agony that that entails.

But the same doesn’t necessarily work for all landmarks contaminated by their subsequent association with evil and wrong-doing (as I’m sure we would all agree slavery was, yes? ).  The example I keep thinking of is the great public square in Nuremberg, famous for its Christmas market, but also notorious for the huge Nazi parades held there as part of the rallies of the 1930s.

Or take this evocative image, from the 1934 rally (below)…

Nuremberg Rally, 1934

The point I’d like to make is this: as a medieval historian, I don’t necessarily need to know about this aspect of Nuremberg’s history to understand or appreciate the


medieval history of the place.   Now, I am interested in the modern history of it, not least if some of these medieval structures were refurbished or renovated as part of a specifically Nazi program (the Staufen castle of Trifels, in the Pfalz, was part of such a program, and my photos of that exhibit didn’t come out well–still upset about that). And I would expect any visitors to these sites to be see exhibits and presentations on these things; but if I was there (as I was in 2005) to see the medieval framework of Germany, it’s not as high a priority for my experience, and I wouldn’t be out of line for spending more time at the medieval fortress and less time dwelling on the criminality of Nazi Germany in the square and the stadium.

So, I think we’re kind of stuck if we take Birkenhead’s line of analysis too far: either we say that openly discussing or emphasizing slavery isn’t necessary as part of one’s modern experience of the place (unacceptable), or we wind up equating plantation houses with Auschwitz (some parallels to which he makes in the article)–centers of evil that were so bound up with slavery that they must be totally identified with it (also unacceptable, for a number of historical and philosophical reasons–for example, it assumes a monolithic “South” and it risks seriously distorting overall culture and intentionality over time [if this phrase has any meaning?]).

I’d sincerely welcome your thoughts on the topic, since this is a very confusing subject, and while I agree with Birkenhead, I think there are pitfalls to the article that I’m not sure how to get through.  I’m not even sure how to adequately or clearly phrase my questions…


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