Slavery and Marketing the Sesquicentennial – or Insanity in Old Virginia
By Bill Vallante
Friends of mine in Virginia recently alerted me to a colorfully entitled article, “Breaking the Chains,” which was featured in the online “Style Weekly” magazine.
READ IT HERE
The article praised and touted the more modern-day presentations of the “civil war,” i.e., those which focus on slaves (no mention of pro-southern slaves of course), women, southerners who fought for the union, and other irrelevant niceties. No mention in the article however, about these presentations drawing crowds that are a lot smaller than what “peecee” sesquicentennial organizers would like. One poster on a twitter page described the popularity of such celebrations thusly: “Ed Ayers & his 'Future of Richmond's Past' is having the same effect on heritage tourism in Richmond as would a good outbreak of cholera." (Couldn’t have said it better myself!)
The article especially highlighted the interaction and cooperation between Richmond Delegate Dolores McGuinn, a black woman who frequently pontificates and whose favorite words seem to be “reconciliation” and “emancipation”, and her sidekick Waite Rawls, noted (or “infamous”, depending on how you feel about him) Museum of the Confederacy director. The two have become fast friends it seems. Two other curators were mentioned, Maureen Elgersmann Lee, director of the Black History museum and Christy Coleman, director of the Tredegar Museum (the same museum that has the gift shop which sells those hideous Harriet Tubman bobblehead dolls).
I learned many things from this article –
I learned that Virginia Governor McDonnell’s “Confederate History Month” proclamation was “infamous.” And I learned that slavery is “America’s greatest trauma.”
I learned that we should rejoice now that “civil war” celebrations focus on slavery rather than on the men who fought in the war. I learned that modern day “Confederate sympathizers” have the wrong view of history but there are efforts afoot to fix this view. I learned that the war was all about slavery and that there appears to be no discussion to the contrary, at least not in
I learned that some people are still living in poverty because of slavery and that others are wealthy because of it, and that something needs to be done about that. They say we need something called “reconciliation”, which I guess means that someone needs to say they are sorry. (I just hope they are not expecting that someone to be me ‘cause there’ll be snowball fights in hell before that happens!)
I learned that black children can be “emancipated” by showing them presentations which tell them that the war was ALL about them, and by implication I suppose, that the world revolves around them. And I learned that when Christy Coleman was a character (slave) interpreter at Williamsburg, one tourist’s child kicked one of the other interpreters (I’m guessing the child was black and the interpreter was white. I’m also guessing, from what I read in the article, that no one had a problem with it).
I learned that Richmond needs to learn how to better “market” this “new” (or bastardized, if you prefer) version of history (because so far, this new version seems to be going over like a lead balloon in a snowstorm). And I learned that some people are dismayed and confused about the failure of Doug Wilder’s National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg (which in recent times seems to be doing its best imitation of the “Titanic”.)
And finally, I learned what I knew years ago before I resigned my membership to the Museum of the Confederacy – that Waite Rawls’ head is buried so far up so many peoples’ collective posteriors that it would take a global positioning satellite to locate it and a heavy duty tow truck to pry it out.
So then, do I have any thoughts on this “Style Weekly” article? Gee, I thought you’d never ask!
MEMO TO: the folks at “Style Weekly,” and, to all those who complained that Virginia’s governor FORGOT to REMIND you of the “PAINFUL REMINDER (of slavery)”, and, to all those who seem to feel that the people of the past owe you an apology and that their descendents need to grovel at your feet, and, to all those who plan to turn the Sesquicentennial into a diversity dog and pony show and actually think they can make money marketing such insanity:
Who voted slavery "the greatest trauma in American history?" Coleman? Rawls? McGuinn? Elgersman? “Style Weekly”? Was there an election? Why wasn't I told? I would have like to have voted. I’m not sure what I would have voted for, but I know what I would not have voted for. I wonder how the Native American would vote if he were asked what was the greatest trauma in American history? I wonder how the families of those killed in the Twin Towers would have voted? In any case, it seems to me that the question, at the very least, is open to interpretation, and is a matter of opinion.
And speaking of opinion, I had no idea that the cause of the war, a subject which has sparked DEBATE since the war ended (ya'll remember what a DEBATE is, don't you?), had been resolved and is now written in stone? (I'm being sarcastic in case anyone hasn't caught on). But what do I know? I'm just a "Confederate sympathizer."
And what is it with this "infamous proclamation" stuff? The governor's proclamation to declare April "Confederate History Month" was not a governmental mandate. No one was compelled to run out into the street and sing "Dixie", wave a flag or scream that "the South will Rise Again!" It was a proclamation which addressed the history of a rather large group of Virginians whose ancestors participated in the event which resulted in America becoming a "nation" in the truest sense of the word. This is what we today call "infamous"? If you didn’t like it you were under no obligation to celebrate it. You could have left in peace your fellow citizens, who have repeatedly told you that they simply want to celebrate their “heritage” and that they don’t “hate” you, to do that which is important to them. But you didn’t. You whined, cried, and stamped your feet and threatened to break your toys. You made life miserable for not only everyone else but yourselves as well.
Allowing children to "kick interpreters"? If I had kicked a museum interpreter when I was a kid, my dad would have hit me so hard he would have knocked me into the following week. Moaning about why other people have more stuff than you do? And you should do exactly what, about this? Take some of their stuff away from them to even things out? In civilized societies, we call this type of thing “STEALING!”
Oh yes, and then there’s Doug Wilder's Slavery Museum, which claimed, on its website, that slavery as practiced by non-whites or in the ancient world was “different” from European or American slavery because slaves in non-white or ancient cultures weren't used as laborers. Instead it claimed that slaves in non-white or ancient societies were "status symbols." Examples given of "status symbols" were, "eunuchs" and "concubines". Ok, let’s have a show of hands….how many of y’all want to be eunuchs? What? No one wants to be a “status symbol?” And you folks can’t figure out why the National Slavery Museum has never even been able to even taxi away from the terminal, much less get off the ground?
All this angst and all this wondering about whether or not Richmond can ever make a financial go of promoting this new and enlightened version of history and whether or not such things will ever be a tourist draw? I submit the answer is right in front of your noses and in the article itself - in the annual visitor figures of the highly touted but nearly deserted Tredegar Museum. 21000 visitors per year? That’s an average of 60 people per day. I’ve seen more activity than that in a morgue! And at an average cost of $5pp. entry fee, how much money is this place taking in? $100,000/year? That doesn’t even pay the phone bill! Maybe “Style Weekly” should do a story on how much taxpayer money is being siphoned off to keep the sinking Tredegar ship afloat?
And I submit, that if Ms. McGuinn wants to “emancipate future generations of African American children,” that there are more practical things she could do – addressing a 70% rate of illegitimate births for one thing. Development of a cultural tradition stressing education as a means to success in this world and which rewards the child who does well in school, for another. Blaming people who lived in the past for doing what was common to their time and expecting their descendents to feel sorry and fall down on their knees groveling isn’t going to improve matters any. It won’t bring “reconciliation” and it certainly won’t bring in the tourist dollars, which leads me to my last point…
Living in and being from, the North, I can tell you with great certainty that there is no shortage of Northerners who are very interested in “the civil war.” Some are quite steeped in their knowledge of it and some are not. Some, like yours truly, cheer for the South. Others, as you might expect, root for the North. Still others, most in fact, don’t really give much thought at all to taking sides. Under normal circumstances, all 3 types would be inclined to travel to the South and in doing so, release their Yankee dollars into the Southern economy.
However, the last thing they want is to travel hundreds of miles to experience a "diversity" dog and pony show. Even those who go in for that sort of thing won’t do it. They can stay home, save the money and get the same crap right where they live. Exhibitions that focus on slaves, women, and southerners who fought for the north aren’t going to cut it. If y’all decide to go that marketing route, then get used to the stillness and deafening silence of the types found at the Tredegar Museum. Yes, there is a place for such things to be sure. But such things are not the “main course” when it comes to “the civil war.” No sane Northerner is going to travel hundreds of miles and spend a tons of money just to dine on the appetizer and leave without having the main course.
Northerners want to see where the battles were fought and learn about the brave men on both sides who fought in them. They want to learn about what these men did, see where they did it, and marvel that they had the courage to do it. And they want to pause and reflect - if they were in the same position, how would they behave, would they be as brave, and why? And they want to do that without a “peecee” interpreter telling them what they should be feeling and thinking.
Go ahead, ignore my advice. According to y’all, I’m just one of those “Confederate Sympathizers” so what do I know? Just make sure you prepare yourself for that “outbreak of cholera.”
Bill Vallante, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an associate member of the Jeb Stuart Camp 1506, a reenactor in the 9th Va. Inf., Co. C, and is living "behind enemy lines" in Commack, N.Y.