I had actually been planning to write this off-topic piece several weeks ago, but unfortunately a ton of very on-topic news came down the pipe. Seeing that February is Black History Month, the delay has actually been fortuitous. Coincidence? Yes, of course it’s a coincidence.
Aaaaaanyway, let me set up the background. Some readers and Twitter followers have noticed that I’ve been on a bit of a Civil War binge lately. It’s part of a more general Victorian era phase, I suppose. That and throughout most of my life I tended to study the history of pretty much every country but America. In fact I nurse a suspicion that American history is deliberately made as boring and bland as possible so as to actually discourage people from delving into it. My years of history education in school can be summed up by skipping ahead in the textbook, anticipating that time when we’d stop reading about settlers planting corn and finally get to World War II, only to be disappointed as we failed to reach it by the end of the year or glossed over it. Other than that, much of what I “learned” consisted of urban legends and myths which I would see debunked over the years immediately following high school graduation.
So I’m watching all these documentaries and I discover this site for the Civil War Trust, an educational organization which not only creates and promotes materials dealing with the Civil War, but also works to preserve historic battlefields. Incidentally one of those battlefields was none other than Gettysburg, where a developer wanted to build a casino of all things just a half mile from the historic site. Only in America. Getting back to the point, I end up watching some of their short videos and eventually I get to one about black soldiers in the Civil War. Here is the video in question:
Now from my experience it’s always a good idea not to read the comments on any Youtube video about the Civil War, because you will be inundated with Lost Cause bullshit. Since this video was about black soldiers, part of my mind was saying “Don’t read the comments! Do not read the comments! DO NOT SCROLL DOWN! NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! WHY?” Yep, I couldn’t help it. I scrolled too far.
As you no doubt guessed, it got pretty racist, real quick. And yet something about the predictability of those responses pissed me off. You can say “Well that’s the internet,” so many times until one day you just want to ask one of these fuckheads what is wrong with them. I’m not talking about “calling them out,” I’m not talking about shaming them, I’m talking about a serious inquisition to discover what their specific defect is. I want to know the motivations behind a person who says “Oh look at this, a positive video about the contributions of black people in American history. Better chime in with a racist comment to take them down a peg or two!”
I want to know the reason because sometimes it feels like these people are literally compelled to react in that manner. If there was a video about Irish soldiers in the Civil War, what would you expect to see? No doubt there’d be a cascade of comments from dozens if not hundreds of proud plastic Paddies talking about how their great-great-great-grandfather came from some Irish town they first heard mentioned in a Flogging Molly song, and therefore they are in fact, Irish. What you won’t see is anyone coming in their pointing out the indisputable fact that in the 19th century Irish immigrants were often associated with drunkenness and criminality, or that it was Irish people who were largely responsible for the New York City draft riots, which happen to bear the honor of being the worst and most destructive riots in American history. Remember that Scorcese film The Gangs of New York? That’s actually based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Herbert Asbury, and it’s fairly accurate in its portrayal of the times. One could say it was even too generous. It’s also worth noting that according to their own officers and outside observers, America’s black troops during the Civil War were far more disciplined and well-behaved than most white soldiers. Whereas the latter often spent their free time gambling, drinking, brawling, or visiting brothels, black soldiers tended to dedicate most of their free time improving their literacy or their military skills.
Obviously I’m not seriously trying to revive 19th century Know Nothing anti-Papist Irish bashing. I’m using this to show the contrast between how people react to certain topics in American history compared to how they react to black history. As with Irish history, we’re allowed to talk about Italian-American history without bringing up La Cosa Nostra and get away with it. We’re allowed to speak with reverence about Confederate generals and soldiers and yet someone who brings up the undeniable fact that they did, in fact, wage a war to preserve slavery is shouted down. Bring up the topic of black soldiers though, and then suddenly everybody groans about “political correctness” and starts making comments about real or imagined problems in the black community today.
It’s not so much that these people harbor these racist ideas, it’s that they feel the need to give their two cents where it is neither required nor wanted. They can’t just see the video and think or say something racist to themselves to get whatever kind of self-satisfaction that apparently brings them. No, they need to let the world know, in spite of the fact that even they gain nothing from this behavior.
Black History month tends to be that time of year when morons all over the States tweet and post their late-winter mating call: “Why can’t we have a White History Month?” These people are oblivious to the fact that most of the history they’re taught tends to be from, for lack of a better word, a “white” point of view. If you were to count up all the educational videos on the Civil War Trust’s Youtube channel alone, you’ll see that the majority of them don’t even mention black Americans. It was a “white man’s war” by white design. When it comes to battle documentaries, the most popular seem to be Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh. None of those involved black troops. This means those Youtube commentators can watch several hours worth of documentaries without suffering the sheer horror of being reminded that black Americans made positive contributions in American history.
As an amateur historian I’m kind of split on the question of how to start addressing this problem. I tend to agree with those who say that American history needs to feature more minority figures and viewpoints, but on the other hand I think that dividing history into “black history,” “Latino history,” and “Asian-American history,” ultimately leads to trouble. First of all, our country is a lot more diverse these days. Think about how teachers would look when they have to admit that no, there probably weren’t too many famous Arab-American heroes around the time of the War of Independence or the Civil War. I’m sure you could dig up some names, but then it’s clear to everyone including whomever you’re trying to enfranchise that you’re grasping at straws. As a people the Arabs have countless accomplishments, a fact which can and shold be included in history curricula, but I think there’s an even better solution.
Let us stop teaching that the history of people who kind of look like you is “your” history. Take all those things people want to teach as “black history,” for example, and so integrate them into the curriculum so that it becomes simply history. The problem with compartmentalized history isn’t just that you leave “white history” as the dominant field which gets to be called simply “history.” If fails to cross-pollinate, if you will, by which I mean it may get specific groups interested in what you call “their” history, but it doesn’t get people from those groups interested in other people’s allegedly proprietary history. Integrating all these different narratives and stressing their inseparability would accomplish that.
Some people might object, saying it is unlikely that children and young adults will get passionately interested in the history of another people. Again, that depends on how you teach it. I am by America’s social standards, white, yet my roots in the United States go no deeper than the early 20th century, perhaps the late 19th century at the most. I doubt anyone today would see any injustice in the fact that I was forced to learn about settlers at Jamestown, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the War of Independence, the Constitutional Convention, the War of 1812, the Civil War, pioneers, homesteaders, and so on. Those people were “white,” and I’m “white,” ergo I’m supposed to assume these people I had nothing to do with in a country whose soil my ancestors had never touched have some kind of connection with me. My point here is that we’re already telling schoolchildren, even the white ones, to identify with the history of people who have very little in common with them save for the most superficial features. Therefore, would it be such a bold step to better integrate history and try to get young people interested in the history of other groups and nationalities? If anything, Americans of all ethnic groups today have a lot more in common with each other linguistically and culturally than they do with Americans of the 19th century.
Perhaps this integrated approach would develop something that is still sorely lacking in American society- empathy. Empathy might have swayed the minds of some people against chiming in with a racist, stereotypical comment like the ones you see on that video. They might still hold the same beliefs, but at least they’d have the common decency not to piss in someone’s Cheerios just because they are driven irrationally mad by seeing a positive video about black Americans. Maybe empathy and a more inclusive method of teaching history could some day lead to a country full of rational people who don’t feel somehow threatened by the idea of learning about the history of black Americans. Till then, remember this advice and you will never go wrong- Don’t read the comments!