OCTOBER 12, 2017
“THE VICTORS WRITE the histories,” so the maxim goes. What then to make of the fact that, until recently, the Confederate flag flew over the South Carolina State House and memorial statues to Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals still decorate public lands throughout the South? Either the maxim is incorrect, or these symbols do not hold the power we believe they do, or the Southern secessionists that declared their separation from the Union, thus bringing about the American Civil War, did not, in fact, lose. And if the losers didn’t lose, then who won and who lost?
The possibility that the victors do not necessarily write the histories is an interesting one. Today, histories and counter-histories and counters to the counter-histories can be found in most libraries and on the internet. Yet the basic truth that the victors enjoy the spoils and the heroic history books is supported, most obviously, by our historical record. Begin with the language of that record. The works of Herodotus and Livy, C. L. R. James and W. E. B. Du Bois, Studs Terkel and Svetlana Alexievich are not written in the tongues of the defeated. We do not read about Hannibal’s valiant refusal to be a friend to Rome in his native Punic, nor about Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolutionary cause in Haitian Creole, nor are Alexievich’s incredible interviews on Russia’s ongoing conflict with Chechen rebels conducted in Chechen. Moreover, the histories that have been legitimated by widely acclaimed literature and film — that have been canonized — have tended toward a heroic vision of the victors. Plutarch does not remember Alexander the Great as a bloodthirsty psychopath bent on successive genocides, nor does Gary Sinise portray Harry S. Truman as a simple-minded destroyer of worlds, though the subjugated histories of the raped, pillaged, and atom-bombed would probably have told a different tale about them.
The victors do, in fact, write the initial and most powerfully influential histories of every conflict, whether between warring armies or warring ideologies. And, when it comes to war, that history begins not with books or movies, but with the terms of peace treaties, the force of occupation, and the redrawing of borders.
Is the rebel flag an impotent symbol? Do the monuments maintained to the greatness of Confederate generals not hold persistent emotional power? There would be no petitions and no protests calling to bring those symbols down if that were the case. White supremacists and neo-Nazis would not be clashing with Antifa in pitched battles in broad daylight if no one cared. The #NoConfederate Twitter movement would not exist because the idea for an HBO show, which the Twitter movement protests, about the historical “what if” of a Confederate victory in the Civil War, would never have been considered potentially lucrative enough to bring to primetime in the first place, let alone to endure such a sustained negative public backlash if these symbols were just ugly gift-shop kitsch.
The explanation that comes closest to the truth is the most counterintuitive. The rebel flag has flown for so long and still populates pickup truck back windows and red, white, and blue bikini sets, while Southern tax dollars have for all these years been spent on the upkeep of memorials to Confederate generals both brilliant and mediocre alike, because the power brokers in the American South, despite having been vanquished in the Civil War, nevertheless maintained many of the fundamentals of the society that Abraham Lincoln’s election had so threatened. The Union won the war, but that doesn’t mean the Southern elites lost. In fact, while they did not win a conventional military victory, Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the plantation owners and whip crackers they represented succeeded beyond their intents. By declaring themselves a nation-state and thus taking the ideological offensive after Lincoln’s election, they forced the North to fight over the matter of secession, rather than the dismantlement of plantation serfdom. Ultimately, the secessionists waged a war so deeply intimate that their adversaries dared not purge them from the body politic and so easily elegized that its symbols live on like Stalin T-shirts in Siberia. Meanwhile, the Southern strategy of slowing the advance of progressive legislation long after their side has lost lives on with persistent effectiveness.
For proof, start here: Upon their surrender, the rebels were neither executed as traitors, nor run out of the country, which is markedly different from the way the United States dealt with, say, Allende and Aristide, or, more to the point, Marcus Garvey (deported), Fred Hampton (executed), and Assata Shakur (imprisoned, escaped, exiled). The difference, of course, is that, though the secessionists had fought against the North, they were not perceived as enemies to the state, unlike black revolutionaries. This decision not to employ the hangman’s noose was the first plank in the old South’s not-losing. Then, after the death of Reconstruction, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were basically disregarded throughout the Southern states — the 13th evaded by the system of sharecropping and resultant debt peonage that arose in place of plantation slavery and the convict-lease system that extended literal slavery well into the 20th century. Meanwhile, blacks in the South were barred by Jim Crow sanctions from the vote and from equal protection under the law.
In fairness to the popular narrative, the old South had been critically destabilized by the war even if it was able to retain much of its way of life, which is why nearly half the black population below the Mason-Dixon line eventually fled North and West in acknowledgment of that slow-burning Southern strategy that had managed to win, not the fight on the ground, but the terms of the peace. Such rearguard maneuvers have been made again and again by social conservatives on the comeback after seeming defeat because they work.
The second Reconstruction, which began with Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall working after hours in Howard University’s Founders Library to hash out Brown v. Board of Education and ended with the Fair Employment and Housing Act or Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination or Harold Washington’s election — whatever your particular angle — only turned the tables a hundred years late. But swiftly, just as with the decades-long backlash against the first Reconstruction, which negated the Union’s postwar aims, the second Reconstruction/Civil Rights movement has brought in its long, post-’60s wake a racist retrenchment that aligns roughly (because they are largely the same movement) with the conservative resurgence of the 1980s through today. And while that counter-movement has not been as successful as its predecessor, failing to totally negate the second Reconstruction, it has managed to significantly slow its progress through the dismantlement of Great Society initiatives, the advent of mass incarceration, and the simple perpetuation of racist stereotypes, from luxury-car-wielding welfare queens to Mexican border-jumping rapists and so forth, thus deeply muddying the waters of purported liberal victory.
Now, in 2017, in the South, Charlottesville, New Orleans, Stone Mountain, and along the internet’s limitless lines of intersection and conflagration, the strange case of a civil war still waged by other means continues, its history still contested, its popular historians still deeply at odds. At the center of the Southern-conservative retrenchment, rather absurdly, is the person it elected to the presidency, one Donald J. Trump, victor and history-definer.
Trump’s deepest base of support and power is in the deep South, the reddest of the red states, precisely because Trump speaks in highly general terms of a great American past that can be recaptured, a great and cruel America that will deal harshly and unequivocally with its adversaries, a hierarchical America where strong men will lead and immigrants and dissidents and CNN will shut the fuck up.
At least at an emotional level, all of this aligns, for his most extremist supporters (neo-Nazis notwithstanding), with those brave gray-shirted soldiers who refused to be stepped on by Lincoln’s jackboot. It’s silly, but the most enduring aspect of the old South’s survival is the elegiac kitsch. It exists because it was never killed off. Having seen enough drunks doing donuts in public parking lots, their stars and bars waving from the backs of their pickups, I’ll wager that the ease of it all has a lot to do with why the kitsch persists: waving a rebel flag takes no effort. Nostalgia, like voting for Trump, is easy. The veneration of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson requires no current commitment, no material sacrifice. For the victors-in-defeat — for the descendants of slaveholders and for those who get high off the vapor fumes of their victory — it’s all just damn good fun. The fog of war, indeed.
On the campaign trail in 2015, Trump actually admitted that he favored removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House. But, apparently, after the analysis of white nationalist metadata and other wonders of the post-racial world, his views have changed and he has gone even deeper down the rabbit hole of MAGA history. The Edward Gibbon of Twitter, probably not out of a passion for a Southern past he has no real connection with but because his political future depends on their support, took to his favorite medium to back those who oppose the removal of the Confederate statues. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump wrote. “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.”
Indeed, history should be preserved, interrogated, complicated, understood, and, yes, even painstakingly reenacted so that we might know from whence we came and understand better where our present course is likely to lead. My archival work with the Oxford African American Studies Center is in this vein. Unlike our president, I have devoted considerable time to the preservation of our past and can differentiate between careful historical documentation and simple iconography that seeks not to critically examine history but to assert symbolic power. Sadly, however, the historical record we are heir to is as much the document of who has held power as of what actually happened. It requires care and context and sensitivity to all sides to overcome this core problem.
It is easy to mock the loose logic of Trump’s rearguard tweets with rhetorical questions such as: “Why not learn about this great country’s history through reasoned, complicated analysis rather than this decontextualized idolatry of Confederate generals?” or “Would it be just as cool if statues of Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta went up where the Twin Towers fell because, after all, that’s American history, too?” The better question — the one that reveals most decisively not just who won but who is still losing our endless cold civil war — is this: “If removing statues of Confederate generals from public lands necessarily erases them from history, what of the history of those who were never memorialized?” Put another way: “Do you really think that the long overdue removal of these statues is the end of it?”
To be continued.
Keenan Norris, a guest editor for the Oxford African American Studies Center, teaches at Evergreen Valley College. His novel Brother and the Dancer won the 2012 James D. Houston Award. His most recent book, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press, is Born by the River: Richard Wright, Barack Obama, and “Chi-Raq.”