June 29, 2011

Seeing the Civil War from the Black Perspective

The army of the newly formed Confederate States of America fired the first shots of the U.S. Civil War in the early morning of April 12, 1861. The first shots of what became one of the United States’ most catastrophic wars signaled the breaking point in the relations between the North and the South, the slave and the “free” states. At the time, many political figures like President Abraham Lincoln often recognized the conflict as a fight to “save the Union” while many southerners saw it as one to preserve the integrity of “states’ rights” within the republic. However, when one examines some of the most salient contemporary political debates—territorial expansion and states’ rights to name two examples—one sees the original sin of slavery emerging as a recurrent theme.

I am assisting the workers at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History with their efforts to produce an online exhibit—blog, brief documentary-style vignettes, etc.—about the Civil War from the black perspective highlighting this crucial point. Conceived of as a five year project commemorating the war’s sesquicentennial, I will lend my research skills to producing the content for a year’s worth of material.

We are currently working on the first online documentary vignette for the project which is about the role that slavery played in crafting the U.S. Constitution less than a hundred years prior to the Battle of Fort Sumter. We argue that the presence of black slaves in the newly formed country posed a fundamental problem for northern and southern delegates in the May 1787 convention seeking to construct a government that best reflected their political and economic interests. Participants like Virginian delegate James Madison recognized the emerging division between northern and southern states, between those states recognizing the centrality of slavery and the trafficking of black Africans in their economy and culture and those individuals who saw these institutions becoming increasingly irrelevant (it is important to note that many northern states still permitted slavery) culturally and economically. Ultimately, the crafters of the Constitution settled on various compromises—three-fifths compromise, fugitive slave clause, abolition of the slave trade in 1808, to name a few—that legitimated the “peculiar institution” and encoded what would be known as a racial division of labor and society. Beginning our narrative with this debate highlights how the questions of slavery and subjugated labor would drive further debates about the eventual expansion of what President Thomas Jefferson envisioned in 1809 as the “Empire of Liberty.”

The Museum’s Civil War Project is important for various reasons. First, regarding my own participation, this gives me an opportunity to expand my understanding about the subject and to experiment with other ways of translating my skills and knowledge to my colleagues here and to those who will interact with the exhibit. I have always been interested in the question of how to use my skills to provoke others, as well as myself, to rethink the established interpretations of the American past. Second, there is a need for (black) museums, historians, and scholars to provide their expertise and produce exhibits that document the black experience in the lead up to, during, and following the Civil War. Unfortunately, the black experience often appears tangential in mainstream discussions like the impressive New York Times’s Disunion series. Third, with acclimating myself with the vast literature on the subject, I hope to build on perspectives that complicate the morality tale of the meaning of the Civil War for blacks and Americans, generally—that the war effort morphed into one where virtuous white politicians and soldiers fought to destroy evils of slavery, thus baptizing the nation a second time in cannon fire and war. For many, the question of slavery was related to how the country should handle, or control, labor and economic development in the United States. Free blacks in early and antebellum America appealed to the nation’s leaders and the government for further freedoms for the enslaved and themselves. Meanwhile black slaves struggled against slaveholders, and painstakingly tried to forge their own lives and maintain families and communities within those harsh conditions, even if it entailed an individual slave pursuing his or her best interests in their relations with whites. We hope documenting the black experience in America during this period will add more texture to the conversations about the meanings of the Civil War for not just blacks, but for everyone interested in the topic.

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