Charles B. Dew: Our current crisis, lessons unlearned
WILLIAMSTOWN — Arnold J. Toynbee, a towering 20th century scholar of world history, wrote something about his childhood in late Victorian England that I remembered as I was trying to make sense of what is happening to us all at this moment.
He recalled that when he was a small boy in London watching the procession celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria's reign, he thought to himself "Well, here we are on top of the world and we will stay there — forever!" He went on to say that if he had been a small boy in New York City in 1897, he would have felt the same way. But if he had been a small boy in the southern part of the United States, he would have known from his parents "that history had happened to my
people in my part of the world."
Indeed it had.
We white Southerners (of whom I am one) had launched a civil war to defend slavery (and the racial order we had built on that institution) and had paid a staggering price in blood for our folly, as had all Americans: some 750,000 dead, the costliest war, by far, the nation has ever fought. What lessons did we Southerners take from that? Not the right ones.
We faced no truth and reconciliation commission set up at the end of that conflict that would have forced us to confront what we had done and why we had done it.
Abraham Lincoln's steady hand on the tiller had restored the union, but he was struck down in 1865 by a Southern assassin's bullet at the very moment of victory; he was replaced by Andrew Johnson, a Tennessean who had stuck with the Union but who was an out-and-out racist, a stubborn, bungling, graceless leader convinced of his own self-worth and possessed of an insatiable political appetite. Leaders make a profound difference: a president of peerless worth was replaced by an egotistical hack who was supremely unqualified to steer the South, and our country, toward a just peace.
Johnson allowed white Southerners to pass the infamous Black Codes in the spring and fall of 1865 that, among other humiliations, relegated the newly emancipated freedmen to forced labor for fabricated minor offenses. Slavery died, but white supremacy — in spirit and in deed — was allowed to live.
So the South, which had experienced the fate of most countries of the world — defeat in a brutal war, profound attachment to convictions that were proved false, the bitter taste of crow in one's own mouth, grinding poverty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — was permitted to resort to myth instead of truth in recounting our region's history. The myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, the myth of racial hierarchy, the willingness to blame defeat by the Yankees for anything that happened to come up short in our Beloved Southland. As the novelist Robert Penn Warren wrote, the loss of the Civil War became the "great alibi" for my white Southern ancestors.
Warren said something else about the outcome of the war. For the North, it became the "great treasury of virtue," a bank account that could be drawn upon endlessly. Northerners could feel smug and superior to the benighted South: we freed the slaves. At the same time, the North turned a blind eye to acts of atrocity carried out by white Southerners. Lynching is still not a federal crime. And the North has its own myths, of course, particularly the myth of American exceptionalism: the deep-seated belief that we would never experience the catastrophic events that had brought other countries to their knees, that, as Toynbee put it, history had happened to other people in other parts of the world but would never happen to us.
We Southerners knew better. But we managed to ignore our own history. All of us, North and South, could have learned from our experience, but we wrapped it in a gauzy cloud of myth that even we came to believe. History had happened to us, just as it is happening to all of us right now, but we were silent when a confrontation with our truth would have served this country well. The lesson we Southerners should have learned was clear: none of us are immune from the forces of history.
There seems to be an "avoidance" gene in the American DNA. But there is another gene in our DNA, a gene shared by all of us, North and South, white, black, Native American, those of us of recent immigrant ancestry and those of us whose ancestry dates back to the Mayflower: a "resilience" gene, a "persistence" gene, that has allowed us to surmount stupendous obstacles that have arisen over the centuries. This gene has helped all of us through multiple crises--world wars,
recessions and depressions, epidemic diseases like polio that turned summers into seasons of dread.
For Native Americans, it meant facing down a confrontation with genocide; for immigrant Americans, it meant overcoming the blight of bigotry and xenophobia and achieving good jobs and decent places to live; for African-Americans, it meant not only surviving human bondage but coming through it with their humanity, rich culture, and deep religious beliefs intact. These are stories we all need to remember now.
Yes, history has happened to all of us. It is happening to us now. But that "persistence" gene is still in place. If we act wisely now — social distancing to the fullest extent possible, helping our neighbors and front-line personnel in any way we can, following the guidance of our state and local leaders, even something as seemingly trivial as washing our hands for 20-plus seconds — we will overcome again.
To quote an old American expression, you can bet the ranch on it.
Charles B. Dew teaches the history of the South at Williams College. His autobiography is titled, "The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History and the Slave Trade."
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