By ALTON HORNSBY JR.
Two months ago many Americans celebrated Black History Month (or as some prefer, African American Heritage Month); last month there was Women’s History Month; and beginning last week we began the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. All of these events have been surrounded by a degree of controversy. Some argue, for various reasons, that we should not celebrate or commemorate any of these historical identifications and milestones. For example, many White and some Black, including some notable scholars, contend that we should not have separate identifications as African American or women — that we should have just one American history — “one nation under God.” Others, including this columnist, suggest that it is misleading and confusing to mark off one month for a focus on one race or one gender. This annual emphasis of only one month leads many to believe that Blacks and women are not included in mainstream historical studies, hence we must pull them out once a year to increase our knowledge as well as our self esteem.
The Civil War commemoration is another story. From the glorification of the war by such neo-confederate groups as the Sons of the Confederacy to a disdain for confederate memorials to even commemoration of the Civil War itself by NAACP and other civil rights leaders, it might seem as if we are gearing up to fight the war over again.
The major problem with all of these controversies and misunderstandings is that most Americans do not have a keen sense of history. They get teaspoons of history largely from generalized school textbooks, amateur and popular historians, and more recently the media. They have little acquaintance, and in this age of instant information probably do not want any acquaintance, with the vast store of historical knowledge and analysis found in monographs, dictionaries, encyclopedias, articles and essays. Many of these are found in excellent archives and libraries, such as our own Woodruff libraries at the Atlanta University Center and Emory University, the Auburn Avenue Research Library, and the Atlanta History Center. And now, with the JSTOR and Google projects, many of these can be read online.
If one develops a keen sense of history through exploration in original and printed sources he or she will discover, contrary to the platform of the Tea Partyers, that the United States did not emerge from a revolution against British tyranny to become the world’s greatest democracy.
As many scholars suggest, the war for independence, was probably just as much about preserving the economic interests that the colonists had been allowed to pursue largely unfettered up until 1763 as it was a protest against taxation without representation. Thus by 1773 a group of men, some respected members of Boston society, disguised themselves as Indians, some scholars suggest so as not to be recognized by the authorities, and threw the British tea into the Boston Harbor. But as this incident, the war itself, and the new government indicate, this movement was both racist and sexist –Indians (or Native Americans), Blacks and women were excluded. And they remained excluded until Black men technically won the right to vote in 1870 and women not until 1919.
With a keen sense of history, one might agree that the origins of the Civil War, like that of the Revolutionary War, lay largely in economic interests. The commercial and industrialized North did not want slavery to expand into the West, while the agricultural South felt that its economic interests demanded such expansion. And as to whether African Americans should commemorate the Civil War, an informed understanding of history would reveal that while Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a major catalyst toward freedom, it took the Union victory in the war to seal it. Thus as an African American one can commemorate the burning of Atlanta, for when William Tecumseh Sherman humbled this gateway to Dixie, it was probably one of the best things to happen for the future of the city.
Alton Hornsby Jr is Fuller E. Callaway Professor of History (Retired) Morehouse College. Among his major publications are Southerners Too?: Essays on the Black South and African Americans in the Post-Emancipation South: The Outsiders’ View.