Are Civil War reenactments inherently racist?

The most powerful politician in South Carolina, who was photographed posing as a confederate solider with black slaves at a GOP fundraiser, has come under a lot of criticism, including on this blog, to explain what he was doing. Glenn McConnell, a white Charleston Republican and president pro tem of the Senate, and a handful of white Civil War-era re- enactors were invited along with Gullah storytellers Frank and Sharon Murray, who portrayed traditional Lowcountry blacks from the 1860s, to participate in "A Southern Experience," an event hosted Friday in Charleston by the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women.The event drew 300 female political activists from across the country, including places as far away as Alaska, California and Texas. McConnell says snapshot actually shows just how far the state has come in race relations, despite what the blogosphere might have to say. Others disagree.

"This is just another blight," said Dot Scott, the president of the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"The big picture is how little progress we have made in being human beings in this state," said Lonnie Randolph, the president of the South Carolina NAACP.

McConnell and others involved with the event wonder what all the fuss is about. From the South Carolina Post and Courier:

McConnell has been a re- enactor for 20 years. He said re-enactors like himself enjoy the pastime as a hobby. He said it also provides a chance to bring history alive and to teach the public about the past. He wasn't paid for his participation.

"What the ladies had put together was a smorgasbord of Southern culture," McConnell said. "It was reflected in the dress, the historical accuracy of the performances and even down to the food. It was wonderful, entertaining and educational night for those visitors. It showed the approach we have in this state of a shared history.

"If somebody is trying to be politically correct and use a tunnel vision on it and hook in the slavery issue, they're on a slippery slope toward narrow-mindedness and they should extend the charity of understanding. Receive it in the spirit that it is presented."

Unless one was there, one can't be sure of the spirit in which it was presented.

From the South Carolina daily paper The State, context is everything:

The image comes just months ahead of what likely will be a years-long sesquicentennial observance of South Carolina’s role in the Civil War, from its storied secession from the Union on Dec. 20, 1860, to the first shots fired in the war at Fort Sumter in April 1861.

Courson, like McConnell, is a student of the Civil War and the Confederacy. He’s hoping South Carolina can have civil discussions about the war and the era, but the McConnell photo flap has him worried.

“People may not want to be around here over the course of the next four to five years with all of the (planned Civil War remembrances),” Courson said.

South Carolina has big plans for the Civil War anniversary.

“That’s one of the biggest events as far as national or international events go,” said Marion Edmunds, spokesman for the state Parks, Recreation and Tourism department, which is planning events for the 150-year observance.

The media dust-up surrounding the McConnell photograph would likely have been less of an event had the re-enactors not forgotten one rule: “Once you put on that costume, one of the keys is to stay in the moment,” said Ty Collins, a retired English professor and actor who has worked with Frank and Sharon Murray, the two African-Americans in the photograph with McConnell.

“If actors aren’t in the moment, it can convey the wrong message. To freeze in time in a photograph (wearing period garb) can reignite old tensions.”

South Carolina has its share, of course, of antebellum plantations, slave cabins, and the oftentimes painful history that comes with them, from Redcliffe Plantation in Beech Island, where former governor James Henry Hammond declared “Cotton is King,” to Rose Hill Plantation, where Gov. William Gist presided over the state’s secession.

J.R. Fennel, director of the Lexington County Museum, said the state sometimes is at a loss to adequately interpret the history that accompanies its historic sites, in part because of the difficulty in finding people who will participate as re-enactors, particularly African-American re-enactors.

And that, Fennel said, is due in part to South’s failure to deal forthrightly with its history. “We have had a hard time recruiting African-Americans,” Fennel said.

A 1771 log cabin at the museum, for instance, lost a female African-American re-enactor when a child visiting the museum asked a question about the black re-enactor’s role in the cabin, and the parent accurately responded, “She’s a slave,” Fennel recalled.

Some people say the NAACP and others who are offended by the "slave actors" just don't get it. It's a southern thing, they say. Indeed, Civil War reenactments are big events in the deep south. It is hard to make a snap judgment about such events having not attended them. But again, it's about context. If an event is done like a play, it can be a historical lesson, and entertaining. If it is done as a glorification of slavery on the old south, then not so much. It may be all in the eyes of the beholder.

But one has to ask: how many black people attend Civil War reenactments? How many black people attended the GOP event? If the only black people there were actors, one can hope they were at least paid well.

On a related note, here is a piece about the history of African Americans in "white" historical institutions:


White Institutions in the Black Consciousness Era

Until recently, most major Americans museums -- even the newer "living history" museums -- continued to exclude or ignore African American materials, with the exception of a few artists.

Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. for example, made no mention of the fact that a third of all nineteenth-century seamen were African American. The restoration of Colonial Williamsburg which was intended to he historically accurate, ignored the fact that 50 percent of Williamsburg's inhabitants had been African American.

This began to change when museums realized that minorities constituted a significant portion of their audience and that many of these new audiences came to museums to partake of exhibitions or programming that related to their history and culture. In the late 1970s, Colonial Williamsburg began to incorporate African Americans into its interpretative framework, particularly at the Carter's Grove plantation.

Before 1965, the Smithsonian virtually ignored African American materials and concerns. Over time, Black cultural activists and Black members of Congress, who approved its budget, began to criticize this lack of diversity.

A turning point for the Smithsonian was reached when Ralph Rinzler, a cultural populist, established the annual Festival of American Folklife whose American components immediately featured African American and Native American experiences, providing a stage for Black music -- including jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, spirituals, and freedom songs. The festival also presented music and dance from the African Diaspora -- including Reggae and Calypso. The activists, scholars and artists whom Rinzler hired to coordinate these programs created the first critical mass of minority professionals at the Smithsonian -- including Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who produced the Smithsonian's brilliantly successful three-month long African Diaspora Festival in 1976. For perhaps the first time in American history, a Black American mythos -- the notion of the unity of African people across time and space -- was presented by a major cultural institution. In 1977, Reagon established the Program in Black American Culture as an independent entity within the Division of Performing Arts.

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