By DAVID C. TRIMBLE
Misguided attempts to address the issues of race relations in this country continue to abound. Recently, we have read in the news about protests of the Confederate battle flag and "Rebel" mascot used at Allen Central High School in Kentucky, and about legislation being introduced in Virginia to require that state to make a formal apology for slavery as part of the "Jamestown 400" celebration of the founding of America.
I have written in this space about Confederate flags before, and will not belabor the point. Historically, that flag, as well as some 28 other flags under which Confederate troops fought, should properly be seen as a vestige of a very troubled time in our country’s history, without which we would not be the bastion of democracy we are today. Historically, the War Between the States was almost inevitable from the time the Founding Fathers chose not to address the "deal-breaker" issues of sectional differences in forming our Constitution.
As a Civil War reenactor and living historian, I am offended by those who co-opt the Confederate battle flag and use it as a symbol of racism. Those individuals are wrong to be racists, and wrong to profane a historic flag with their venom. However, the numbers of people, of any race, who are so shortsighted that all they see in that flag are the wrong-headed racists also disturbs me.
There is ever so much more to be gained by everyone having a correct and honest appraisal of that time in our collective history. It is indeed sad that much of what happened in America in the 19th century has been reduced to myth and legend, and most of our schools barely make a legitimate effort to teach the facts. History, after all, is not an ACT/SAT subject, and thus is too often either left to be taught by the football coach, or ignored altogether.
The idea of legislated apologies for slavery, and even of having some governments pay money reparations for slavery, however, is even further beyond the pale of doing something sensible to address racial relations in this country. Those who perpetrated slavery, and the institutions they created, are long dead, as are those who were held in bondage in America. The moral wrongs of the so-called "peculiar institution" are no more, at least in this country. Payment of reparations, or passage of legislative apologies, however, will do nothing whatsoever to erase that portion of our history.
Rather than trying to inflict some sort of symbolic punishment, or exact some sort of public "mea culpa" for the sins of over 150 years ago, would it not make more sense to address the world we live in, and to thereby honor the memories of those who suffered in our past by making our present better for their descendants? We cannot travel back in time and remove the old reality of human ownership of fellow humans. Reparations or forced public apologies are not inclusive, but are divisive. Symbolic punishment creates new wounds; it does not bind up the old ones.
Much of what we believe about the slavery era is simply not factual. For example, the person I portray at some reenactments was a Marylander. He was not a slaveholder, and did not believe in slavery, but chose to fight for the South. Yet Maryland, which remained in the Union, counted some 87,000 slaves in its population in 1861. The first state to have banned importation of slaves? Virginia. The last port into which a slave ship landed in America? New York City.
Remember John Hancock, the New Englander and largest name signed at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence, which included the statement that "All men are created equal"? Much of his family fortune was made in construction of ships for the slave trade. I could fill pages with more of these, all of which illustrate the conundrum that was America in the first half of the 19th century.
Bottom line, by perpetuating "history" which is in some respects myth and legend rather than factual, and then seeking to force change, in the form of taking away flags or mascots or requiring reparations or apologies based upon untruths, we do all of us a disservice. It would be far better to embrace the truth of our common past, no matter how morally wrong it may have been, and to understand and apply the lessons to be learned from that past, for our common good as we move into the future.
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