Still Fighting After All These Years

There are some who say, race is no longer an issue, and the proof is that we elected an African-American president in 2008.

I’m not sure if I agree. I’m a bit skeptical that hundreds of years of prejudice, unfairness and barriers, could have been wiped out with a single election.  But, what do I know? After all, I used to think that the Civil War ended in 1865 when it was declared, well, over. But, turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Years ago, before I moved to California, I’d moved to Maryland and, if you know anything about Maryland, you know that it’s one of those states that seems to straddle the North and South. Well, in my 3 ½ years of living there, here’s what I noticed:

Every time we went on a family outing, spending the day at a fair, a harvest festival, or some other community event—whether in Maryland or nearby Virginia, there’d be men, and sometimes women, reenacting a Civil War battle. In 42 months, I must have witnessed at least a dozen such reenactments.

Which just goes to show you: the Civil War hasn’t ended. It lives on and on, in a proverbial loop, in some parts of this country. It’s not easy letting go of old wounds. It’s probably why in some states they still fly the Confederate flag.

The official end of the Civil War was about 147 years. Perhaps that’s not enough time to let bygones be bygones.  Maybe the reason this war continues to be relived by so many, is for purely innocent reasons–a love of war, a love of wearing uniforms, and a love of flying flags–and nothing to do with any attempt to hold on to the glory days of the genteel, Old South. When men were gentlemen, ladies enjoyed their leisure, and slaves were the foundation of a lifestyle that made it all possible.

No doubt, these reenactments are intended in some way to teach the next generation about a period in American history.  But, to watch these battles relived, I can’t help but wonder if the participants are also trying to re-write history. Maybe they’re hoping this time they’ll get it right and experience the taste of victory?

True story:  When my son was about three, we went to Virginia for a summer festival. You know the kind. Where they sell crafts made by local artisans, and have activities for the kiddies. Where you can buy corn on the cob and sausages on the grill.  After walking around quite a bit, on that hot, humid day, we sat down at a picnic bench, where I overheard a conversation between a mother, who happened to be white, and her son.

The son, a pink-cheeked boy of about six, pointed to a scrimmage underway on the hillside, and said, “Mommy, what are they doing up there?”

The mother replied, “Sweetie, they’re reenacting a battle from the Civil War.”

I looked up and, sure enough, there were men in the distance, in full Civil War regalia. Some wearing the uniform of Confederates and others dressed as Yankee soldiers.

“What’s the Civil War, Mommy?”

The mother then explained about the war between the North and the South, as best she could to such a young child. Finally, the boy asked the question any kid would want to know, “Who won the war, Mommy?”

The mother’s response to this question surprised me. Forlornly, she shook her head, and sighed, “We lost, Dear. We lost the war.”

We?

This is how it starts. A word. An expression. A seed is planted. It’s them against us, us against them. As we continue to deal with the shakeout of a war that ended long before any of us were on this earth.

Note how the mother didn’t say, the North won or the South lost. She said, “we lost.”  As if the war had ended just the week before, instead of 147 years earlier. As if the defeat—losing the war and freeing the slaves—still weighed heavily on her heart. And yet, maybe it does.

Maybe it’s a part of what ails this country today. Once defined by region, the North and South, now, because of personal mobility, defined instead by party affiliation, the red states and blue states. The scars of the past are firmly implanted on our beings.

Which is why I wonder, if someone can harbor strong feelings about the Civil War, several generations later, then how can race ever become a non-issue? Reminds me of the Oscar and Hammerstein song, You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught, from the musical, South Pacific.

You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Prejudice. We pass it on, generation to generation. We hold grudges along with our preconceived notions. Seems to me, it’s easier to forget where you last placed the car keys than it is to let go of feelings ingrained in our youth.But, what do you think?

Be sure to visit the Race 2012 website and check out our amazing bloggers! You’ll find a complete list of their posts right here, on the Race 2012 Blogging Project page.

Finally, I leave you with an excerpt the 1958 film version of South Pacific, starring John Kerr and Rossano Brazzi.

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38 thoughts on “Still Fighting After All These Years

  1. Interesting post Monica.

    Race will always be an issue as long as people spend more time looking back than looking forward.

    Here in the UK our version is what’s called by some “The Irish Issue”. Where we have the Republic of Ireland which is predominately Catholic and Northern Ireland which is Predominately Protestant.

    For longer than most people had been alive the two religions fought each other, now I am no expert on Irish History, but I remember the IRA bombings in Birmingham and the deaths both in Ireland and on the UK mainland all in the name of religion, it almost made me proud to be an atheist. Even as a youngster it was obvious to me that in the end nobody would win and the only way to progress would be to live together in peace. This has largely happened and only the occasional problem makes people look back to the past.

    In my mind you have the same with race and colour irrespective of the country, condemning each other and fighting either physically or verbally will never ever result in a winner. Living together and respecting differences and learning from each other is the only way forward there is no other option.

    Looking at the American Presidential race as an outsider I am amazed at how people get swept up in the staged excitement at meetings and rallies. One thing comes to my mind and that is a person who votes for somebody solely because they are the same colour as them is no different to somebody who wont vote for somebody because they are not the same colour. Neither of the two candidates has the monopoly on being right, both have in the past and will in the future make mistakes, it’s human nature. But the way to win a battle is not to belittle the opponent, it is to show your best is better than their best, and perhaps acknowledge that your opponent is not an ogre, but just human.

    • Re-enactments are not a southern thing. There are re-enactments throughout Europe about medieval wars and the renaissance. About periods in a people’s history that captures our imagination. As a Georgia native and a family history that spans South Carolina and Georgia I want to participate in these re-enactments as well. In no attempt as you say to rewrite history but to show respect for my ancestors who fought to protect their native land from destruction by invading Federal armies. They failed as Sherman destroyed the livlyhood of all that stood in his hordes path. What little my family owned was burned or siezed by the feds as spoils of war. After which my family only reletively recently recovered. My father born in 1950 was the first generation not to live in extreme poverty and his father to a smaller extent. Many other southern families have the same story to tell. Both white and black. The great depression for the south started in the 1860s as a direct result of the war and lasted generations.

      I am fortunate to be born when I was in the early 90s because two or three generations of my family earlier I would be living in the third world poverty that resulted from failure in that war. For my family this depression lasted from the 1860s to the 1940s. And I believe that the rewriting of our history is happening in the classrooms more than these battlefields. So I feel great pride in wearing my Confederate Grey uniform in an effort to preserve and honor my history.

      PS: Just my take on it.

  2. Oh I wish there was a “love” button. I loved this post, Monica. Those reenactments give me heebie jeebies. I think if that part of history really “mattered” to me (i.e., held the old school ideals, believe in what was happening at the time, still believe that the south will rise again) then yes, I guess I would participate because it would be important to me. But because I choose to look forward, I’m not interested in rewriting or reliving history (or even erasing it…as we all know that happens)…I’m interested in living in my present and creating my future. I just wrote an entry about the presidential race [http://tinyurl.com/9svjsw2]…sadly it is about race…sadly it is about gender…and sadly it is about money. All the things that the “haves” don’t think should matter.

  3. I think you’re spot on in this post Monica. It’s really sad that we still have so much of this going on in the world today. I worry that a lot of the right wing educational battles are really about hanging on to the right to teach their children who to hate. Like LIke Like this post.

    • Thank you, Lisa. I’m touched that you like it so much. The conversation I overheard that day between mother and child clearly had an impact on me for I’ve never forgotten. I’d seen so many reenactments by then, but until that moment I hadn’t realize the depth of the significance of these battles on so many people. It was startling and eye-opening.

  4. I agree so much is “carefully taught.” And I have found as much as it can be so carefully taught, it can be dispelled through teachable disarming moments.

    I remember once volunteering to mentor a group of young Mexican American girls in a project. The leader bluntly told me “If you’re here to do good, think twice.” I shot back a “Creo que puedo identificar con estas niñas” and he never questioned me again.

    At a meeting of influence I heard still another leader state “I think we have them under control.” I asked matter of factly, “Who is them?” All at the meeting understood my voice, my role in the organization. They learned to not utter such subtleties around me. I was keenly aware that they had hired me my based on my appearance and my previous record of objective hard work. What they got, and hadn’t bargained for was the something else I brought to the table. I lasted 30+ years with them.

    My department chair expressed to me five years ago, we need a native Spanish speaker to teach this. I told him “I have a Mexican birth certificate and Spanish was my first language.” It was summer school, so it was “safe” to give me the class, so he “tested me”. Five years later I still teach that class and today (coincidence) I start teaching it in a compressed 8 week format.

    I could go on and on…but I don’t. I don’t want to alienate…just make people think an extra beat, remember and perhaps reconsider the stereotypes they harbor.

    • Georgette, thank you for your perspective and for sharing your experience. Wow. Good wake up call for all of us not to jump the gun, and be too hasty in forming our preconceived notions. Kudos to you for not letting those prejudices make you retreat. Too often we do give up, rather than challenge the way things are.

  5. How right that song is, carefully taught bigotry, bias, prejudice and most importantly fear. How strange, even so long ago we knew yet refused to recognize.

    Wonderfully done Monica.

    • Thank you, Valentine. I’ve always loved that song, even long before I understood what it meant. It is so powerful and Rogers and Hammerstein addressed prejudice quite a bit through their music, in a time when it was taboo to discuss.

  6. This is so interesting. I’m not a writer so responding on a public forum is a bit intimidating. I think it’s always worth while to bring forward topics that make us stop and think before we answer. Politics and Religion are always the topics we want to avoid at the dinner table or in company where we might not know who will lash out at us for thinking differently. Race is comes in a close third as it is something we all want to think we have moved to a higher level of thought on but really there is always some part of us that holds onto our fears of someone being different then who we are as an individual. Our President has made race an issue himself when the media described him as our first African American candidate and then President and he hardly made a sound to say he was born to his white mother and his grandparents were white who helped raise him. His father was non existent for the most part yet Dad is who he chooses to identify with. Many people may have voted for him because he was black as well as many who voted against him for the same reason. This time around it will be about what he has or hasn’t done during his presidency. It’s like any job one gets in this world, looks may get you in the door but its what you do afterward with the job that will measure your success.

    • Please don’t feel intimidated about commenting because you’re not a “writer.” Believe it or not, you are. You have stated your thoughts well. It’s true, we don’t talk about race much. It is often the elephant in the room. And I wish, just once, a reporter interviewing the president would just ask that question. “Why don’t you call yourself biracial?” By ignoring the other half of his roots, those who are biracial (aka, my kids), are feeling left out of the conversation.

  7. Damn, this is a great post, Monica! What a powerful conversation you over-heard! You analyis is spot-on, my friend. And I love that you bring in South Pacific to illustrate. I haven’t seek that musical in years, but THAT IS the perfect illustration of this. Well done, my friend! Really well done!
    Hugs,
    ‘Kathy

    • Kathy, thank you! Sometimes I feel that certain conversations, certain posts seem to alienate my readers more than draw them in. But comments like your make me feel I’m on the right track. Sending hugs right back at you, my friend!

  8. You make a very good point of prejudices and grudges!
    On another note, your post is very timely (speaking of Maryland)! Sometimes the school curriculum is to blame. During this 200th anniversary of The War 1812, it has come to my attention that its outcome (i.e. who won) is still contested. Here I thought all along (read: was taught in school) that the Canadians (British) won.

    • True, Astra, we could blame the schools, but, in this case, I’m not sure the schools are responsible for the keen interest in reenacting battles, and keeping the war going. Oh well. If they ever resolve the 1812 war, I hope you’ll let us know who won! ;)

  9. People continue to fight battles that began centuries ago, always focusing on what makes us different rather then the ways we are the same. It’s baffling and frustrating. I can only hope that projects like Race 2012 will lead us away from that history.

  10. I think the saddest thing about the Civil War, Monica, is that we ALL lost — we lost family members, we lost our trust in national unity, we lost untold money. Yes, the South lost its genteel way of life; the North suffered the death of even more of its sons. Would that this kind of brother-against-brother war would never occur again!

    • Debbie, that is so true. You raise a very valid point. And here, nearly 150 years later, we’re still losing. As long as we can’t come together, as long as we remain so divisive, we’re still losing.

  11. Great post. Love and Hatred appears to be inherited. Human beings learn to either love or hate themselves or others. Sometimes it is not verbally passed down but in our expressions. But when we know better we are expected to do better. Sadly, we keep repeating the same mistakes because we continue to enforce the same old policies, the same institutional structure passed down from previous generations. Yet there are many Americans that feel that racism no longer exists.

    Unfortunately, there are folks that feel the South should have won the Civil War. As scarey as it seems, it is true.

    • Julene, It would be nice if we could change history, but to think of any other outcome for the Civil War, is really frightening. I’m afraid there are people who still carry a chip on their shoulder about it and it’s going to take much more than time to heal those old wounds.

  12. Wow, I cannot believe that! What a greta topic for a post. Shocking, isn’t it? A great illustration of us-them thinking, the duality that is ruining the world, and can be found right in our back yard.

  13. I think we live in a horribly divided country . . . and it distressed me greatly. You’re so right in your observation re: how insidious prejudice is. Two words — “we lost” — are all it takes to pass along the wrong subliminal message. How to change the narrow view into a larger one that embraces our differences is the challenge.

    • Deborah, my heart literally sank when I heard those words. I was stunned that anyone in this day and age could even think that way! But there it is, and here we are. And it goes on and on.

  14. As Jodi stated, it’s in our own backyard but I have to add that it’s in various pockets of the world. When I was in Germany, there was another reenactment right on a military post Well, it was over actually and the ‘soldier’ was crossing the street and the car ahead, the driver that is, let that guy know how displeased, and I say that nicely, he was of him parading that confederate uniform. There was almost a knockdown drag-out in the middle of the road. The wife in the car got her husband back in the car but it was heated.

    There’s a sense of loyalty and honor in keeping these kinda things going. It’s embedded at a young age, as you somewhat witnessed with that mother and son. It’s a sickness passed on that holds value for some folk.

    • Let me get this straight, Totsy. They were reenacting the Civil War–in Germany? I thought you were going to say they were reenacting WW II in Germany. That would make more sense. Anyway, the reenactors should stick to doing it in the South. I assume it’s safer to do there. I imagine many of those involved have ancestors who fought in this war and are proud of their heritage because of it. So, it is for them, they continue the fight.

  15. Monica, I don’t understand this senseless need to re-enact the battles either. Aren’t we already steeped in division? too much I’d say. Words are the most powerful too we have. Such a pity then, that we hold on to so much and pass it on to the next generation. I try to be so mindful when I talk to my children, I hope I say all the right things. With this race alone, there is so much division: rich vs. poor, upper class vs. middle class and on and on, it goes. I don’t know if we can mend it all or heal. Not everyone wants to talk about it, except a few of us :-)

    • MM, Steeped in division is an understatement. We’re so far gone. No matter who wins the presidency, there’s going to be more infighting, and stonewalling in the government. We are in a mess. If we were a couple, we’d be getting a divorce and one of us would be moving out. But we’re not, and so the fighting continues. But for how long can we go on like this?

  16. I don’t know Monica, it is so worrying. Then you get the folk like Donald Trump and Gloria Aldred making a joke of a statement about releasing new information about the candidates which could change the way the election goes – really?? Is there anyone who take Donald Trump seriously anymore? I mean, so much is happening out there, creating more division, going all out to make sure one candidate doesn’t get elected – is that the American way? No, not the last time I checked.

  17. Monica, I’m with Debbie–we all lose in situations like a war. Like you mention in your reply, until we can reach cohesion, our country will continue to suffer. Prejudice is one of the factors that is detrimental to our achieving unity. The conversation you overheard is the perfect example of how resentment still lives and breathes in many people. Hopefully projects like this one will open our eyes to the importance of respecting our differences. Hugs! :)

    • Bella, sometimes I wonder. How did we get this way and more importantly, what will it take to get out of it? Since I’ve been able to vote, every presidential campaign seems to get more divisive than the last, and just when I think it can’t get worse than this, it does. But, this is the first time it feels so wrong, too. The way some interject race in such a negative way, like questioning the patriotism of the president, not to mention his birthplace. It’s so, so sad.

  18. Yes, I know, I am WAAAAAY late to the party. Interesting convo, and I love the South Pacific clip and lyrics. (Damn all those commie Hollywood writers and their liberal idears!)

    They actually have regular Civil War re-enactments here in SoCal, too, up at Fort Tejon. I’ve been to a couple of them; my ex was a fan.

    The whole issue of being a re-enacter (of whatever) is complicated, IMO. I think, in the cases of people who hook into the Civil or even Revolutionary War (there are those, too), or the Renaissance Faires (something I like to do OCCASIONALLY), or the Titanic Historical Society, there is a romance in escaping to an earlier time, when life was simpler. (At least, so it seems from our current POV, I’m sure life was just as complicated and messy if you lived in that era). It’s a way of testing your courage/response (I could be wrong, but I got the impression that few of the re-enacters actually served in the US military, present-day), in a deeper way than watching a movie or reading a book. And, for the Civil War & Revolutionary peeps, it’s a chance to fire some really cool weapons, even cannons! (Even if they’re loaded with blanks.) For the Renfaire peeps, swordfights!

    For some, racism is a part of the lure – I would guess on both for those who choose to wear Confederate gray OR Union blue. (See, I’m not a racist, I’m fighting on the Union side!) And certainly that convo you heard “we lost” – we?! Really? (Not to mention, Maryland never seceded from the Union, so if the woman was a Maryland native, she was identifying with the wrong side.)

    I carry much hope as our country continues to become integrated – what young white person today *doesn’t* have African-American friends, bi-racial friends, Latino friends, gay friends, differently-abled friends? that race relations will improve, and that fear/intolerance of the “other” will recede.

    • Beverly, First let me say, it’s never too late to comment on any topic and I appreciate you weighing in on such an important topic. Like you, I am also hopeful that as the face of this nation changes, becoming even more diverse, attitudes, preconceptions will change too, and for the better. Here’s to a brighter future.

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