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.”


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?

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