Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Was James Baldwin a Black Confederate?

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on October 5, 2013

The nice folks over at SHPG often have trouble mangling quotes (or misappropriating them), but this is spectacular:

Blank

Baldwin

Blank

Who knew that James Baldwin, who died in 1987, had written about the Civil War sesquicentennial of 2011-15?

Adams’ and Stones’ quotation is an amalgam of two paragraphs, lifted en bloc from a 2010 essay by David Blight. The first part of the quote actually is Baldwin’s, from a 1951 essay in which he describes Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, as “the most powerful and celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America.” Baldwin was not referring to the Civil War at all, but about Wright’s novel, and offering a critique of the American habit of using patriotic tropes and clichés to paper over the uglier realities — social, political, racial — that underlie so much of the American experience. Note also that Baldwin’s original passage includes the key adverb “unhappily,” that makes his disapproval perfectly clear, and which Adams and Stones omit:

Blank

The feeling which prevailed at the time of [the book’s] publication was that such a novel, bitter, uncompromising, shocking, gave proof, by its very existence, of what strides might be taken in a free democracy; and its indisputable success, proof that Americans were now able to look full in the face without flinching the dreadful fact. Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.
Blank

In short, Baldwin is criticizing exactly what “heritage” groups do every day of the week.

The second part, beginning “we should decorate our battlefield heroes. . . ,” are the words of David Blight, the Yale historian who’s written extensively on the legacy of the war, and how it’s been remembered by different generations since 1865. Rounding out his essay with the Baldwin quote, he continues and calls on Americans to put aside convoluted and abstract notions about what caused the war:

Blank
We should decorate our battlefield heroes, and we have been doing so for a century and a half. We can only wonder whether this time, during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we can finally face the past and probe the real causes and consequences of that conflict, or whether we will content ourselves again with unexamined moral contradictions and piquant confections in our public memory.
Blank

Adams and Stone run these two passages together, attributing the whole thing to Baldwin, then omit Blight’s closing lines, where he rejects the appeal of “piquant confections” and instead calls on Americans to embrace the candor of former Confederate General John Singleton Mosby, who wrote in 1907,

Blank
Now while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance – Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates & cattle thieves. People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of slavery. South Carolina went to war – as she said in her Secession proclamation – because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding.
Blank
 

To be fair, Blight also left out that critical word “unhappily” from Baldwin’s quote, but — unlike Adams and Stone — he didn’t misunderstand or misrepresent Baldwin’s meaning.

Aside from the gross sloppiness of running Baldwin’s and Blight’s quotes together as one, the lack of comprehension about what either man is saying is just breathtaking, as if either one had any truck with the sort of nonsense Confederate Heritage™ groups have been peddling all these years. Adams and Stones either have no idea who James Baldwin was, or (at least) cynically assume their readers don’t. And that’s probably not a bad bet, if you think about it.

Of course, James Baldwin’s legacy is secure, no matter how his words get chopped and mangled to others’ ends. Among his other attributes, Baldwin had a wicked sense of irony. Somewhere, John and Gary, he’s laughing. And he’s not laughing with you.

___________

GeneralStarsGray

Advertisements

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Jon said, on October 5, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    Nice catch Andy!

  2. Nora Carrington said, on October 5, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    The picture of Baldwin with the monument — 19th cent., not sure it’s Civil War or not — is spectacular. Any more details on it?

  3. Paul Mullins said, on October 5, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    A really wonderful dismantling of yet another transparent historical distortion.But even by the most ideologically biased historiographical standards, contriving a quote is bold.

  4. H. E. Parmer said, on October 6, 2013 at 2:04 am

    Remarkably clueless, for true. And on so many levels.

    The CH crew seem to have such a cartoonish view of history that it’s simply impossible for them to admit human beings can perform acts of incredible courage and self-sacrifice in the service of a rotten cause. I could almost admire their quixotic tenacity in trying to rehabilitate the Antebellum South, when the demographics are against them on the white supremacy angle and these days treating people as property is kind of frowned upon.

    That is, I could, if they didn’t casually mangle history and beat up so many strawmen, while avoiding the question, with a never-fails fallback strategy of persecuted whining.

  5. Duane Whitlock said, on October 11, 2013 at 8:21 am

    “Now while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance – Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates & cattle thieves. People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of slavery. South Carolina went to war – as she said in her Secession proclamation – because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding.”

    This quote is a wonderful tool to use when accusing the Lost Cause crowd of not having the courage to recognize what their ancestors really fought for. It leaves them sputtering and spitting mad. Thanks Andy!

    • Andy Hall said, on October 11, 2013 at 10:47 am

      Men like Mosby are more deserving of respect, at least for their candor, than those like Early who tried, with much success, to completely re-imagine what the war was about and to deny their own defeat as having been legitimate.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: