History—Not Was, But Is

DSC00528History is not was, it is. This pithy and prophetic statement is attributed to the quintessential white Southern writer, William Faulkner. Having read most all of his novels and short stories, this sounds like something he would say. And I label the statement prophetic because to not understand and heed these wise words—which he had to have said pre Civil Rights era—contributes to the problems that plague our country today.

I have written extensively about my own upbringing and deep roots in the American South, including being raised at the South’s first racially integrated children’s summer camp in KKK country, on land scarred by slavery and the Cold Harbor, Virginia battles of the Civil War. On my father’s side, I am related by blood to Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy, wife of Jefferson Davis, who was President of the Confederate States of America. I went to Battlefield Park Elementary School, Stonewall Jackson Junior High School, and Lee Davis High School (The Rebels as school mascot) and I was fed a continuous stream of misinformation and historical revisionism at this string of public schools. A high school classmate was the son of the Grand Dragon of the regional KKK and I received assault/death threats from him (conveyed through my Biology teacher to my parents) when I campaigned for Jimmy Carter. I knew that the Civil War was very much alive and unwell.

It still is. And not just in the American South. White supremacist hate groups exist throughout the U.S. and have grown in strength and number and venom. They are invited by Republican student groups to our college campuses. They actively recruit on and around college campuses and high schools, as well as through social media. For a deeply disturbing and important recent Propublica video report on this see “Inside the Secret Chat Logs of American Nazis.”  The Seattle Times recently published an article by Jim Brunner, “Report: Washington State home to one of the largest cells of notorious white supremacist group” (February 23, 2018). Resistance to hate is not passive, it is active.

In the words of Barbara J. Fields, professor of American History at Columbia University:

“I think what we need to remember most of all is that the Civil War is not over until we today have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. William Faulkner once said that history is, not was—it’s is and what we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is in the present as well as in the past. The generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes and lost futures, also established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work.

You can say that there is no such thing as slavery anymore—we’re all citizens–but if we’re all citizens then we have a task to do to make sure that it is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, then the Civil War is still going on, it is still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.” (From the Ken Burns PBS series The Civil War, episode nine.)

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