Dancing for Mental Health

23 Jul 2009

emancipation-prEvery year, on a Friday in May, the French Road Elementary School in Brighton, NY, celebrates Civil War Day. All the fifth graders, as well as faculty and staff, dress up in period costumes and dance the Virginia Reel in the gym. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s quite a thing to see the Blue and Gray uniforms, farmer’s overalls, and hoop skirts swirling around and into each other in a noisy, confused, jumble of laughter.

According to my oldest son, who was there three years ago, the school makes sure that all the roles are given equal exposure so that no side is under-represented. (To this day I wonder which Uniform the students pick most.) The idea, apparently, is to give equal time to all groups involved in the struggle.

Well, they seem to have missed some. At my first meeting with the parenting group Raising Black Children in the Brighton Schools, I learned that, along with such issues as a mostly white faculty and subtle academic profiling, Civil War Day is considered a divisive custom by many families in the system. As a history buff, this pushed one of my favorite buttons, and I jumped a little bit. But after brief reflection, this lack of interest started to make sense.

The Civil War is very popular with white America. It was a war fought in the name of freedom, variously defined, and one which we all got through, not only with the country intact, but with a new feel-good moment thrown into the bargain. Confederates still express pride in their defense of The Lost Cause, while we Yankees can sleep at night believing in the holiness of a War for Emancipation. As Maine’s Colonel Chamberlain says in Ted Turner’s film, Gettysburg, “We are an army out to set other men free.” A noble casus belli followed by the end of slavery. No wonder we’re proud.

But did the North go to war to eradicate slavery? Draft riots in New York, mass disruptions of abolitionist meetings in Boston, presidential schemes to ship all blacks off to Haiti, the misuse of “contraband” during the war – proof abounds that, while most Northeners were certainly opposed to slavery in the abstract, very few of them actually wanted “Africans” living with them and taking their jobs. The popular image of 50,000 Union troops marching into Virginia, singing “John Brown’s Body” and hauling bolt cutters, is a pleasing fiction, at best.

At worst, it’s a badge that is openly worn by those complaining about Affirmative Action or other Socialist plots: “My people ended slavery, so love me.” The most egregious example of this destructive complaisancy I’ve come across lately is Ann Coulter’s column, My Triumph Over Kwanzaa!, in which she says, “Kwanzaa liberates no one; Christianity liberates everyone, proclaiming that we are all equal before God… Not surprisingly, it was practitioners of that faith who were at the forefront of the abolitionist and civil rights movements.”

Not surprisingly, indeed, considering what percentage of the population in the 19th Century was Christian. I don’t know the numbers, but Drew Gilpin Faust, in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, gives a hint when she writes that Jewish soldiers “constituted less than three-tenths of a percent of Civil War armies.” Now, unless we suppose that the remaining soldiers were atheists, or Hindoos, saying that they were Christian is about as meaningful as saying they had noses.

And, of course, Christianity was used by whites on both sides of the slavery issue. To take one easily found quote, from none other than Jefferson Davis: “[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God. It is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation… ” Also, in a wonderful book entitled These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American History, Thomas Desjardin includes a photo of 10,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan, gathered on Gettysburg’s Oak Ridge in 1926 (a spot that, a few years later, would be home to The Eternal Light Peace Monument). In front of the crowd is a large white sign that proclaims, WE GO TO CHURCH. DO YOU?

The picture of the Klan at Gettysburg is a grim reminder that, while we’re patting ourselves on the back over the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, we need to stop and look at what the end of the war did — and did not — bring about. The history of Reconstruction is painful in the extreme. Historian Eric Foner called it “the darkest page in the saga of American history.” And the ink was barely dry at Appomattox before there began a period of hand-shaking, monument-building, and selective oblivion that continues to this day.

All Is ForgottenThirteen years before the Klan gathered in Gettysburg, over 50,000 veterans attended that battle’s 50th Anniversary Reunion. It was a veritable orgy of reconciliation. The Washington Post said at the time, “Nothing could possibly be more impressive or more inspiring to the younger generation than this gathering. They feel the thrill of bygone days, without a knowledge of its bitterness, which, thank God, has passed us all.” All?

And Woodrow Wilson, delivering what I suppose was a second Gettysburg Address, said that the last 50 years had meant “peace and union and vigor, and the maturity and might of a great nation. How wholesome and healing the peace has been! We have found one another again as brothers and comrades, in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten…” (italics mine).

Wilson also stated that mentioning the actual cause of the War was an “impertinence.” That same year, he instituted segregation in federal government offices, and when a delegation of blacks came before him to protest, he told them he “resented (their) tone.”

Is it any wonder that there was still a need for a Civil Rights Act in 1964?

But enough. Many Americans aren’t interested the Civil War. They find it boring, or corny, or the playground of middle-aged history buffs. Others, though, have found that they can’t relate to it at all, except sardonically, and it’s a sobering thought that an event of such staggering proportions for some of us is not history for all of us. Never mind the warnings of mono-culturalists like Linda Chavez, who, in Demystifying Multiculturalism, asserts that the apostles of divisiveness merely need to be quiet in order for us all to settle down into a smooth communal narrative. It seems to me that such a thing does not exist, that American history is already made up of many parallel stories, and if we are to progress as a nation we should start telling those stories to each other. More importantly, we need to become aware of our own, and the ongoing impact that living within the myths of our own tribe has on the well being of our neighbors.

So as the French Road School prepares for the Virginia Reel next year — and it really is a wonderful event — I believe we should expand our costume inventory, and address the reason why there are families in Brighton that choose not to dance.



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