David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: 21 Poems That Shaped America (Pt. 15): “Southern History”

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[Senior Poetry Editor Brian Spears is sitting in for David this week. –Ed.]

I suspect that if you’ve heard the name Steve Scalise, it’s because he was shot in the hip during practice for a Congressional baseball game. He represents the district where I grew up. He also once described himself as “David Duke without the baggage” of being a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, so it will likely come as no surprise that back in the mid-80s when I was in high school, my history lessons about the Civil War and slavery and Reconstruction and Jim Crow and the rest were slanted to make the South (and by extension the ancestors of many of the white kids in the room) look justified, even righteous, all while pretending white supremacy was a thing of the distant past. It’s no surprise, given this tendency in our education, that someone like Scalise has no problem returning to office every two years in this district.

The New Orleans City Council and Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently removed four post-Reconstruction era statues from city property. These statues—of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and P.T. Beauregard, and an obelisk dedicated to a group of white men who tried to overthrow the Louisiana government—were erected years after the end of the Civil War as part of what is called by Confederate apologists the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, an unfortunately successful spin amplified by Confederate General Jubal Early and Jefferson Davis among others, to minimize the role of slavery in the Civil War, and to valorize the white men who fought for the Confederacy. In a speech explaining the reasons he took the steps to remove these statues, Mayor Landrieu said:

The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal—through monuments and through other means—to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

“The Lost Cause,” was a staple of my history classes in high school, though it wasn’t called that directly. This was 1985. Ronald Reagan, who during his 1976 run for President attacked “Cadillac-driving welfare queens,” was in his second term after a massive election win. Michael J Fox’s teen heartthrob character, the Reagan conservative Alex P. Keaton was fronting the number-two rated TV show in the country, while in the top grossing movie of the year, Back to the Future, his Marty McFly was playing “Johnny B. Goode” for Chuck Berry’s brother Marvin (and thus providing a white inventor for rock and roll). I was in the poorest high school in Slidell, the smallest, with the oldest buildings. My graduating class was only a quarter black, but earlier grades had a greater proportion of black students mixed in with the working-class white majority. Our air conditioners didn’t work a third of the time and the tile floors got slick with sweat and condensation even when they did. My Civics teacher ran a three-week section on Communism using materials she’d salvaged from the Red Scare. Nearly every message my school sent the student body, white and black students alike, contained the desire for a return to a past that never existed, a past where whites were dominant and powerful and in command and where blacks were happy to be subordinate and enslaved. Think Song of the South meets Leave It to Beaver.

Native Guard is former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey’s third book and it serves as a necessary antidote to the Lost Cause narrative. In it, she explores histories that the white power structure tried to erase—for example, the Native Guard of the book’s title, a Union regiment of black soldiers who were assigned to guard Confederate prisoners, and whose memorial (which didn’t exist when she wrote this book) is small and new, especially when compared to the statues honoring Confederates which dot the Mississippi landscape. She also writes about her own connection to the region and its history. In her poem “Southern History,” Trethewey takes us inside a history classroom that reminds me very much of my own. We could almost have had the same teacher, so close is the language she uses here.

Southern History

Before the war, they were happy, he said.
quoting our textbook.  (This was senior-year

history class.)  The slaves were clothed, fed,
and better off under a master’s care
.

I watched the words blur on the page.  No one
raised a hand, disagreed.  Not even me.

It was late; we still had Reconstruction
to cover before the test, and — luckily —

three hours of watching Gone with the Wind.
History
, the teacher said, of the old South —

 

a true account of how things were back then.
On screen a slave stood big as life: big mouth,

bucked eyes, our textbook’s grinning proof — a lie
my teacher guarded.  Silent, so did I.

What was history to you as a teenager? For me it was the narrative of a country told in Presidential tenures, in wars, in important legislation, and always in white men doing things. We crammed in the end of World War II before school let out for summer and that was the end of American history for us. The intervening forty years—the Civil Rights Movement, Korea, Vietnam—might as well not have happened. And even WWII seemed impossibly far in the past to my sixteen-year-old self. Watergate wasn’t even on our radar, and that had happened only ten years earlier. The Civil War had come to a close one hundred and twenty years before. Most local white politicians, when asked about affirmative action or welfare or other social programs, argued that enough time had passed for the black community to “catch up” to whites. In 1990, only three years after I graduated, Jesse Helms ran his openly racist “Hands” ad in his North Carolina Senate race against Harry Gantt, criticizing him for being in favor of racial quotas, and he won easily. Many of those politicians, remember, had cut their teeth in the segregated south.

And maybe that’s another reason why our US History class ended where it did. You can’t talk about the 50s and 60s and 70s without talking about school desegregation and civil rights and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. It’s hard to hold the lie of Southern whites as noble sufferers just protecting their way of life when talking about Jim Crow and segregation and Loving v Virginia and affirmative action and redlining. Gone With the Wind is a long movie. You can almost spend a week on that alone.

White people like to pretend that white supremacy is a part of the distant past, but it’s right now, in the form of racial profiling and police killings of black and brown citizens, in voter suppression and disparate sentencing in criminal cases, in mortgage fraud and school zoning and a thousand other ways, including the stories we tell ourselves about the past and our place in it. If white supremacy is distant history, then we white people can claim it’s not our problem or responsibility. We can just say it happened a long time ago, to people who are dead and gone, and aren’t we happy we’ve managed to get away from those old horrible days. We can lie to each other and to ourselves, and we can lie to the people who continue to be oppressed by a society that abuses and incarcerates and murders them, all while denying this oppression is happening.

Here’s the thing I keep coming back to in Trethewey’s poem. Her speaker implicates herself twice in the poem, in line 6 and in the last sentence, as someone who was complicit in this lie because she wouldn’t speak up in that moment. But she shouldn’t have had to. It wasn’t her job. It’s unfair to ask her to take that hit—and that teacher would have made her pay for speaking up, make no mistake. She’s the most vulnerable person in that room—a mixed-race teenage girl in a class run by a white male teacher in the mid-1980s—and she still implicates herself, suggests her own guilt for not having objected.

I’m in the poem, too, or rather I’m represented by an image in the poem. I’m one of those other kids in the classroom, also not objecting. I’m not the center of this poem, but I feel the implication of Trethewey’s use of “I” just as much. I didn’t object when I sat in that classroom—in fact, I didn’t even learn how wrong this history was until well into my adulthood, after my formal education had ended. To me, Trethewey’s last line says to the rest of us “if I can take some blame for not standing up, then you can damn sure do it, too.” We can’t hide from our history and we can’t pass it on to future generations.

Trethewey’s poem reminds us that the narratives we learn as history shape not only the ways we see each other, but the ways we treat each other. We live in a world created by stories, and those stories affect who we vote for, who we see as heroes and villains, and how we see (or don’t see) the structures put in place long ago which continue to damage us. And, far too often, we don’t challenge these stories. We sit silently, whether in the class or on the Internet or in the park walking past a statue we’ve seen a thousand times without ever thinking about who that statue celebrates was or what it represented to the people who raised it. We’re all guilty. Some more than others, but we all have hands warm from being sat on. Natasha Trethewey’s poem shows us both the harm that silence can abet and the necessity of speaking out now.

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This is part fifteen of a twenty-one part series. Here are links to parts 123456789101112, 13, and 14. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →