Saturday, October 30, 2021

Civil War: Voices Now

If you can find a way to watch the new documentary called Civil War (Or, Who Do We Think We Are) that has been airing on MSNBC and Peacock, it's worth the two hours. It's made by two independent documentarians, Rachel Boynton and Nelson Walker, with a list of producer names you'd recognize.

They weave together South and North, school settings of different-age classrooms, and current controversies (statue removal, the meaning of flags). I learned about a number of historians I wasn't familiar with who I should have already known about (David Blight, Greg Carr, Kellie Carter Jackson, Stephanie Rolph).

I saw attempts at white allyship in the film, including some that have been successful, as in the example of the Clinton Riot marker in Clinton, Mississippi, which was heartening.

I also saw a wide range of non-allyship, from the white cluelessness of the Massachusetts folks who have no idea why their town is all white to the Southerners who seem to be unnamed Klansmen upholding the old Mississippi state flag or bemoaning the fact that their ancestors weren't compensated for the loss of their property (enslaved people).

But the most interest parts of the film to me were the many classroom segments and interviews with teachers and students, whether in middle schools, high schools, or colleges. I thought it was worth it to transcribe those segments because they were so revealing.

The film focuses mostly on an all-Black high school social studies class in Lexington, Mississippi, an almost all-white private boys' high school social studies class in Chattanooga, Tennessee, an integrated middle school social studies class at Boston Latin School, and college history classes at Howard University and Millsap College in Jackson, Mississippi (the latter two much more briefly than the younger students' classes). I'm going to leave the colleges out of this post because they are covered only briefly and focus more on the teachers than the students.

In Lexington, Mississippi, we first meet the Black social studies teacher. He says, "You don't really hear the word slavery or slave" around the area, and that slavery was an incidental part of the war. (At first, it's really not clear if he's saying that's what he thinks or how people think of it in the area.) "You want to see the good part of the history, especially the history you were part of. Slavery is not an easy topic to tackle, for black or for white."

In the classroom footage, he spends time telling how the enslaved were more powerful than people give them credit for. He's shown lecturing about Nat Turner, comparing him to the civil rights movement. "Who's brave enough to try the system when it's wrong?" he asks. "If a white guy whose grandfather was a Confederate can keep their memory alive, why can't we?"

In interviews separate from the classroom, a girl says she noticed how white and Black families had the same last names and wondered if they were related, then learned that slaves got their last names from their owners. "So, like did this family own that family, or like...?" (Do people ever talk about that? About the history of slavery here?) "No."

Boynton asks a boy from the class if he knows if his ancestors were enslaved? (No.) Does he want to know? (No.) Why not? Because he doesn't want to know what they went through. It would make him sad.

Girl: "I don't want to hate people for what their family did hundreds of years ago."

Another girl: "I think we all should learn the real history, as Black people." (But her family doesn't talk about it.)

Later in the film, back in Lexington, there's an interview with a Black girl who has won speech competitions. She says she sees Confederate flags all the time when traveling in the white parts of rural areas and thinks, Grow up. Central Holmes High School is the white kids' school, County is the Black kids' school. She has never had a white friend. Never been around a white person.

The McCallie School is a Chattanooga private boys' high school, segregated until 1972. We meet the history or social studies teacher, a white guy who has mostly overcome his racist upcoming, it appears. The class we see is very white, with two Black boys as far as I could tell.

First, a white boy refers to part of the class reading: 1.1 million families didn't own slaves, only 350,000 owned slaves and many of those only had 1–5 as household slaves and treated them well. (Clearly, he's looking for justification.) Then he says, "Of course they weren't treated like regular humans but they took care of them because they were a way to make money." (emphasis added)

The teacher then points out that "taking care of" meant sleeping on a dirt floor and working 12 hours a day. He moves on to the number of whippings per person. Why did they whip their valuable property? To instill fear, someone volunteers. Slavery is about money and fear. Fear of retribution. The teacher puts these words in the mouths of the slave-owners: "I don't like getting lynched, I don't want a rock thrown through my window." (Which is weird, right? Did the enslavers fear being lynched, specifically? Rocks thrown through your window? These are things the Klan did later.)

Then the film cuts to a meeting of a Chattanooga interracial reconciliation group the teacher belong to (he is shown only listening as others speak). The words "white privilege" come up. The Black people in the group don't believe that white people don't recognize their privilege. "If you don't recognize your privilege, how do you account for the difference between white people and disadvantaged Black people?" The answer one of the white people gives is that white people aren't comparing themselves to Black people, but the real answer is that many white people assume it's because Black people have natural or maybe cultural deficits that cause the difference. Because, ahem, they're racist and white supremacists.

The next day in class, the teacher brings up white privilege, adding "You can flip it around and say black people have disadvantages." (Which is really not quite the same thing.) Immediately, a white boy says sometimes white people have a disadvantage and gives an example of a white student with a higher GPA/test scores not getting into Princeton vs. a Black student with lower grades/scores. (It's supposedly someone he knows, but let's make a bet on that.) "I feel like everyone says, Well there's a lot of white privilege so we have to give... other ethnicities advantages in this place instead of trying to view everyone as just, like, an American." Another white boy: "I mean, not talking about the race issue, just not bringing it up to the next generation would keep them natural in that sense. They would not be racist." 

Another white boy says Jim Crow, etc., needs to be remembered. The two silent Black boys (who are sitting next to each other) are shown as a reaction shot while this boy is speaking, and one of them nods. They never speak in any of this class's coverage in the film.

Imagine being a Black person sitting in this class, listening to your classmates speak about all of this, about you as if you aren't there.

The teacher reminds the class of mass incarceration and disproportionate economic disadvantage... that it's clearly based on skin color and goes way back in history. A different white boy chimes in: "I think there's a balance between recognizing our past but also not over-talking it [looks at another white boy next to him, who gives him a thumbs up and approving look] and over-emphasizing the problem to where it's always on our minds. It's difficult to be very equal when that's something that's always on your mind. Racism."

And then there's Boston Latin School in the "liberal" North. This is a middle school class, remember.

The school started segregated and all-male in the 1630s. It's the oldest school in the country but is now part of the public school system with a diverse student body. In this classroom, as far as I could see, there are many white students, a couple of Black girls, one Black boy, several Asian American boys and girls (none of whom speak except one notable exception). In the first scene, a Black girl speaks:

Teacher: What stood out to you in the arguments? [primary source documents from pre-Civil War writings]

Black girl: "So our article was by Alexander Stevens of Atlanta, Georgia. Not once does he talk about slavery, property, what they're really fighting for."

Then a biracial white/Asian American boy [my assessment based on his appearance] speaks. I'm going to assign this boy a made-up name — Joe — because he's important in the film and my description and it's annoying to keep referring to him as the biracial Asian American boy.

Joe says, "I notice there seems to be a common idea that the Civil War was totally about slavery. I'm gonna disagree. The South did want to leave the union because of slavery, but the issue of the Civil War was keeping the South in the union. Slavery isn't, like, the entire issue."

Teacher: after the class ends, speaking to Joe. "You are a thinker. The wedge is the slavery issue, right, I think we're agreed on that, it's just a way of describing it."

Later in the film, a Boston Latin School white girl is interviewed. She says, slavery is morally wrong, you shouldn't own other people. But "I see the reasoning behind it and I can understand it. Not accept it but see behind it." (She is then asked, whose eyes are you looking though when you say that?)

After her, the only Black boy in the Boston Latin class is interviewed. He's asked, Should white kids feel guilty about slavery? Yes. What about a kid whose parents are immigrants from Estonia, should he feel guilty about slavery? A little bit, because he's in this country now. (I think he really means responsibility.) Is guilt useful? Yes, because it means remembering the past. (Again, I think he means responsibility.)

Back in the classroom on a different day, the teacher is talking about the time after Reconstruction began. Black people could be in schools, on juries. The Black boy who was interviewed earlier says the 15th Amendment gave voting rights but then loopholes were created (and today 13% of Black men can't vote because of felonies). There's a cut to a slightly sneering reaction shot from Joe.

Another cut and then the white girl who said she could see slavery through "their eyes" is nodding at something. Joe raises his hand. "Okay. Um [smiles, looking down], well I think we're running out of time, but I just think talking about this is really not helpful [the "their eyes" white girl in the background sighs deeply and rolls her eyes, looking at another white girl in the background who is biting her lips). [The bell rings.] Because what it does" — The teacher to the other students, who have started to stir, as if to leave: "Sit still!" — "it puts people in an unproductive mindset. It makes white people feel guilty and it makes black people feel like victims."

Teacher to the other students: "Don't go anywhere. And I want to know what people want to say back to that. I think it's important that you have a chance to say something. So I'm going to go with Andriana first."

Andriana (a Black girl): "If you're treated differently because of something you can't change, why wouldn't you be a victim? You don't have to talk about something to feel a certain way."

Joe asks, "And have you?" She says, "Yes!" He frown/squints back at her.

Teacher: "I see a lot of hands and we had a bell, I'm so sorry. We will pick up, see your hands in the air, we will start here tomorrow."

Cut to interview with the teacher, who is asked how she felt: "Terrified."

Joe (being interviewed one-on-one): "The idea I wanted to dismantle is that there's, like, a system in place, like, that benefits white people and has a negative effect on black people."

Teacher (being interviewed): "I don't want to squash this child. He's bringing sincere and rigorous... I think the word he used was logic... But he doesn't have an answer when I say, So what might be the reason if you think it's not systemic racism that has caused this?"

Joe: "You shouldn't have something to blame your problems on. I don't think that's a good thing. Asian Americans here, they have a hard time, but they still succeed."

Teacher: [how should she] "push back a little bit and say, I think you're missing some of the picture here in a really important way."

The next day (I'm not sure it's the next day, or just the next day shown in the film), the teacher has them read something from Michelle Alexander (from The New Jim Crow), about the 13th Amendment loophole. Joe looks really annoyed, raising his hand, exasperated during discussion. "What she's trying to say is the criminal justice system is literally the same thing as Jim Crow, which is her point. ... That's your assumption. [He's sounding angrier] That's not my assumption. Asian Americans are routinely discriminated against when applying for colleges. They have to get like 400 points higher than black people [camera cuts away to Adriana, who has pulled her sweatshirt up over the lower half of her face, and an Asian American boy who is listening intently] and also they're discriminated against when they're applying for jobs. Your mind is so closed off to certain ideas." [Nervous laughter from other students.]

As the other students leave the room, the teacher keeps talking to him. He says, "They're not willing to consider certain ideas because they've been taught..."

Teacher: "Yeah, but is the certain idea that you're really suggesting that Asians are better than black people? That's not what you're really saying, is it?"

Student: "I mean, I'm not saying they're inherently better, I'm saying their situation is better."

Teacher: "But what would you attribute that to?"

Student: "Higher income, higher representation in colleges and good well-paying jobs."

Teacher: "But why do you think they have that and Black people don't?"

Student: "I don't know. Asians are discriminated against much more in those areas —"

Teacher: "Than Black people?"

Student: "Yes!"

Teacher: "We'll agree to disagree on that point, but we'll come back to it."

Student: "I hope you'll look into it."

Teacher: "I will look into it."

Teacher (interviewed): "It's a revelation to me that no matter how much information you present, sometimes people are going to hear it the way they want to hear it, and they're not going to budge. At least not yet, he's not. But that's exactly what you're in for when you open your door to having these kinds of conversations."

Has this teacher met the internet?

You've probably heard that easy truism that many people (white people) tell themselves, that racism will go away over time because younger people are less racist or better than us older people. This film clearly shows that is not the case. In the example of Joe particularly, I wonder if he isn't spending his non-school hours watching or reading white supremacist material online. He has certainly taken the bait on several wedge issues that are used to separate the Asian and Black communities and that lead to keeping white power unquestioned.

Filmmaker Rachel Boynton, speaking for herself when answering a question asked by one of Lexington high school's Black girls, says, "I was never taught that slavery was something white people did, that it benefited white people. It just happened." That's part of why she set out to make the film, and an important piece of the remembering we need to build a true multiracial democracy.

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