Should we feel proud of our rebellious Confederate ancestors? Or should we be embarrassed by them?
Actor and progressive activist Ben Affleck was so shamed by the revelation that his great-great-great-grandfather was a sheriff and apparent slave-owner in antebellum Georgia that he pressured the PBS program “Finding Your Roots” to delete any reference to him.
Affleck said that just the thought of his slave-owning ancestor “left a bad taste in my mouth.”
The producers of “Finding Your Roots” gave in, but after an internal investigation PBS found that Affleck’s involvement in the editorial process violated network standards. The third season of “Finding Your Roots” has been canceled.
Affleck’s attempt to conceal his great-great-great-grandfather reflects a mistaken inclination to assume self-punishing liberal guilt for impossibly distant events.
If my father were a child molester, I’m sure I’d feel considerable shame, and I probably wouldn’t want “Finding My Roots” to air that information.
But the fact that on March 6, 1860, Francis Hayes, a Texas frontier lawyer in my mother’s direct line of descent, went to a “negro auction” and bought “one little boy about 10 years old for $1151.00,” a “good bargain,” as he called it, produces for me absolutely no guilt or embarrassment. The connection is too remote, diluted by time, cultural differences and a long string of ancestors, good and bad, who lie in between.
The haughty counterpoint of guilt is pride. And misplaced pride, supported by a lingering sense of grievance, perpetuates an unhealthy infatuation in some of us with an imagined, idyllic antebellum South and a glorious Civil War.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is a good example. SCV was founded in 1896 to “serve as a historical, patriotic, and non-political organization dedicated to ensuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved.” Each of its 30,000 members has to present documented proof of an ancestor who fought for the South in the Civil War.
SCV’s website sells all things Southern, and it’s hard to fault the source for a book such as “Good Ol’ Southern Home Cookin’” or for a CD entitled “Homespun Songs of the Great Smokey Mountains.”
But ideology is for sale, as well. SCV intends not only to celebrate the Old South but also to revise our understanding of what SCV adherents call the War of Northern Aggression.
Among the books available for purchase are “The South Was Right,” “Lincoln Unmasked,” and “Myths of American Slavery.” I suspect the latter book suggests that slavery wasn’t as bad as we think.
In short, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and similar groups are about grievance, vindication, historical revisionism and the attempt to spread around the guilt associated with slavery. You can even purchase, for example, “The Jewish Confederates.”
But just as ancestors who were slaveholders are nothing to be ashamed of, it’s a stretch to take much pride in distant ancestors who fought for the South. Many Confederate soldiers were brave, honorable men, but their cause was badly misguided. And no insistence that the Civil War was really about states’ rights rather than slavery can hide the particular right — the right to own other human beings — that the states wanted to preserve.
Besides, even if some of your ancestors fought for the South, didn’t others of them fight for the North? My progenitors came to the United States sometime in the 19th Century. Some went to Georgia, and some came to Texas and were Confederate soldiers. In fact, I’m eligible to join the SCV.
But others went to Boston, Michigan and elsewhere in the north, and the mathematics of familial descent are such that it’s almost inevitable that I have ancestors who fought for the union, as well. You probably do, too.
In any case, William Faulkner, the brilliant Nobel laureate, pointed out that in the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But it’s time to let the past rest in peace. We have neither an obligation to wallow in the shame of slavery nor a right to bask in pride for the old Confederacy.John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.