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Irena's Lamp

Tyler Stovall, December 2017

Shoey SindelOn my desk at home sits a beautiful old lamp. Made of red painted glass, it dates from the late 19th century, when it was an oil lamp before being wired for electricity. It looks like it has been broken more than once, but it has nonetheless survived for over a hundred years. I am not an antiquarian, but this lamp is special. It has been in my family ever since my great-great-grandmother Irena Claytor bought it, and after passing through several hands, it has come down to me, illuminating my office as I write this article.

Irena Claytor was born a slave in Franklin County, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, circa 1833, on the plantation of Harvey Claytor. She had light skin and straight hair, and many suggested she was Harvey Claytor’s daughter. Her mother was a “mulatto woman” named Mariah. Irena Claytor lived to be nearly 80, bore 14 children, and was able to buy a farm. While she certainly bought it years after Emancipation, I nonetheless like to think that, through her, this lamp connects me to my family’s, and America’s, slave past.

This is a past that in recent months has come back to haunt the nation with unusual force. The ongoing struggle over the place and meaning of Confederate monuments and place names; the death of a young demonstrator in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a result of such a controversy; and the election of a president saluted by the Ku Klux Klan all highlight the continued importance of what some have called America’s original sin, and of the historical record in general, to contemporary American politics and identity. Here, I want to consider what these current debates mean to those of us descended from America’s slaves, how they resonate with our understanding of both our own and the nation’s past, and what our own perspective contributes to them. More particularly, I am writing from my own perspective as an African American who is also a historian, and who therefore feels a responsibility to the historical profession, but also to my family, my people, and ultimately to the woman whose lamp sits on my desk.

While she certainly bought it years after Emancipation, I like to think that, through her, this lamp connects me to my family’s, and America’s, slave past.

 How should we remember the Civil War and America’s slave past? In recent months, journalists, bloggers, historians, and many others have spilled a lot of ink over this question. A powerful social movement has developed to purge public memory of the legacy of the Confederacy, removing memorial statues and renaming public spaces and institutions like Yale University’s Calhoun College. Some have argued that all traces of slavery and the Confederacy simply need to be destroyed or, at the very least, removed from public space. Others contend that Confederate monuments are a part of America’s past that cannot and should not be hidden, but rather explained and contextualized. One should not try to rewrite history. (I find this argument amusing, because, of course, people rewrite history all the time—that is what historians do.) The American Historical Association has issued a public statement about Confederate monuments and names, welcoming the debate over their historical and current meaning and emphasizing that the debate must involve all parties to American history.

Activists in Durham with the toppled Confederate soldier statue. Rodney Dunning/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.I write these lines in that spirit. As several commentators and our own statement have pointed out, most Confederate monuments were erected in a climate where African Americans had no power to object or have their voices heard. Indeed, the silencing of black voices was all too often accompanied and reinforced by violence against black bodies. More generally, the idea of reconciling North and South, of bringing an end to the bitter divisions of the Civil War, generally constituted a reconciliation of whites at the expense of the black population, a reaffirmation of America as a nation for whites only. Any contemporary discussion of addressing the divisions over Confederate monuments must first come to terms with that bitter legacy, and must give pride of place to the voices of the slaves and their descendants so long suppressed.

Let me start by affirming a central truth: for blacks at the time and since, the Civil War was not just a war between the states or the breakdown of the Union, but above all a campaign for liberation. For us, those who fought for the Confederacy were not fellow Americans who were wrong, or even who had betrayed their country; they were the enemy, period. To say that most did not own slaves or even necessarily support slavery, that they fought instead for home and kin, is from my perspective to miss the point entirely; they fought for a regime dedicated to keeping my ancestors in bondage. In August, a video of a crowd smashing a monument to Confederate soldiers in Durham, North Carolina, provoked debate about the problem of destroying history, of vilifying the memory of ordinary soldiers. I personally enjoyed watching that video, not just because I liked seeing the destruction of a symbol of the Confederacy, but also because its very violence underscored for me how the slaves gained their freedom: not through reasoned debate, but by the sword. That was my gut reaction, and that reaction comes out of my and my family’s history, and thus is a part of America’s.

For us, those who fought for the Confederacy were not fellow Americans who were wrong: they were the enemy, period.

For me as both a historian and an African American, the debate over Confederate monuments is especially powerful not just for what it says about America’s views of its history; even more, it is about the links between the past, including the slave past, and the present. As many commentators have noted, most Confederate monuments were erected decades after the end of the Civil War, to commemorate and implement the rise of Jim Crow segregation and racial terror, in effect to ensure that the end of slavery did not mean the beginning of freedom for African Americans. Yet the Jim Crow era looks back to the Confederacy and forward to the present simultaneously. Current attempts at voter suppression practiced by a Republican Party that has its greatest regional political base in the former Confederacy are merely the latest contemporary manifestations of the poll tax and the literacy test. The consistent criminalization of blacks in contemporary America, what Michelle Alexander has termed the “New Jim Crow,” harkens back to the chain gang and other post-Emancipation attempts to deny freedom to African Americans. The Confederate monuments represent not just a tragic history, but equally a contemporary political agenda, one deeply hostile to African Americans.

As William Faulkner once commented, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

It is late, I am tired, and this essay is done. I move to turn off Irena’s lamp, and then decide against it. For once, let her light shine through the night, in its own small way a monument to America’s slave past.

Tyler Stovall is president of the AHA.


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