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Should the American Historical Association Apologize?

It’s hard for a student to challenge an instructor’s syllabus, which includes their values and point-of-view. Academia has a long list of students who did so and found themselves cast as troublemakers or worse.

Are some of those waving Confederate flags in the faces of the president and his entourage former students who were too intimidated by authoritarian professors? Professors who insisted that the Confederacy was a fairy kingdom from the novels of Sir Walter Scott until the invasion of the damned Yankees? A land of Knights and Ladies and slaves, who just about had to be pried away from this languorous paradise upon Emancipation? This is not only a Southern fantasy.

I asked my daughter, Tennessee Reed, to write a book about her education from kindergarten until her graduation from Mills College with an MFA. She reports in her book, “Spell Albuquerque” (CounterPunch Books) that “Gone with the Wind” is used at the University of Berkeley at California as a guide to Reconstruction! This university, where I taught for thirty-five years, has a reputation for being a radical institution.

And what about the textbooks that perpetuated the myths that the Civil War was fought over the issue of States Rights, a concoction created by Thomas Jefferson, who was afraid that his slaves would be federalized and set free?

Would those students at Ole Miss be so warm toward the antebellum South and opposed to the disappearance of Mississippi’s state flag from campus if they were aware that Robert E. Lee kept a whipping post at his Arlington Home, or that his father, Henry Lee, when Governor of Virginia, hanged a pregnant black woman? Her crime? Retaliating against an Overseer who had struck her. Black women were preyed upon sexually and even subjected to painful experimentation, facts that any white co-ed flag waver should find repellent.

Or what about the Fort Pillow massacre of black soldiers, even after they had surrendered? An act that some called “the atrocity of the war,” but is only referred to as “controversial” by Winston Groom, a Confederate apologist, whose “Forrest Gump” is a Confederate reenactment. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who presided over the atrocity, was honored by some white citizens of Memphis with a big old statue.

Civil War popularizer Shelby Foote likened the Klan to the French Resistance and Broadway now tells us that Alexander Hamilton, a slave merchant, was an abolitionist. Another historian said that Andrew Jackson, who owned over one hundred slaves and mistreated them, was a rock star. He was reviewing a musical called “Bloody Bloody Andrew.”

Those Ole Miss students who are Dixie fans might dismiss such information as an exercise in “political correctness.” Parrot owners could do much to break the dialogue jam about race were they to teach their birds the phrase “political correctness.”

In January, the American Historical Association is meeting in Atlanta, where the premiere of “Gone With The Wind” took place. They could do much to improve the judgment of the Confederate flag wavers, by apologizing for the historians among their midst who have misled generations of students into believing that the Confederacy was some kind of noble experiment instead of a place where humans were considered private property. I would recommend that James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” be invited to deliver the keynote.

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Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.

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