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Black History, Confederate History: The Limited Parallel

The Confederate Army 1st Louisiana Tiger Rifles march to camp during the First Manassas Civil War Reenactment in 2001. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

The Confederate Army 1st Louisiana Tiger Rifles march to camp during the First Manassas Civil War Reenactment in 2001.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Today, the Barbershop picked up on a conversation we had earlier this week on the blog and on the program itself about Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's proclamation of April as Confederate Heritage Month in his state. Originally, that document included NO mention of slavery. McDonnell apologized, and added language calling slavery evil, and declared that slavery led to the Civil War.

Our on-air guest, Brag Bowling of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said that the slavery issue obscured the rest of the history of people who supported the Confederacy.

I'm hardly alone in thinking that's a copout, and a convenient way of overlooking the fact that — if those Confederate soldiers had won the war — my ancestors would have been bought, sold, raped and killed with impunity for God only knows how many more years than they had been already.

But, strangely enough, I think I understand part of the spirit behind what these Confederate heritage people are saying. They haven't been allowed to be proud of their history. White southerners are frequently mocked and looked down upon as intellectual inferiors by cultural and political standard keepers. They're widely maligned as racists by people in the North — some of whom don't really do all that well with race themselves. Their acceptance within many circles of power is often conditioned on them rejecting their heritage. Frankly, that's not all that different from what black people go through.

And in some respects, the Confederate History Month debate reminds me a bit of discussions among African-Americans over Black History Month. While many applaud the recognition, there are plenty of black people who claim it confines discussion of black history to February. And still others wonder if having that month roots the community in a difficult past.

But there's a limit to the parallels between Black History Month and Confederate Heritage Month. So I'll invent an equivalent: imagine Black Panther History Month or Nation of Islam Heritage Month. If you're African-American, you probably have relatives or friends who were at least tangentially involved with one of these groups. And when you and they think of the organization's role in the community it's about taking care of poor people and children, fighting back against corrupt authorities, and instilling a sense of dignity in people who had been systematically deprived of it.

But then, there's that other part of the history: violence targeting perceived enemies and an attitude toward race that can be generously described as unhelpful.

Lots of black people will tell you the bad stuff is incidental — that both the Nation and the Panthers did a lot of good, and the fact that mainstream culture almost completely ignores that means its only fair for African-Americans to downplay or overlook these flaws. But I can't imagine that an organization demanding a state-wide, white-washed recognition of either of those groups would be taken seriously anywhere. And that's a good thing.

And it's also good that — if a state IS going to recognize Confederate Heritage Month — the recognition includes the uncomfortable parts of that heritage. To the sons and daughters of the Confederacy, I say honor your ancestors. Revere them. Forgive them their faults, just as all of us hope our descendants will forgive ours. Ignore those faults, if you want. As family, that's your choice.

But you're not entitled to a government celebration of that choice, or for a state to treat YOUR people like family, and the rest of us like footnotes.