Virginia's Split Personality On The Confederacy

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell found himself in hot water this month by declaring April "Confederate History Month" without mentioning slavery in the proclamation. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an African-American studies professor at Princeton, tells Linda Wertheimer the move appeared to be an aggressive stance against the Obama administration.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Virginia's new Republican governor, Bob McDonald, has been riding high - picked to respond to the president's State of the Union address, mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. But this week, the governor made a mistake when he issued a proclamation calling April Confederate History Month, somehow he left out any mention of slavery.

After a bit of hemming and hawing, McDonald apologized and amended his proclamation.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell is a native of the commonwealth and a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton. She says she grew up hearing two versions of Virginia's Confederate past.

Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Political Scientist, African-American Studies, Princeton University): On the one hand, there's a way of remembering the confederacy as truly a stalwart attempt to keep people of African descent in a position of intergenerational chattel bondage and to continue to benefit and profit from the unpaid labor of tens of thousands of black workers.

On the other hand, as a notion of the confederacy as a place where sort of citizens stood up for their rights against a government that was trying to impose rules and regulations on them that did not fit with their way of life. And that kind of romantic notion of the confederacy remembers slavery as a kind of gentile institution rather than recognizing that slavery was a core element of this war between the states of this civil war.

WERTHEIMER: With people who were upset with the governor though, do you think the real issue is that he left out a reference to slavery or is it just the idea of celebrating Confederate History Month all together?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yes. I think the objection is fundamentally to declaring April the month of confederate history recognition. Each governor has a choice about whether or not they will proclaim this month to be an opportunity to celebrate Confederate History Month.

Democratic governors have made a choice not to do so. So, for this governor to do so, to do so in the context of the first African-American president and to do so in the context of a social movement brewing on the right that has used secessionist language as part of its pushback against policies coming out of the federal government under the administration.

It feels like an aggressive kind of move that is more than just sort of a, you know, proclamation of the governor - they proclaim things all the time. But instead, it feels much more like an aggressive stance over and against this administration of this African-American president.

WERTHEIMER: But, you know, in fairness, this is a huge part of Virginia's past. Republican Governor Jim Gilmore observed Civil War History Month in a much more inclusive way, but still he did observe it. This state has huge battlefields. It's a big tourist draw. Should there be a way that is a proper way or an inclusive way to commemorate this history?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Listen, this was a civil war where people who were traitorous to their nation made a choice to secede and begin a new country. It is not just sort of a thing that happened or a neutral position vis-a-vis the government. The confederacy was an attempt to break the union that is the United States of America.

So, even if you took race and slavery and the stain of racial inequality out of the story, even if you pretended that slavery had nothing to do with the civil war, the fact is it was an attempt to break the union. And so I think the idea of celebrating that - it's one thing to commemorate it, to recognize that it happened; it's another thing to turn it into an heroic moment that we should celebrate and potentially even emulate.

WERTHEIMER: Do you remember as a child growing up in Virginia having concerns about what you learned about the Civil War?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, absolutely. One of my parents, my father, is a Southerner - he's from Virginia. But my mother is a Westerner. She's from the great state of Washington. And I can tell you that when I came home in elementary and middle school having learned the Civil War was, quote, "the war of Northern aggression" or the war between the states, that my Westerner mother was appalled.

And, you know, I'm in my 30s and I learned this language, you know, in middle school. So, we're not talking about something that happened in a period far removed from us. And this is very much how Southerners often, even in public education, represent what the Civil War was about.

WERTHEIMER: That is Melissa Harris-Lacewell of Princeton University. She's an African-American studies and political science professor. Thank you so much.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

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