Saturday, February 11, 2017

Black History Month: Why does society value white lives more?



     They call it Black History Month, though public attention has a way of petering out in the early days of February, ground down by the pro-forma parade of familiar icons—Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks. Though I suppose they must be fresh revelations to a certain segment of the population, unfortunately, and we shouldn't dismiss anything that slides them under the public nose. 
     But history—black or white or whatever hue it's cast in—shouldn't be rote. Not something dull you memorize. It should live, and be real, and talk to us, and relate to our present moment somehow. Otherwise what good is it?
     Look at this relic of the Civil War, the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, by August Saint-Gaudens. The original version is a bronze on display on Beacon Street next to Boston Commons—this is the later, plaster version, in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where I noticed it last June.
 
The Latin inscription translates as "He left all to save the Republic."
     Shaw was a 25-year-old Harvard graduate, the son of wealthy abolitionists, put in charge of the first all-black Union Army unit assembled after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Its formation was controversial—racial biases were such that some felt blacks would not follow orders or comport themselves well under fire—and two of Frederick Douglass's sons joined the 54th.

     Their first battle was a suicidal storming of Fort Wagner, the well-defended battery that guarded Charleston, South Carolina. On July 18, 1863, Shaw led the charge and was killed almost immediately. Half the men in his 600 soldier regiment were killed or captured.
    "Not a man flinched, though it was a trying time," Lewis Douglass wrote to his wife. 
     Saint-Gaudens, America's greatest sculptor, spent a dozen years on the sculpture, hiring African-American models to pose for the 16 figures of the black soldiers. On the Boston Memorial, an inscription on the monument begins, "The white officers taking life and honor in their hands cast in their lot with men of a despised race unproven in war." As a reminder of just how despised, when the monument was unveiled in 1897, it contained the names of the white officers who fell, but not of the black officers, though their heroism was noted, and the fact that for the first 18 months they were unpaid. 
     Therein lies a tale. When the War Department approved the idea of black soldiers, it paid them $10 a month, versus $13 for white, and black soldiers refused the unfair slight, until Congress decreed that all soldiers, of whatever race, would receive equal pay. (The pay stand-off was a theme in Edward Zwick's melodramatic film about the 54th, "Glory.") Some 200,000 African-Americans served in the Union Army in the Civil War. 
    Three hundred black men killed or captured. One of those wounded, William Carney, became the first African-American to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. Awarded in 1900 for his role in the battle—Carney snatched the flag from its hurt bearer and, though wounded himself, carried it aloft throughout the fiasco. "Boys," he said afterward, "the old flag never touched the ground." 
    But the monument is to Shaw, whose body was pierced, pierced with bullets, was stripped and thrown into a mass grave with the corpses of his troops. Still, the inclusion of the marching men he led in his memorial was nearly incidental. Saint-Gaudens almost depicted him charging on horseback, alone, but was deterred because the charge was on foot, so the scene depicted is him leading his regiment out of Boston, on the way to fight, past the very spot where the bronze memorial stands.
     The Irish-born sculptor did a masterful job--some call it the greatest American sculpture of the 19th century, and when the version above was displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1900, Auguste Rodin is said to have taken his hat off and stood before it, head bowed in silent veneration. It represents a heroic view of memorializing war that Maya Lin ended with her Vietnam Memorial, a black gash of stone that Robert Lowell predicted in "For the Union Dead," his marvelous poem about the Civil War, memory and the Shaw monument, in these lines:
Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."
    You can read the entire poem here, and should.
    But his work also reminds us that American society holds the personhood of African-Americans cheaper than whites. It did so in 1863, and in 1897. It also did so in 1989 when Edward Zwick made "Glory" ("I didn't understand why it had to be told so often from the point of view of the 54th's white commanding officer," Roger Ebert writes in his review of the film. "Why did we see the black troops through his eyes — instead of seeing him through theirs? To put it another way, why does the top billing in this movie go to a white actor?")
    Good question. And why does that primacy of white lives over black persist today? Knowing what we know now, why do we still act the way we do? Another good question. 

     

     

14 comments:

  1. From Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead:"..."Their monument sticks like a fishbone/in the city's throat."

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    1. Thanks for that -- there are so many aspects to this, I thought of including Lowell, then didn't. I'll include a link.

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    2. This is the only column I know of where one is consistently directed to relevant poetry. NOW more than ever, a crucial element in understanding, coping with and responding to the present malaise. In this instance as well others also recently props to the formidable Tom Evans.

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  2. For very basic reasons - whites still are the majority and hold the power in our society.

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    1. Is that why when things get better they get worse? Where whites are not the majority, many scream, "Discrimination" when they don't get all the top jobs. Next month, everybody will be Irish -- it would be lovely if this month everyone would be black.

      john

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  3. History will always affect the present, and ideas born in our view of history are difficult to change. African Americans arrived late, as slaves, and IMO religion (Christianity) was the seed that grew into white superiority. What's most disappointing is the plight of blacks to break out of that culture is still ongoing today.

    SandyK

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  4. One (perhaps) interesting note: The Confederacy was so indignant that blacks were allowed to bear arms against it that it threatened to hang any white officer captured while commanding black troops. They never did so because the Union promised to retaliate by hanging captured Confederate officers. I wonder how many of the "it's not hate, it's heritage" folks know about that.

    Bitter Scribe

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  5. Actually, African American arrived fairly early in our history, but as slaves. When they were freed they were perceived by the Irish, German, Italian, etc. newcomers in northern cities as competition for low paying jobs. Hence the post Civil War race riots. The dynamic was, of course, different in the South.

    The role of religion was mixed. Both Christians and Jews found justification for slavery in the Old Testament, but on the other hand the Abolition Movement was largely led by white religious Christians. Where race-based slavery still exists -- and it does - its mostly in Islamic countries.

    Tom Evans

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    1. My "African Americans arrived late" comment was made in the context of the earliest history of civilization as well as the Old Testament. Yes, they were brought here as slaves in the 16th century, because by that time white superiority had been well established. It's heartbreaking that blacks are still struggling to overcome their sad history.

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    2. Also, blacks fought on both sides in the American revolution, usually for a promise of freedom that was seldom granted. In general,the ones who fought for the Loyalists did a little better. Article 7 of the treaty that ended the war prohibited the British from carrying off "Negros or other property," but it was generally ignored, and some former slaves managed to make it to Canada, Britain or the west indies.

      Racial intolerance is still bad, but more progress has been made since the end of WW II than was in the prior history of our country.

      TE

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    3. Props to Tom Evans who seems to consistently know what poetry/literature we should to refer back to in these times. Definitely influencing my thinking, thanks.

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  6. yes why do we still act the way we do? very good question Neil. thank you

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    1. FME, I appreciate your improved use of punctuation. Capital letters would be really cool.

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