To Disparage John Brown and Quash the New Negro: Troubled Confederate Commemoration 1920

For Confederate Memorial Associations maintaining the distinctive social arrangements based on race was central to their survival. These values and beliefs protected the power of the dominant class (patrician southern whites) by infusing the Lost Cause into the minds of the public. In periods of social change their presence would amplify with commemoration activities. Amidst the arrival of the New Negro, “a class of colored people,.. who have arisen since the war, with education, refinement, and money”, the United Daugters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans would collaborate to prepare themselves to devote their first memorial to a “faithful slave.”

In November 1920, President-General of the United Daughters of the Confederacy May McKinney admonished her fellow UDC sisters to see that “future generations may be impressed with the real truth” about John Brown and how he killed “a faithful slave” who “held too dear the lives of ‘Ole Massa’ and ‘Ole Miss’us’, to fulfill Brown’s orders of rapine and murder.” She also concluded of Mr. Shepherd that he would never have been one of those negroes that tried to sit at the front of a railcar.

It was of no consequence to Mrs. McKinney that Shepherd had actually been a free black. Here we find the selection of the purported “type” of blacks selected as worthy of memorials, parades, statues, gravestones, and commemorative days. They needed to fit the faithful slave mold. As David Blight pointed out “the Lost Cause changed with succeeding generations and shifting political circumstances”16 For the general public, including African Americans in their organizations and proclaiming that African Americans participated fully in the Confederacy gives the pretense of racial inclusion, whereas their symbolism of Stars and Bars as well as the historic record convey the old southern view that is tinged with elements of white supremacy.”1

During the ceremony for the Heyward Shepherd memorial, Pearl Tatten, an African American music teacher at the historically black Storer College, bristled at the paternalistic tone of the event where the virtues of black mammies were being extolled to resounding applause. Ms. Tatten later indicated that her father had served in the Civil War as a Union soldier who had fought for liberty and that African Americans were “pushing forward to a larger freedom, not in the spirit of the black mammy but in the spirit of new freedom and rising youth.”2

From the point of view of the Confederate Memorial Associations an African American was a villain or saint depending on whether or not (s)he actively asserted his freedom; on the other hand if (s)he desired to perpetuate his or her role as a servant (s)he was drawn as a contented negro who enjoyed status in southern society, gained the admiration of masters and in turn recognized the natural and proper supremacy of the white man.3

1.David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2001), 258.
2 Mary Johnson An “Ever Present Bone of Contention”:The Heyward Shepherd Memorial,” West Virginia History Journal
Volume 56 (1997), pp. 1-26
3. Theodore L. Gross, “The Negro in the Literature of Reconstruction,” Phylon (1960-2002), Vol. 22, No. 1 (1st Qtr., 1961), page
6 (accessed 10/03/14)

Eurocentrism within Epigraphy- Notes on Coe’s “Breaking the Maya Code”

According to Michael Coe in his book titled, “Breaking the Maya Code” several obstacles arise for scholars endeavoring to understand and decipher the meanings in non-alphabetic scripts across world history. The study of this form of analysis in trying to understand Mayan symbols is the focus of the book.

Early in the text Coe describes the difficulty in studying non-alphabetic symbols noting how long it has taken for the history of decipherment to clear away ingrained perceptions that have hindered scholarly discovery. Much of the stale views causing the inability for studies within the history of decipherment to flourish involved a “measured” cultural interpretations of society. Such beliefs held world societies as hierarchical with certain civilizations being superior to others. Coe discusses a few of the Eurocentristic foundational progenitors, some witting (Gelb, Morgan) others unwitting (Darwin). The ideas that resulted from these views granted civility/barbarity along a continuum that was correlative to a society’s system of writing. For example, Coe points out:

“…The New York Times insisted that the native peoples of the New World, whether Hopi, Aztec, or Inca, spoke only dialects. Presumably the editors felt that American Indians were incapable of communicating in languages as mature as those of Europe.”

In this one can observe that the accepted beliefs of certain civilizations’ purportedly  “limited” contribution in terms of language complexity in spoken form created a foundation for impenetrable skepticism or nonbelief of certain civilization’s capability of language construction. This skepticism is particularly problematic when viewed by how historian and Assyriologist Ignace Gelb understood Chinese script. Coe informs:

“It appears to have been inconceivable to [Gelb] that  non-white people could ever have invented on their own any kind of script with phonetic intent. On one side, he refused to allow the Chinese the invention of their own writing, claiming on totally non-existent grounds that it was derived from his beloved Near East…[1] ”

Coe finishes that section by explaining how the Maya were seen as being “suspended from the lowest branches of the evolutionary tree.”[2]


[1] Michael Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, Coe, Michael D. 2012. Breaking the Maya code. New York: Thames & Hudson, Kindle edition, loc 146-397

[2] Ibid, loc 397

Art/Cinema Break: Ousmane Sembène’s “Black Girl”

“The Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, habitually described as the father of African cinema, was a lifelong critic of patriarchy. An avowedly political artist — he had been a labor organizer and a novelist before turning to filmmaking — Mr. Sembène grounded his attacks on colonial oppression and post-independence corruption and compromise in a feminism that could be both subtle and blunt.” A.O. Scott

Read more here

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Notes on the 19th Century: The Functions of Victorian Manners

The functions of Victorian manners during the 19th century rested on its investment in creating a genteel populace. In this way Victorian manners can be seen as an “investment” of the body. Michel Foucault reminds that, “…the body is directly involved in a political field, power relations have an immediate hold upon it, they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs”(Foucault 25). Of special consideration is how this immediate hold fixes itself on the body through the ideals set forth by the social hegemonic domain of power.  The individual finds that the spaces they inhabit whether public or private test their mastery of Victorian manners.  As an ideological implement to serving a political/social hegemony, Victorian manners functioned in three important ways: to curb egalitarian “excess” in a purportedly democratic environment, promote consumerism in an increasingly capitalist, market-driven society, and to exert social control over the masses (Kasson 6).

Victorian manners stood as a “conservative bulwark” against social disorder and unrest (Kasson 62). As early as 1787 in the aftermath of Shay’s Rebellion, constitutional framers would convene to stabilize and strengthen the new American republic and stem the tide of social revolution (Franklin 93). Though the War for Independence was predicated on the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness this new government immediately saw danger in the lingering revolutionary fervor. Edmund Burke, 18th century political theorist and Anglo-Irish statesman declared that “manners are more important than laws. Upon them the laws depend”(Monaghan 75). Burke was laying the ideological framework for a conservative model of personal self-governance. Manners lead to a populace that respected the law and their “place.”

Similarly in 1832 Frances Trollope wrote of offenses stemming from people’s “fallacious ideas of equality” and how the institution of slavery itself appeared “far less injurious to the manners and morals of the [American] people…” (Kasson 58). Here Trollope points out how revolting it was that people from lower classes emboldened themselves into believing they were the political equal of those in the higher classes. Kasson indicates that in this statement Trollope came close to implying that an element of servility was essential to civility (58). Servility however seemed to be fitted best for certain classes of people- the poor and the enslaved Africans. Such notions of preferred behavior for the masses exemplify a need for acceptance of the status quo in order for them to be complacent with their condition, however pitiable.

A populace such as that would be less inclined to revolt or question authority. Dred Scott would find that his own “fallacious ideas of equality” within the judicial system would set a legal precedent in 1857 when Justice Taney declared that “blacks had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…”  Ultimately the conventions of Victorian manners legitimated the political hegemony that kept people from questioning authority thereby curbing political unrest.


Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1979

Kasson, John F. Rudeness & Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990. Print

Franklin, John Hope. From slavery to freedom: a history of African Americans.New York: A.A Knopf, 2000

Monaghan, David M. “The Decline of the Gentry: A Study of Jane Austen’s Attitude to Formality In Persuasion” Studies in the Novel. Vol. 7. No.1. 1975 pp. 73-87

Stancliff, Michael. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: African American Reform Rhetoric and the Rise of the Modern Nation State. NY: Routledge, 2011. Print