(I was going to send this link to Kevin Levin with an explanatory note, but it turned into a blog post. This is what being inexplicably awake at 3am will get you.)
I’m sensing this more and more recently: modern apologists for the Confederacy insist that by dismissing slavery as a cause and even promoting the idea of black Confederates, they are on the side of black people by allowing them political consciousness and a method of articulation their desires. Thus, neo Confederates can point to academics and insist that the historical claim that blacks were slaves and their experience must be interpreted through the lens of racism is a form of oppression, so who’s the racist now? That’s some pretty clever rhetorical ju jitsu right there.
I was reminded in a most mundane way that southerners in 1861 felt the same way—that the push for secession and Confederate independence was motivated by the unique love white southerners claimed they had for enslaved blacks, and the pure benevolent desire to protect them from the misanthropic Yankee—by reading a letter from a surgeon pleading for the construction of latrines in the army. Apparently, white people had developed an aversion to cleaning up their own piles of shit, and preferred to ignore it, thus increasing the incidence of sickness in camp. Doctor A.D. McLean of Fayetteville, North Carolina proposed the obvious solution:
“A very small ‘attache’ of servants, either volunteer on the part of their owners or hired by the department, could do this service [of digging latrines]. We are fighting for our negroes, let us make them wait on us.” [My italics.]
This second line could be read as “we are fighting to keep our negroes,” but the reciprocity in the sentence would make more sense if read as “we are fighting on behalf of our negroes.” This fits perfectly in the white rhetoric of slavery—that the real sufferers in the institution were the white owners burdened with managing “troublesome property,” black people who should be grateful for the benevolence.
Tortured and twisted logic, of course. But it is a reminder that while Confederate apologists are very good at appropriating modern political language and adopting modern cultural sensibilities, the core of their argument does have deep historical precedence.