Monday, January 19, 2004

Life, art.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Iraqi Music

The Mesopotamian has a link to IraqiMusic.com, which has got a bunch of mp3s.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Abiola Lapite says he won't be watching Cold Mountain because he has no time for "entertainment that airbrushes out black people." He says that
it is the height of absurdity that an entire movie could be made about the American Civil War without putting any focus on the central issue at stake in that war - black slavery.
But at least it is well known in the general culture--and frequently reiterated--that this was the central issue. My favorite pop culture treatment of the causes of the Civil War comes from the episode of The Simpsons in which Apu becomes an American citizen to avoid deportation. This is from his naturalization interview:
Proctor: All right, here's your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?

Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter--

Proctor: Wait, wait... just say slavery.

Apu: Slavery it is, sir.
What's interesting to me is a deeper historical lacuna, one which is manisfested not just occasionally, in this book or that movie, but systematically, as a missing chapter in the story we tell about America. Here it is, in a nutshell:
In time, the black contribution to the Union war effort would fade from the nation's collective memory, but it remained a vital part of the black community's sense of its own history. "They say," an Alabama planter reported in 1867, "the Yankees never could have whipped the South without the aid of the Negroes."
That's from "The World the War Made," the first chapter of Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, p. 10. Here's a glimpse of this story that has gone missing from our national narrative:
Of the Proclamation's provisions, few were more radical in their implications or more essential to breathing life into the promise of emancipation than the massive enrollment of blacks into military service. Preliminary steps had been taken in 1862, since as the army moved into the South, it required a seemingly endless stream of laborers to construct fortifications and additional soldiers to guard its ever-lengthening supply lines. The reservoir of black manpower could not be ignored, but it was only with the Emancipation Proclamation that the enlistment of blacks began in earnest. Massachusetts Governor Andrew commissioned a group of prominent black abolitionists to tour the North for recruits, and other Northern governors quickly followed suit. In the South, especially in the in the Mississippi Valley under the direction of Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, former slaves by the thousands were enlisted. By the war's end, some 180,000 blacks had served in the Union Army--over one fifth of the nation's adult male black population under age forty-five. The highest percentage originated in the border states, where enlistment was, for most of the war, the only route to freedom. Nearly 60 percent of eligible Kentucky blacks served in the armed forces. Here, military service pushed the Union's commitment to abolition beyond the terms of the Proclamation to embrace, first, black soldiers, and, shortly before the war's end, their families as well. Well before its legal demise, slavery in the border states had been fatally undermined by the enlistment of black men in the army.

Within the army, black soldiers were anything but equal to white. Organized into segregated regiments, they often found themselves subjected to abuse from white officers. Initially, black enlistment was intended to free whites for combat; accordingly, black recruits received less pay than white and were assigned largely to fatigue duty, construction work, and menial labor, with few opportunities to demonstrate their martial talents. Even after proving themselves in battle, blacks could not advance into the ranks of commissioned officers until 1865. In the end, only about 100 (including chaplains and surgeons) obtained commissions.

Nonetheless, black soldiers played a crucial role not only in winning the Civil War, but in defining the war's consequences. Their service helped transform the nation's treatment of blacks and blacks' conception of themselves. The "logical result" of their military service, one Senator observed in 1864, was that "the black man is henceforth to assume a new status among us." For the first time in American history, large numbers of blacks were treated as equals before the law--if only military law. In army courts blacks could testify against whites (something unheard of throughout the South and in many Northern states), and former slaves for the first time saw the impersonal sovereignty of the law supersede the personal authority of a master. The galling issue of unequal pay sparked a movement that familiarized former slaves with the process of petition and protest, and resulted in a signal victory when Congress in 1864 enacted a measure for equality in pay, bounties, and other compensation. It was in the army that large numbers of former slaves first learned to read and write, either from teachers employed by Northern aid societies or in classrooms and literary clubs established and funded by the soldiers themselves. "A large portion of the regiment have been going to school during the winter months," wrote a black sergeant from Virginia in March 1865. "Surely this is a mighty and progressive age in which we live." (pp. 7-9)
And the story of black participation in this phase of the American revolution involves more than the contributions of the 180,000 who served in the Union army:
In one sense, however, the Proclamation only confirmed what was already happening on farms and plantations throughout the South. War, it has been said, is the midwife of revolution, and well before 1863 the disintegration of slavery had begun. Whatever politicians and military commanders might decree, slaves saw the war as heralding the long-awaited end of bondage. Three years into the conflict, Gen. William T. Sherman encountered a black Georgian who summed up the slaves' understanding of the war from its outset: "He said . . . he had been looking for the 'angel of the Lord' ever since he was knee-high, and, though we professed to be fighting for the Union, he supposed that slavery was the cause, and that our success was to be his freedom." Based on this conviction, the slaves took actions that propelled a reluctant white America down the road to abolition.

As the Union Army occupied territory on the periphery of the Confederacy, first in Virginia, then in Tennessee, Louisiana, and elsewhere, slaves by the thousands headed for the Union lines. Union enclaves like Fortress Monroe, Beaufort, and New Orleans became havens for runaway slaves and bases for expeditions into the interior that further disrupted the plantation regime. Even in the heart of the Confederacy, far from Union lines, the conflict undermined the South's "peculiar institution." Their "grapevine telegraph" kept many slaves remarkably well informed about the war's progress. In one part of Mississippi, slaves even organized Lincoln's Legal Loyal League to spread word of the Emancipation Proclamation. Southern armies impressed tens of thousands of slaves into service as laborers, taking them far from their home plantations, offering opportunities for escape, and widening the horizons of those who returned home. The drain of white men into military service left plantations under the control of planters' wives and elderly and infirm men, whose authority slaves increasingly felt able to challenge. Reports of "demoralized" and "insubordinate" behavior multiplied throughout the South. Six months after the war began, slaves in one Kentucky town marched through the streets at night, shouting hurrahs for Lincoln. (p. 3)
It seems to me that we would be better off, in numerous ways, if we could put this chapter back into the collective memory. The movie Glory, which tells the story of the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, is still too much of an exception to the general state of affairs.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Bad news and more bad news

Just as I'm about to return from mine, Cinderella Bloggerfeller--my favorite blogger--up and goes "on hiatus in 2004." Words fail. Buildings crumble. The ground opens wide.

And I have returned to a Leuven bereft of De Wiering, one of my favorite places here. Gregorian chant was always playing in the toilets. A friend of mine once asked for an ashtray and was told that, since she was sitting at a non-smoking table, she'd have to get one for herself from one of the other tables. When you left you could help yourself to a free lollipop. In the midst of iciness, there was a fire. It looks pretty much gutted inside.

Is it a sign of the times that, although I'd already been back in town for a few days, I learned the news from a blog?

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