Death Day at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine—May 10—always brings out some colorful characters, which is one of the reasons I enjoy working there so much on the anniversary of Jackson’s death. This year it was no different. A fellow showed up with a Deep South accent and declared, “The blacks are ruining all this Civil War stuff for me, trying to make it all about civil rights.”
On the spot, I found myself caught between the inherently contradictory charges that we, as interpreters, are faced with at sites like the Jackson Shrine.
On one hand, my job is to educate and interpret. This happens to be right in line with what I do as a college professor. I love to provoke thought and challenge assumptions and misconceptions. It’s what I do in the classroom every day.
On the other hand, my job is to serve as a caretaker of the resource. As stewards of the resource, “we work for all of them,” a colleague once reminded me, referring to visitors as taxpayers.
In instances like the one I suddenly found myself in, it’s usually best to remember we are stewards. Some old dogs don’t want to learn new tricks, so just smile and nod. The genius of the smile-and-nod trick is that polite acknowledgement can be interpreted as tacit agreement, which defuses people, who are then apt to leave you alone because you also aren’t really engaging them.
But it’s for that exact reason I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
“What did you think the war was about?” I asked the visitor.
“The government telling states what to do,” he replied.
“What was the specific issue in question?”
He pulled his chin in and squinted at me. “You don’t think the war was about slavery, do you?” he asked, suspicious.
I offered him a quote I have heard attributed to James McPherson: “The war was about many things, and all of them were slavery.”
My visitor did not like the sound of that one—yet I could see all over his face that his wheels were turning.
“It’s certainly very complicated,” I conceded, trying to find some common ground. “But if you look at some of the Articles of Secession from some of the states, you’ll see that they clearly mention slavery.” (For more on that, check out a previous post, “The Fourth of July and the Death of Independence,” where a different experience at the Jackson Shrine offered me a chance to delve into the slavery issue in more detail.)
“Well…” my visitor from the Deep South finally said, a little less sure of himself, “I just think they were trying to get rid of a way of life.”
A way of life built upon free labor provided by slaves, I wanted to tell him, but I could see he couldn’t see that. So I left it there. I had pushed him enough; I did not want to push my luck.
Smile and nod.
Unfortunately, some people only want to hear the stories as they know them. Just the other day, for instance, a reader wrote to us at Emerging Civil War, saying he no longer enjoyed the blog and “will no longer read the stuff within it.” His explanation: “The site seems to be getting PC, or worse.”
I have a mug on my bookshelf that says, “I’d rather be historically accurate than politically correct.” I can’t even imagine what might be worse. But I have an idea of what he thought was worse. He said he wanted the old stories by the old guard—in other words, stories that did not challenge his status quo. Old dog and new tricks, indeed.
To the credit of the man from the Deep South, he chewed over the piece I gave him, although I could tell he didn’t like the taste of it. Still we had plenty of amicable conversation before he left, and just before he departed, he slipped a five-dollar bill into the donation box.
“I know, I know,” I said to my colleague after the visitor had left. “I should have just kept my mouth shut.”
But maybe not. I don’t know if I changed the fellow’s mind, but I at least gave him something to think about. And he gave me something to think about, too. That seems like a pretty good trade.