Changing the American Story? by Carol P. Christ


Carol in Crete croppedIn a moving part of Goddess and God in the World, the book Judith Plaskow and I are writing together, Judith describes how the Sabra and Shatila massacre  forced her to confront the fact that “her people” are just as capable of perpetrating evil as any other group. Growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust and the pogroms that had scattered her people across the world, Judith was taught to think of the Jewish people as the victims of history rather than as the perpetrators of evil. The willingness of the Israeli army to countenance the outright massacre of up to 3500 people told another story: when in power, Jews too were capable of great evil.

I tell this story because I believe the lesson Judith learned is a lesson that Americans as a group still need to learn. I am thinking about this in the days following the heated debate that led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the Capitol of North Carolina.

In a brave and impassioned speech, Jenny Horne explained that though she is a descendant of Jefferson Davis, she was speaking against the display of the Confederate flag because it is a symbol of the harm that has been done and continues to be done to slaves and descendants of slaves in her state. Jenny Horne was rejecting the story she had been told about what it is to be an American in South Carolina.

Jenny Horne and other Southerners are not the only ones who need to revise the stories they have learned about what it means to be American. All of us have been told that we are the inheritors of a tradition of “freedom and justice for all”—a tradition forged in the Revolutionary War. Many of us were also taught that the tradition of freedom and justice for all was reaffirmed in the Civil War and in the struggles of former slaves (male and female) and women (of all races) for equal rights.

In part, this story is a re-telling of the narrative of the heroes of war: the heroes of war fight for a noble cause and are remembered forever. In another part, this story is about the struggle for freedom and justice for all, said to be the most noble of all noble causes.

In the US South, a counter story is told. In this version, the Revolutionary War remains foundational, establishing the American people as the defenders of freedom and justice. With regard to the Civil War, the story changes: the North is portrayed as the usurping the freedom of the Southern states to determine their own way of life, with the Confederate soldiers valiantly fighting for “freedom and justice” for the South.

It is easy for those of us who are not from the South to feel horrified by the Southern telling of the American story. It would be tempting to conclude that the South needs to accept the Northern version of the American story. Moreover, it might be added, the South needs to repent of the sin of slavery.

It will not be lost on the readers of this blog that this “solution” leaves several elements of the American story intact. It does not question the narrative of the heroes of war. Rather it states that the category of heroes of war does not include the Confederate soldiers. Nor does it question the narrative that our people (properly defined to exclude the slave-holding Confederacy) are always on the side of freedom and justice for all.

For many of us who grew up during the Vietnam War, these two narratives were already shattered. We came to understand that our people were engaged in an unjust war, and we refused to celebrate the soldiers who fought in an unjust war as the heroes of war.

As students of American history are well aware, conflicting versions of the American story continue to shape the political landscape. While those on the left question the justice of American wars, others consider it treasonous to express anything other than total loyalty for our troops and the justice of the battles they fight.

I could stop here, but I won’t, because it is important also to question the notion that slavery and its on-going legacy is a Southern problem. The reason that slavery was outlawed in the Northern states is that slaves were held in them. All of the American people may not have held slaves (a fact that is true in both the North and the South), but all Americans not descended from slaves benefited from slavery.

The factories of the North processed cotton grown on slave plantations. Northerners produced the manacles that held the slaves in the holds of the slave ships and the cannons and cannon balls that were fired to protect slave ships. And so on. Because of on-going segregation and injustice, white people, including immigrant groups that came to the United States after the Civil War, were able to access jobs, education, home mortgages, and a variety of other benefits that were denied to the descendants of slaves.

It is high time that Americans give up the story that “we” have always been on the side of “the good.” The history of every people contains a mixture of good and evil. This does not mean that the responsibility for evil is equally shared. But is does mean that no group is all good, or conversely, all bad.

It is particularly dangerous when the powerful maintain the illusion that they and their people are always good. It is high time to change the American story once and for all.

Carol P. Christ leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter).  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and forthcoming in 2016, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Explore Carol’s writing. Photo of Carol: Maureen Murdock.

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Categories: Activism, American History, Ancestors, Feminism and Religion, General, Military, Peacemaking, Power relations, Racism

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9 replies

  1. Thank you for this post, Carol. And thank you for including Jenny Horne’s speech. Retelling our stories is a key component of change. Historians, novelists, poets, artists, musicians all have a contribution to make. Anyone is a position to make her voice heard has an opportunity to change the story as Ms. Horne did. The story is ongoing, too changing every day and every moment. We are all part of it.

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  2. In the Broadway musical 1776 by Sherman Edwards, the delegate from North Carolina, Edward Rutledge (played by John Cullum), sings this song to make his point that the northern states are as guilty of slavery as the southern states. You can listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W9yPdhL6L3o

    Molasses to rum to slaves
    Oh, what a beautiful waltz
    You dance with us, we dance with you
    In molasses and run and slaves

    Who sail the ships out of Boston
    Laden with bibles and rum
    Who drinks a toast
    To the Ivory Coast
    “Hail Africa, the slavers have come”
    New England with Bibles and rum

    And it’s off with the rum and the Bibles
    Take on the slaves, clink clink
    Then hail and farewell to the smell
    Of the African coast

    Molasses to rum to slaves
    ‘Tisn’t morals, ’tis money that saves
    Shall we dance to the sound
    Of the profitable pound
    In molasses and rum and slaves

    Who sail the ships out of Guinea
    Laden with Bibles and slaves
    ‘Tis Boston can boast
    To the West Indies coast
    “Jamaica, we brung what ye craves”
    Antigua, Barbados
    We brung Bibles and slaves

    If you Google “triangle trade,” you get lots of hits that explain what it means. (If you need further explanation.)

    When I used to faithfully watch MSNBC (I quit because too many of the “hosts” are too noisy), I kept hearing about “American exceptionalism,” i.e., the U.S. is better than anyone else. ‘Tain’t true. People who pay attention to history know that. Carol, thanks for writing this blog.

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  3. Your statement,”While those on the left question the justice of American wars, others consider it treasonous to express anything other than total loyalty for our troops and the justice of the battles they fight,” is spot on. No doubt the US falls in the latter category these days–“it [is] treasonous to express anything other than total loyalty for our troops and the justice of the battles they fight.” This was illustrated well for me when I recently attended the musical, “South Pacific,” in my area. WW 2 veterans, present at the show, were acknowledged and stood in place. The audience applauded long and loud, rose to their collective feet, stomped a bit, and then whooped and hollered before settling down for the show, but not before we were reminded by the theater spokeswoman that “these veterans here with us tonight lived the same experience as you will see depicted in our production.” Really?! But it’s that full, all out approval for our “fighting forces” that scares me. As if the only honorable way to deal with conflict is to go to war!

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    • Exactly, the whole war + heroes of war narrative needs to be questioned. “After all,” as Howard Zinn said, “we could have been Canadians.” And that might not have been so bad as it turns out. We would have had national health insurance and a country that is not nearly as gun-crazy or warlike as our own.

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  4. I agree as regards the American story. But I have to say our generation, Carol, is something I am proud of, especially our written outcries and protests and the marches in the late 1960’s and 70’s. We were deeply compassionate, so angry at the wars, Vietnam, the toxic pollution of the planet, the sexism, the racial discrimination, and even animal rights were brought forward at that time. My brother was on the Selma march too, and I marched in that famous women’s rights strike in New York City, and several other protests, and also worked as a member of a private feminist discussion group which met in Greenwich Village. I don’t think there was much evil in all of that, but there was a lot of evil in the opposition. In fact, the most prominent liberal leaders at that time kept getting killed off, including President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, John Lennon, Mahatma Gandhi, etc.

    I’m not disagreeing that there is good and bad in everything. But our generation certainly saw how messed up our society was. And at least we got out there and protested it as no generation had ever done so consistently before us.

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    • I certainly agree, Sarah. I am proud of our generation too, but let’s not forget that both the New Left and the Black Power movements were male-dominated, and that when the feminist movement emerged, white women had a tendency to assume our experiences were universal. At the same time, as I said, I do not think the responsibility for the evil in the world is equally shared by all groups. The military industrial complex and the 1% bear more responsibility for it than me and thee. Bush and Cheney more responsibility for the evils of war than Howard Zinn.

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  5. Thanks Carol, for this analysis. I, too, resent people with power who frame themselves as victims. The tradition of “freedom and justice for all”, forged in the Revolutionary War, ignores the inhabitants of the land before the colonists arrived, as well as the ones who were brought involuntarily to be sold. Often, the vocabulary itself tells the story: the war in which the Confederate soldiers valiantly fight for “freedom and justice” is called by them “The War Between the States”.
    It is high time that we stop glorifying the perpetrators of war and, instead, honour those who exemplify the culture of peace.

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  6. This is so helpful for me to reflect upon; thank you. Specifically, because I am currently considering moving back to the landscape where I was born and raised … southwest Missouri Ozarks which is very much The South in terms of culture, politics, and religion. I’m feeling drawn there but also remain averse (which is why I haven’t lived there since I became an adult), and struggle with how I might be able to balance my pagan-liberal views with those of all my family (both sides of the family multi-generations) and childhood friends who are Christian-conservative. Especially in light of what you have written above, and the recent conflicts. Again, thank you.

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