David Wright Faladé on the case of Civil War revisionism in film and literature ‹ Literary Hub

In a pivotal scene from the 1989 film Glory, the story’s hero, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, confronts his commanding officer, Colonel James Montgomery, who has ordered his black soldiers to sack and burn an undefended Confederate village. Matthew Broderick’s Shaw and his “volunteers of color” (Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Andre Braugher) watch in indignation as their counterparts, a unit made up of very recently freed slaves, unleash upon the city. The horde of “contrabands of war”, as they were called – or, in other words, seized enemy property – wear cartoonish red pants under their Union blue coats as they go on a rampage, looting stately homes. (Shaw’s regiment wears dignified blue-on-blue, by contrast.)

Although, presumably, smugglers have spent their whole lives doing sun-to-sun shift work in cotton fields or swampy rice paddies, working in rhythm and in unison, these men fail to walk properly in as a unit, nor do they seem able to grasp the gravity of their mission. One of them, seemingly dazzled by the mere sight of the musket he is brandishing, begs Montgomery in barely comprehensible black vernacular English: “The musket, Massa Colonel? Never shoot it. Shoot now? »

Montgomery revels in the gratuitous cruelty of his soldiers. “They’re little kids,” he told Shaw. “They are little child monkeys. You just have to know how to control them.

Which he does, taking out his gun and shooting the one that hits a white woman. Seconds earlier, the same soldier had knocked a slave girl to the ground, but it hadn’t caused a stir in Montgomery.

As ennobling as the film is, and brave for its time, Glory also disappointed. For starters, Shaw is central to the story. Glory is his film more than that of his black soldiers. He is shown to be the one who truly sacrifices as a result of all he gives up by agreeing to lead a regiment of black men. The black characters, when not reinforcing damaging stereotypes, are merely adjuncts to the drama that unfolds around Broderick’s Shaw.

Without the aid of diaries and letters – and most slaves were illiterate – how do you tell their individual stories?

The real Shaw wrote some 200 letters home during the war; these form the basis of the story told in the film. This may have played a role in the screenwriter’s choice to center the story on him. There are few letters from the black soldiers of the regiment themselves – only one I could find by doing a quick search – and no journals. For African Americans, records are sparse and often non-specific, especially those from the antebellum era when blacks were underreported or not reported at all. Without the aid of diaries and letters – and most slaves were illiterate – how do you tell their individual stories?

Historians of the role of African Americans in American history have found inventive ways to deal with the problem of this notable absence. Their efforts, which are sometimes dismissed or discounted as revisionist, have worked to bring black histories into the official record. Historical revisionism – the act of questioning previous interpretations of a commonly accepted set of facts – is often presented in a negative, even heretical light. But the United States – a society founded on a lofty set of ideals, according to which all people are created equal, born with certain inalienable rights – and also designed with one indisputable flaw – the use of racial slavery in their efforts to achieve this national ambition – need this kind of frank reassessment, however troubling. Because living an ideal is a long and laborious process.

I teach writing, and in class we learn that “mistake is the site where learning happens,” that writing is rewriting, and that the more we revise, the closer we get to success. . Some drafts in progress may appear to be collapsing or regressing. But with each revision – or revision – an alphabet B grade paper eventually becomes a B+ or even an A-.

Not surprisingly, storytellers—writers and other artists, for whom acts of reinvention and reconstruction are central to the creative process—have been among the important historical revisionists, both for better and for worse. The Confederate statues that are now being removed – which were erected, notably, 50 years after the defeat of the breakaway states – were themselves a review of the bloody toll of that war. Where the Confederacy had lost the fight, the South subsequently gained the upper hand. The Overhaul Effort Signal was not a statue or monument, but a work of fiction – the 1915 silent film The birth of a nation.

Storytellers have been among the important historical revisionists, both for better and for worse.

In it, the Confederate Rebellion is recast as a family spat. The title cards tell us that the “first seed” of “disunity” was born with the “introduction of the African to America” ​​and culminated not with the Civil War but, in its wake, with the heroic efforts of the Ku Klux Klan to mend the American family by subduing the brutal black hordes who, in their uncontrollable thirst for miscegenation, had torn it apart. (The birth of a nationBlack soldiers are the unfortunate ancestors of Glorycontraband soldiers.)

The film ends with the Klan marching down Main Street, the national family reunited. In the film’s vision, America was not born of the founding ideals of equality, freedom and self-determination. Rather, our national identity rested on the embrace of white supremacy.

It is remarkable the effort that the filmmaker, DW Griffith, has devoted to giving The birth of a nation– which was based on a novel, the proudly racist agitprop by Thomas Dixon Jr. The clansmen— the superposition and authority of historical fact. The title cards proclaim that the scenes depicted are “historical facsimiles”. Great care was taken to create the impression of visual verisimilitude – of a documentary feel, before the documentary genre even existed. And the effort paid off.

Woodrow Wilson, a professional historian by training and the first post-Civil War Southern-born president, sadly said the film was “like writing history with lightning.” It’s no wonder that Jim Crow – an attempt to return to a pre-war racial order rather than continuing to work toward our founding ideals – easily passed into custom and law at this very time.

Just 20 years later came carried away by the windan updated version of The birth of a nation. Despite their popular appeal, these two revisions to our national history were clearly not our strongest work. A C-, at best, if we give credit to carried away by the wind for simply relegating black players to demeaning supporting roles rather than hanging the fate of the nation on their eradication.

In 1976, Alex Haley Roots claimed history from those who, in the wake of carried away by the wind, had chosen to believe that slavery was not so bad. Who can forget Levar Burton, in the film adaptation of the novel, hanging by the wrists, conceding, “Toby… My name is Toby….” Toni Morrison unflinchingly edited Haley’s flawless review. Despite initial resistance at home, international acclaim has been building on Beloved repudiated any further attempts to erase the impact of slavery on the American psyche and minimize the contribution of African Americans to our national identity.

Writers and filmmakers continue to tell the story of slavery today, most recently including Colson Whitehead and Barry Jenkins with The Underground Railroadand James McBride and Ethan Hawke with The good lord bird. In my new novel, Rising dark cloudwhich revisits the same historical moment as Glorytells a contraband soldier, telling one of our national origin stories, the civil war story of “brother against brother” – but this time, one is black, the other white, the one the former slave of the other.

It would be wrong to compare current historical revisionism to that practiced by the South in the decades following its defeat, despite all the superficial similarities. The current work actually represents the polar opposite. For in these new drafts, we as a society are not clinging desperately to the mistakes of a flawed social contract. On the contrary, we write ourselves closer to the ideals claimed at the founding. Each new analysis is a little deeper, a little more nuanced, not in an attempt to invent a glorified past, as Southern redeemers like Dixon, Griffith and Margaret Mitchell did, but in an effort to calculate , regardless of the pain it might evoke. Such is the nature of truth.

A B+ now. Maybe even A-.


Rising dark cloud by David Wright Faladé will soon be released by Grove Press.

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