By Juliet Wagner (Regular Contributor)
I had originally prepared a different piece for this month, on silent cinema and amnesia, but it feels somehow inappropriate to post it today into an internet-media world awash with reactions to the violent act of terror committed in Charleston, SC. I lack the expertise to write on the cruel history of attacks on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the complex meaning of the Confederate flag or the flaws of US media coverage. As a European living in the South, however, I do have a personal response to the slightly relieved distance with which Europeans describe racism and its history in the US South: namely, discomfort at the cultural amnesia about European history that sense of distance betrays.
When I first visited Charleston, SC in 2012 (my first visit south of the Mason-Dixon line), I was equally guilty of this presumed cultural innocence. I quietly upbraided the house tours which failed to recognize either the contributions of enslaved builders and servants or the cruel source of the wealth that funded them, and remember being particularly piqued that the preserved plantation house Drayton Hall offered a separate, unsubscribed African-American history tour rather than including that history in the default tour every visitor took. It seemed deeply problematic that the romance of the antebellum South could be celebrated by tourists without inextricable reminders of the exploitation that undergirded it, or of the history of alternative cultures which emerged away from the white elite.
After sharing this observation with a few friends, however, I thought back to earlier visits to Liverpool and Bristol, both built –like Charleston—almost entirely on wealth generated by the slave trade. Neither they, nor areas of London financed by imperial wealth like Knightsbridge, counter their architectural grandeur with frank reflections on the vast human costs of the economies that financed them. Certainly not to the extent that I demanded of Charleston when I visited. Which is not to say that the presentation of antebellum history in the South is unproblematic, but rather that Europeans should hold themselves to the same standards. As should those who curate the history of the US North: I don’t remember much discussion of African American history at the New England Cotton Mills I visited either, for example.
A Retreat from Triumphalism?
The reason this matters is that self-awareness could prevent the subtle, almost imperceptible triumphalism that such condescension to the US South sometimes masks. Pride in the new South does not necessarily equate to nostalgia for the old South, or with racism, but the refusal of outsiders to recognize this nuance can lead white Southerners to mistakenly cling to hateful symbols like the confederate flag that only tear at multiple wounds. In short, racist violence is not just a Southern problem, and it does not serve the women and men who were murdered on Wednesday to indulge in any shade of self-righteous distancing.
[Next month, I will retreat from personal opinion and return to carefully researched topics in the European history of medicine, science, film, photography and war.]