The absence of slavery from the South's collective consciousness
Mississippi would not be my number one choice for a tourist destination, but I once had the unfortunate experience of being a tourist there. By that I mean that my parents and I went to a cotton museum somewhere in the Delta. You would think this would be a pretty predictable place: exhibits about planting, harvesting, the invention of the cotton gin, cotton's role in the economy, all fairly self-explanatory. It did some of those things in an awkwardly elementary and somewhat disorganized fashion, but it also missed something very important. After going through the entire museum we realized there was no mention of, depiction of, or allusion to slavery or even African-Americans. Whoops!
When my parents brought this oversight to the attention of the man running the museum he seemed genuinely surprised. His claim that it had not occurred to him that slavery should be included in a museum about the history of cotton in Mississippi seems absolutely absurd to me. I'm not fully convinced that it was the truth, but whether the museum curators failed to think about the role of slaves or whether it was a conscious omission seems somewhat irrelevant. One wonders what sort of a culture would allow such pivotal information to simply be forgotten. One also wonders if this sort of culture promotes the intentional exclusion of such information. Either case is extremely problematic.
On one hand, a culture that allows important details to be left out of seemingly authoritative information is, in general, not educated enough to object. On the other hand, a culture that intentionally suppresses these details is likely having an identity crisis. It's difficult to create a cultural identity when a large part of the region's history involves something that is now largely considered unacceptable and even morally wrong. The pressure to condemn slavery could easily lead a culture to avoid even mentioning it.
This withholding of information is not a singular occurrence. For example, it was not until this school year that the civil rights movement was added to the social studies curriculum for the first time in Mississippi public schools. Given that tidbit, it is not altogether ridiculous to believe the hypothesis about he culture in general being ignorant of key information. However, it is impossible for the narrators of history to simply forget about the existence of slavery and the civil rights movement, so the absence of these events in museums and school curricula must be a result of intentional suppression.
Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia recently took steps that could unintentionally bring racial issues in the South to light. He issued a proclamation stating that the month of April will be recognized at Confederate History Month in his state. His reasoning for this was that "April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence." Oddly enough, there was no mention of slavery in his original document (he capitulated to criticism and later added a paragraph condemning slavery). This puts him in a strange position; promoting the Confederacy without condemning slavery would seem, using the transitive property, to be a promotion of slavery. He defended his omission in the Washington Post by saying,
There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.
What I find significant here is that he is proclaiming that an entire month will be dedicated to Confederate history while at the same time ignoring a large part of the history. While it is true that there were other factors in the war, it is absurd to deny that slavery played a large part. That said, it is awkward to suggest a celebration of the states that seceded to defend slavery without making any attempts to denounce it. In addition, he doesn't exactly identify these "other factors" that he intends to celebrate in the first place.
This proclamation seems to me like a lame, misguided attempt at creating a cohesive cultural identity for the state without really considering its implications. Celebrating the history of a certain group or region is generally intended to unify it, but in this case (especially without any mention of slavery) it serves to do the opposite. The solution to this identity crisis lies neither in suppressing discussion, nor in romanticizing the past. Taking this new proclamation as an opportunity for discussion could be a step in the right direction. The backlash from it could theoretically lead to open discussion that has been otherwise lacking.