What we in the biz call a “teachable moment”…

I realize I’m late to comment on the controversy surrounding Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. The holidays interrupted attempts at a normal work schedule, but they also provided some time to stew – which isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Obviously, given what I’ve written before, I disagree entirely with Robertson’s views on homosexuality. But if we’re talking about a member of the contemporary conservative Christian community, such views don’t particularly surprise me. And there’s been plenty written by those who support and those who disagree with Robertson’s statements, with A&E’s response (the immediate as well as the subsequent), etc., etc., etc.


There’s also been some written about his views on race, which for me, was the more troubling element of his interview. Born eight years before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling – and thus in plenty of time to see the origins and activism of the modern Civil Rights Movement not to mention the circumstances that led to its development – Robertson clearly relies on a mythic past of racial harmony when he states “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!” He adds, “Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

I won’t suggest that Robertson misremembers the past. Very likely, this is just how he imagined the world then and has continued to think about the past ever since. More accurately, I believe his view is representative of those who fail to imagine the world beyond their own experiences, of those who fail to look at the larger context of the lives of those who are unlike them. This is not merely a southern phenomenon – nor is it one whose application is problematic only when we discuss race. But sticking with the racial theme: On a trip to New Jersey years ago, a relative told a story of her girlhood at the local shore town Catholic school, where she recalled there had been one black student. My relative assured me she would sit next to this student on the bus, that other children were kind to her, and, in sum, “She never felt any different.” Really? In 1940s New Jersey, as the only black child among all the fair-skinned Irish Catholics, she felt no difference? And among all those fair-skinned Catholics, both children and adults, not one recognized her as different and made that recognition known? As a historian – and as a human being – I find that difficult to believe. What’s at stake here? Why shape the story in this way? My guesses: so that my relative can absolve herself of any guilt, re: American race relations, so that the idea of a clear North/South divide remains in tact, so that the “good old days” retain their status as “good.”

On this site, I most often write about love and marriage and weddings (and the cultures that accompany them) of the recent past and in contemporary America. But I’m also interested in the intimate relationships people share more broadly, in the ways the experience and imagine both their public and private lives and those with whom they interact. As an educator, I’m interested in pushing my students toward considering various perspectives in and of the past. In Robertson’s youth, he may have been among the poor whites, but he was white. The likelihood that any person of color would express dissatisfaction with the standing racial etiquette of the Jim Crow South with even a person recognized as “white trash” is highly unlikely. In 1955, when television reporters travelled to Mississippi to cover the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, men accused (and guilty) of killing Chicago teenager Emmett Till, they interviewed African American passerby about their views on the case. Many of those interviewed claimed they had no opinion about the trial. No opinion about a 14 year old black boy, beaten, shot, and tied to a cotton gin then dumped in the Tallahatchie River for allegedly whistling at a white woman? If we take those historical sources at face value, we fail as historians. Considering the larger context of the southern experience reveals the necessity of shrouded views as a mechanism of self-preservation and basic survival.

As we consider relationships and lives of historical actors, it’s fundamental that we remember to consider the broader world in which our actors lived – and how a relationship between two people very likely would yield two stories as to the nature of that relationship and each person’s overall experiences. And as we engage in relationships in our own lives, it’s fundamental, I would argue, to consider the larger world in which our relationships, particularly our relationships with people different from ourselves, exist. If I might, this is where I’d make a plug not only for history but for the world of the humanities and liberal arts – where we emphasize perspective and analysis and investigation of other people, languages, cultures, and ways of life. My students, knowing as they do about the conscious creation of a Jim Crow system of “justice,” the development of the Double Victory campaign in the wake of the Second World War, the formation of a community effort to undo Montgomery’s separate but clearly unequal system of transportation, know that a dismissive claim that “they” were happy and seemingly unconcerned with the extension of a second-class brand of citizenship fails to accurately relay the complicated experience of southern life. Ideally, their education will prepare them to interrogate other such claims of and about the past, particularly as they consider the sources making them and what contemporary purposes such claims might serve.


Community activists during the Montgomery Bus Boycott