Are You Brave?

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 Courtesy Flickr

While many would see the above image as horrifying proof of racism in America, we must remember the flip side. Yes, there were racists, but as the cartoon says, the Republican congress  gave blacks the right to vote and pushed for racial equality. The fact that violence and hatred still remained after the Civil War does not negate the valiant works of many white and black Republicans who fought and sometimes died to see that real freedom for all would not remain just a dream. I admire the men and women of the past and present who put race on the back burner and fight for freedom for all.

All too often we only see the massacres, the riots and the acrimony between the races (I suggest this would be true studying any society), but there is so much more to people than that. People were often horrified at the troubles between the races in the late 19th century, but put yourself back there after asking yourself how many hours you’ve spent watching the news and despairing at the idea that there’s nothing you can do to stop people in faraway places from victimizing each other. How many of us would have stood up to paramilitary groups inflamed by not only race hatred but by defeat, sudden poverty and loss? How many of us would have cowered or turned away in disgust after years of endless suffering and loss of human life?

Bravery is a rare and beautiful thing. We like to imagine ourselves brave. How many of us actually are?

THE 1873 BATTLE OF COLFAX: COUNTER REVOLUTION IN LOUISIANA

19th CENTURY DEMOCRATS AND RACE

US GRANT / COLFAX

Poet: Paul Laurence Dunbar

220px-Paul_Laurence_Dunbar_circa_1890

He Had His Dream

He had his dream, and all through life,
Worked up to it through toil and strife.
Afloat fore’er before his eyes,
It colored for him all his skies:
The storm-cloud dark
Above his bark,
The calm and listless vault of blue
Took on its hopeful hue,
It tinctured every passing beam –
He had his dream.

He labored hard and failed at last,
His sails too weak to bear the blast,
The raging tempests tore away
And sent his beating bark astray.
But what cared he
For wind or sea!
He said, ‘The tempest will be short,
My bark will come to port.’
He saw through every cloud a gleam –
He had his dream.

 

Paul’s mother had a dream too. An ex-slave, she taught herself to read just so she could teach young Paul. Paul was a stellar student and popular at his all-white high school in Ohio where he was elected president of the high school literary society. Mother’s dream was to send Paul to law school but lack of funds prevented it.   (My son really wanted to live on campus at NYU and assumed he’d go to Columbia Law School–we all have our dreams, don’t we?). Finances are a pain.

Paul ended up an elevator operator and though a good poet, he wasn’t very good with money and always ended up in debt. People liked his work, but poetry can’t always pay the bills.

Paul met a nice girl and married, but sadly three years later was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The doctor recommended whiskey to alleviate  the symptoms of the disease. We all know how this ends, don’t we? His depression and growing dependence on alcohol caused trouble between him and wifey. She left him and Paul died a destitute alcoholic.

 

 

“One turns to me his appealing eyes- poor boy! I never knew you, Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.” Walt Whitman

Civil War graves, near City Point, Virginia courtesy fold3.com
Civil War graves, near City Point, Virginia
courtesy fold3.com

GIVING A FACE TO CIVIL WAR STATISTICS

CIVIL WAR GRAVES LEAKING TOXINS

Beat! beat! drums!-blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley-stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid-mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the
hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums-so loud you bugles blow.

**words by Walt Whitman

Rape Culture Civil War Style

Restraint, boys . . .
Restraint, boys . . .

Good news! There was no such thing as “rape culture” among Northern soldiers fighting for the Union in America’s Civil War. Scholars looked for the tell-tale signs of “rape culture” and found none. No Rolling Stone frat parties gone awry, no Duke Lacrosse team—oh wait those things didn’t actually happen. Back to the Civil War. Despite what popular culture would have us believe about men and boys in America, most don’t rape–or think of rape. Many don’t even want to be around women anymore for fear of the “rape culture” witch hunt.

Oops. Back to the Civil War:

 Northern men in the 1860’s were supported by a culture that valued self-restraint. In fact self-restraint in men was seen as one of the top indicators of a truly masculine man. To lose control was seen as childish, feminine and kind of pathetic. Of course this does not mean that all men kept away from prostitutes or that all men were angels–there were a few cases of rape but astonishingly rare.

For all the bad press patriarchy gets,  the notion of the South going against the father (government) and the brotherhood (the northern states) created an interesting twist when it came to how the northern soldiers viewed southern women. This changed over the course of the war to be sure as the women went from outspoken vixens (she-devils) to co-combatants (stories of women luring soldiers to guard their homes only to shoot them in the head spread like wildfire and in some cases were true). There was a sense initially that messing with southern women was like messing with your best friend’s sister–not good. As time went on it seemed more soldiers fantasized about killing southern women than sleeping with them.

And what is this thing about rape during war anyway? There’s always plenty of hookers hanging around. Rape during war is mental assault against an opponent–what kind of man isn’t able to protect his women folk?  Again I will remind everyone that northern soldiers were hardly ever rapists (like most US men are hardly ever rapists). In the rare recorded cases the raping seemed to be more a thing done to slave women (considered southern property) and usually in front of their white southern female owners as if to warn them that it could happen to them if they weren’t careful. Some Union soldiers blamed the fiery southern women for prolonging the bloody war by convincing their men to keep fighting against all odds.

There were a few well-documented cases of gang rape done by colored troops and here the reasoning may have been more in line with revenge against their former white masters.

Here are my questions: When did self-restraint in men become something to be laughed at? When did men begin to cling to childhood and abdicate their proper place as men? What’s not cool about taking care of families (other than divorce courts being brutal on men)? When did childish women decide that unrestrained lust would make for better relationships? When did these same women start calling all men rapists?

There was a Cult of Womanhood back in the 19th century. Women had a great mission and a great power. Not everyone lived up to the ideal or even wanted to and that’s fine, but when a culture turns its people into children unable to use self control  and actually applauds self obsession and stupidity one wonders when the real men and women will stand up.

Essay prompted by THE VACANT CHAIR by Reid Mitchell