17 April 2008

Confederate States of America

I'm not usually one to watch documentaries on the Independent Film Channel, and particularly not documentaries under the direction of Spike Lee. But last night I stumbled upon the movie Confederate States of America, and it was both fascinating and thought-provoking.

The premise is that the South won the Civil War, thanks to foreign intervention by the French and British. Confederates took over the entire USA, sent Lincoln into exile in Canada, and then established slavery in the "reconstructed" North.

What's fascinating is the way it's framed: it's a faux-documentary, supposedly produced by a British Broadcasting service, presented as if being shown for the first time on Confederate States of America (CSA) television. As we watch, we view it literally as a modern Confederate would: just like on any television broadcast, there are commercial breaks, where we see news updates, advertisements for slavery-related products, and plugs for other television shows (especially funny is the parody of "Cops," which is instead called something like "Runaway," and is about tracking down escaped slaves). The "documentary" traces the history and development of the nation since 1864, with some hilarious manufactured historical footage --- often very cleverly doctored versions of actual materials. There is also a modern political candidate who's an identical twin of David Duke; no idea where they found that actor, but he was cast perfectly.

The problem is that, being a Spike Lee film, it tries too hard to make us believe our modern racial tensions are really not much different from what they'd have been if the Civil War had turned out differently. As the film's website tells us (in case we missed some of the more ham-handed rhetoric in the movie itself):

We arrive to a today that, in many ways, we recognize. Although a nation that is content and prosperous, there is a tremendous divide within and suspicious eye without. Current politicians refer to us as two countries and perhaps, other than geographically, there is no difference between Red and Blue or North and South states. We have always struggled as to whether we are the United or Confederate States of America.

And, as the the Director explains:
In many ways, the South did win The Civil War. Maybe not on the battlefield, but they won the peace. They won the fight for their way of life. The North changed, not the South. . . . Maybe the history of the "C.S.A." would not be all that different from the one we have known - some differences, perhaps, but not a complete counter history.

I find this preposterous, and I had a very different reaction. I kept thinking, It is really remarkable how much better our country is than the CSA depicted in this movie. We are incredibly lucky that the Union won the Civil War. Particularly when watching the advertising for slave-related products and other television programs, the contrast with today's America is striking. I also couldn't help thinking about Jerimiah Wright's "God Damn America" and "U.S. of KKK-A" sermons, and why so many Americans find them so deeply offensive: Wright is describing a country in which the South won the Civil War...a country like the one portrayed in this documentary --- and that's a country that does not now exist in reality.

I was also struck by the CSA leaders' obsession with racial purity and identity, and that was probably the most personally thought-provoking. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, mixed-race marriages and children were extremely rare; I never would've dreamed that I'd marry a black woman. Up until 1967, our marriage would have been illegal in several southern states. That may sound like a long time ago, but it was only a year or two before Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I were born. Who could have imagined that less than thirty years later (literally just a generation), we'd be spending the first year of our marriage in one of those states...and welcoming our first child just a stone's throw from where some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War took place? And getting only a few funny looks the whole time we lived there?

My sense is that the increasing number of mixed-race marriages is both symptomatic and a cause of the underlying change in race relations that's taken place over the last generation in this country. Symptomatic because such an intimate relationship cannot take place unless individuals are willing to look past outward appearances and get to know each other deeply as co-equal human beings. The increasing numbers of mixed-race unions indicates, I think, that increasing numbers of people are getting past skin color in just that way. And families like ours are in turn causes of improved race relations in two ways: (1) as an outward sign and signal to others, particularly within families (think of how many people have come into close contact or friendship with members of another racial group as a result of a family member's marriage); and (2) we're muddying the gene pool so thoroughly, the practical distinctions between racial groups are dissolving at a rapid pace. Eventually, as one former pastor told us, so many people will be carrying so many traits from so many different groups, we won't have race hatred because we won't have races and therefore won't have racism. That may be overstating things (and, to be fair, I'm paraphrasing his words), but I think the general sentiment is on target. And though we're far from a completely mixed-race society, the process is clearly underway and already bearing fruit.

To all those who think race relations are unchanged from the 1950s, or that our nation's history would not be "all that different" if the South had won the Civil War, or that this is "the U.S. of KKK-A": please stop by our farm, and stay for dinner and some conversation. We're living in a very different country from the one you're imagining, and would like the chance to share that perspective with you.

4 comments:

Jeff Culbreath said...

Interesting thoughts, Chris. I agree that America has made some progress, and that mixed-race marriages are a sign of that progress. A couple of points:

1. I think what we're seeing with mixed-race marriages is a move toward what would have been the norm if not for legal segregation. That "norm" is not a society where mixed-race marriages are the majority, or viewed as desirable in themselves, or seen as a tool to eliminate racial distinctions, but a society in which mixed-race marriages are still somewhat rare and racial distinctions remain. Most people will still choose to marry people like themselves, and this will very often - but not always and not perfectly - track along "racial" lines.

2. I'm not sure about the "looking past race" idea either. Do we really want to do that? I admit that the modern concept of race is less than adequate, but it is a proxy for describing a person's ancestry and all of the characteristics that come with it. That's part of what makes you who you are. It would seem that "looking past" such things could mean ignoring something that has significance (whether large or small).

Jeff Culbreath said...

"It would seem that 'looking past' such things could mean ignoring something that has significance (whether large or small)."

I would add that the twin errors of American society are, on the one hand, to exaggerate the significance of race, and on the other hand to deny that race has any significance whatsoever.

How is the social significance of race determined? The Christian faith opposes any kind of racial determinism in spiritual and moral matters. The rest sorts itself out when people of different races encounter each other and make free decisions - hopefully informed by justice and charity - about how to interact.

In some cases (bone marrow transplants) race is highly significant; in others (ability to get an education) it is not significant at all. In most cases (marriage, work, etc.) the significance of race falls somewhere in-between and varies from encounter to encounter, and from person to person.

Having read your excellent book (an e-mail forthcoming!) I know that I'm preaching to the choir here, since it touches on the same kinds of issues. As someone inter-racially married myself, I worry about good-hearted people throwing out the baby of reality with the bathwater of racism.

In a certain sense "color blindness" tends to backfire, giving both racists and liberals a slice of truth to hide behind.

Barb said...

Having several interracial marriages in my family as well, I can tell you two things, one, it works great for those particular couples and two, we sure know who is racist in our family :) and I don't mean that in a derogatory way, it just is a fact. Some people just don't get it. I could care less, you love who you love and really here in America, don't we have bigger fish to fry than worrying about the color of skin? As an extremely white Irish woman, I am so jealous of my darker skinned cousins! I think that it is a good thing to be proud of heritage, but why should that matter whether your heritage is Mexican/Vietnamese/African/or Irish? or some combination of race? anyway, great blog, interesting thoughts and btw, I finished your book, it was great! Thank you.

TYF said...

Thanks, Jeff and Barb.

Jeff - excellent observation about "looking past race," and I should have expanded on that a bit more. You are correct to note that race/ancestory is all part of who a person is. As every married person knows, the spouse is a full package...and that includes his/her ancestory. By "looking past," I mean not using race as a disqualifier for potential spouses. I'd never say I married my wife "despite" her ethnicity...but I also wouldn't say I married her "because" of it, either. I married her for who she was, as an entire package, without using race per se as either a prerequesite or disqualifier. And many more people are doing that today than a generation ago.

Also excellent point that most people marry people who are like themselves and with whom they have much in common. But my sense is that the longer particular ethnic groups are in the country, the fewer differences we'll see based on that ethnicity alone. Not sure if black/white or Asian/white marriages will ever be as common as (say) Irish/Italian or German/Polish marriages are today, but I bet they'll be significantly more common than they are now.