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The US Civil War as the Ultimate BLM Protest

The American Civil War, wherein over 800,000 civilians and combatants died (more than all other US wars combined), was about black lives and black bodies.  The cause of the conflagration – slavery – was about wresting tremendous profits through the physical and psychological torture of Black Americans.  The movement to free and empower those people – abolitionism – was led and inspired by people of color.  The war itself was determined by the actions of black lives, whether they were freedmen and women demanding action from the federal government, enslaved people seizing freedom, disrupting the Confederate war effort, and undermining the nascent Confederate States of America, or black soldiers in the US Army winning battles and putting to lie centuries of pro-slavery doctrine.  The profound truth that has been hidden by over a century of white supremacy propaganda is that the Civil War was the ultimate BLM protest.

The very existence of the United States was made possible by black lives.  Since the early seventeenth century, the enslavement of people of color had been the most important, lucrative, and influential business in North America, providing the “seed money”[1] for the forging of the Union.  The founding document of the country – the United States Constitution, drafted in 1787 – was largely created by enslavers (along with key Northern allies), and ensured that enslavers, especially those in the Southern states, would dominate the new federal government.  The Three-Fifths Clause, in particular, gave enslavers control of the House of Representatives, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court even before the first elections could be held.  In firm ascendancy, Southern enslavers enacted an aggressive pro-slavery agenda that ensured the spread of human bondage and dramatically increased their political and financial power.  They created a formidable partisan organization in the form of the Democratic Party to achieve their electoral and policy goals at the local, state, and national levels: denying rights to people of color; spreading slavery; mass murder of Indigenous Americans and theft of their land; trade policies that benefitted the slave states; federal legislation guaranteeing the rights of enslavers over their human “property;” and an aggressive foreign policy aimed at a vast Western Hemispheric empire built on bondage.  By 1858, US Senator James Henry Hammond (Democrat, South Carolina) could crow in Congress about the South building “an empire that shall rule the world.”  “We could bring the whole world to our feet,” he boasted with the confidence of a white man whose wealth and influence was built on the suffering and sale of black lives (and who, like many of his ilk, delighted in the rape of enslaved teenage girls).[2] 

The toil and torture endured by black bodies built the United States into an economic powerhouse.  The cotton, rice, and sugar which enriched, fed, and clothed white Americans came from black lives in the fields and swamps.  And the sale and re-sale of those black bodies, too, yielded enormous profits.  Those profits, in turn, led to the rise of modern American capitalism: Mississippi land speculators, New Orleans slave traders, New York insurance companies, Charleston merchant houses, New England textile mills, Cincinnati transportation enterprises, Philadelphia banking and investment firms, all depended upon black bodies and lives. 

Thus, the rise of a united, organized resistance to the exploitation of black lives – abolitionism –  was viewed with deep suspicion by most Northern whites, and plunged enslavers into paroxysm of fear and outrage.  Any attempt to offer security and equality to people of color was considered a direct threat to American capitalism, white supremacy, and “Jacksonian democracy.”  Then, just as today, many whites viewed any attempt to elevate black lives as a diminution of white lives.  White privilege, in short, rested on black oppression.    

The abolitionist movement, itself, was led by people of color, who risked life and limb to challenge the racial status-quo.  David Walker, a black businessman in Boston, wrote, published, and distributed the inflammatory Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which called for the immediate end to slavery everywhere, and which inspired a new generation of abolitionists and civil rights activists.  Escaped slaves like Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass were the most powerful weapons of the abolitionist movement, as their terrifying first-hand accounts of bondage, mutilation, and murder jolted Northern whites into action.  Their impassioned, vociferous attacks on racial injustice, slavery, and the “Slave Power” formed a fundamental critique of American history that can still heard by today’s BLM protesters condemning systemic racism and the politics of compromise.  Likewise, when today’s activists repeatedly put themselves in danger to fight oppression and defend the downtrodden, they are following in the footsteps of Douglass, Tubman, and their associates who constantly faced down militant white supremacists, mob violence, racist police, and a hostile federal government to insist black lives mattered.

It was not abolitionists, however, who launched the greatest slaughter in American history, it was the enslavers who could not tolerate even a whiff of racial or political reform.  Just as today, whites enjoying the wealth and power produced by racialized capitalism vilified the protesters and blamed them for jeopardizing the Union, when, in reality, it was they, in the form of armed vigilantes, angry mobs, and militarized police who caused violence, committed acts of injustice, and violated civil liberties.  “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?,” asked English writer Samuel Johnson.[3]  Johnson wrote during the American Revolution, but the question could be asked just the same in 1860 and 2020.

It was in 1860 that the Electoral College elected the first anti-slavery president, Abraham Lincoln.  Though, like the nation’s first black president, Lincoln was no radical crusader for racial justice.  Lincoln vowed repeatedly to protect the “peculiar institution” and enforce heinous pro-slavery laws.  Nevertheless, he was intolerable to enslavers, who subsequently led a revolt against the United States.  If the federal government would no longer guarantee the unrestricted expansion of slavery and the building of a hemispheric slave empire (two issues on which Lincoln drew the line), then enslavers wanted nothing more from the USA.  The very notion, in fact, of a union with anti-slavery Northerners, was anathema.  American ideals of human equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, announced enslaver Alexander Stephens, vice president of the infant Confederate States of America, “were fundamentally wrong.”  “Our new government,” he explained, in reference to the Confederate Constitution, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.”[4]  Lest you think white politics have advanced considerably since Stephens uttered those words in 1861, conservative organizer William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1955 appealed to whites suspicious of the renewed civil rights movement by describing the “White community” as “the advanced race.”[5]  Whether justifying slavery or opposing racial equality, white leaders have employed explicit racism to achieve the continued oppression, abuse, and exploitation of black lives.        

Black lives were also at the heart of the Civil War.  As soon as Confederates attacked the United States at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Black Americans took swift action to ensure both the destruction of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy.  The enslaved seized opportunities to resist, rebel, and free themselves, regardless of formal US policy.  While Congress and President Lincoln dithered over the desirability, legality, and process of emancipation, Black Americans acted decisively.  They rose-up against their oppressors, obstructed production, sabotaged communication and transportation, fled to US lines, and served as spies to US forces until, ultimately, they donned the blue and took up the rifle as legitimate soldiers.  “The negroes are getting free pretty fast,” observed US General John Logan.  “It is not done by the army, but they are freeing themselves; and if this war continues long, not a slave will be left in the whole South.”[6]

Many historians now see the Civil War as the world’s largest slave rebellion.  The real story of the war was not the Blue and the Grey on the battlefield, but the Blacks on the plantations, in the swamps, on the rivers, in the woods, seizing freedom, aiding US forces, and compelling white Americans North and South to acknowledge that black lives mattered. 

It was the courageous actions and self-sacrifice of Black Americans that shifted Northern public opinion toward formal emancipation, that obliged Congress to pass the First (1861) and Second (1862) Confiscation Acts (which permitted the seizure of rebel property, including enslaved people), and which inspired a reluctant President Lincoln to publicly embrace abolitionism.  Black lives were the cause, conduct, and consequence of the Civil War.  The Civil War was fundamentally a Black Lives Matter event.

Yet whites have labored to hide these epic truths of American history.  To displace black lives at the center of the American narrative, whites in the wake of the Civil War concocted a version of events that focused entirely on themselves.  Instead of slavery, the cause of the war became whites arguing about “states’ rights,” or inept white politicians (the “blundering generation” theory) mucking-up a perfectly good federal system; instead of Black actions driving events, it was great white men, like Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, entirely in control; instead of Black Americans undermining the Confederacy from within, it was white soldiers dying on the battlefield; instead the enslaved freeing themselves, it was white politicians granting freedom and white soldiers bringing freedom; instead of a story about heroic Black courage, community, and sacrifice, it’s a story about white families torn apart, white brother versus white brother.

White Americans are most comfortable with a version of history that excises racism, minimizes (or excludes entirely) black lives, and gives whites credit for anything good that may or may not have happened.  The Civil War as a BLM action is a terrifying prospect for many whites today, because it challenges their very understanding of the world and calls into question the entire history of the nation.  It is easier to dismiss or ignore the latest stage in the centuries-old struggle for racial equality happening in the streets today if people have only been exposed to a literal and figurative white-washed past.  How can whites today accept that “black lives matter” if they were taught that they never mattered before?


[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power, 156.

[2] James Henry Hammond, “The Mudsill Speech” in Finkelman, Defending Slavery, 82-83; Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie, 14.

[3] https://glc.yale.edu/outreach/teacher-programs/citizens-all-african-americans-connecticut-1700-1850/connecticut-stories-5

[4] Alexander Stephens, “The Cornerstone Speech” in Finkelman, Defending Slavery, 91.

[5] William F. Buckley, Jr., “Why the South Must Prevail” in The Rise of American Conservatism, 1945-2000, 53.

[6] Williams, I Freed Myself, 5.

Disney Scattergories

April 11, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned my family into avid gamers, particularly board games like Scrabble and Scattergories. Within a few weeks, however, we went through all the original category cards. Looking to take our game to the next level, and given our love of Disney, we decided to make our own Disney-themed Scattergories card. Feel free to use, share, and pass on. Enjoy!

Mexico is the Enemy, Redux

June 3, 2019

For the entirety of his administration, President Donald Trump singled-out Mexico as a leading enemy of the US.  To build public approval for an aggressive foreign policy toward Mexico and the building of an expensive and controversial wall, Trump claimed an alarming and immediate “crisis” on the southern border.  To meet the so-called crisis, the president ordered thousands of US troops to the border without the approval of Congress.  In June 2019, Trump specifically claimed that America’s neighbor was a direct threat to national security and an “abuser” of US goodwill.  Such rhetoric and saber-rattling are strikingly similar to that of President James Polk in 1846, who also manufactured a “crisis” on the border and employed US troops to achieve his personal and political objectives.

The conquest of Mexico was a central goal of antebellum enslavers, especially after the “cotton boom” of the 1820s-30s.  Enslavers, who were among the most powerful and wealthy in the US, lusted after the rich cotton lands that stretched westward from central South Carolina into east Texas.  In 1821, when the nation of Mexico achieved its independence from its European colonizer Spain, enslavers in the US began plotting to seize Texas.  White Americans poured over the US-Mexico border, gobbling-up cotton lands and ignoring Mexican laws, including the prohibition against slavery.  When the young government of Mexico tried to enforce the laws and rein-in the white “illegal immigrants” in the 1830s, the immigrants, calling themselves “Texans,” launched an armed revolt.  There was no way these “Texans” were going to give up slavery and submit to Mexican authority. 

In 1836, Texans defeated a large Mexican army and declared their independence (though the Mexican government never granted or acknowledged any such thing, so the “Republic of Texas” existed in imagination rather than on paper).  Suffering from heavy debts and desperate to protect themselves from another campaign by the Mexican government, Texans sought annexation by the US, their neighbor nation ruled by enslavers.  The growing anti-slavery movement in the US, however, made Texas annexation a tricky undertaking.  Nevertheless, it was achieved in 1845 by Virginia enslaver President John Tyler. 

By the time of Texas annexation, white Americans were fired-up about “Manifest Destiny” – the westward march of white “civilization,” the extermination of Indigenous Americans, and the spread of slavery.  The pro-slavery Democratic Party rode this wave of expansionist enthusiasm to the polls in 1844, winning both the White House and control of Congress (their opponents, the Whigs, were skeptical of territorial expansion, and many northern Whigs outright opposed the spread of slavery).  The new president, Tennessee enslaver James Polk, entered office with the clear aim of conquering the rest of Mexico and spreading slavery throughout western North America and central America.  But anti-slavery activists stood in his way.  Polk needed an excuse to invade Mexico and steal more land – he needed a crisis on the border.

In total secrecy (and certainly without the knowledge of Congress), President Polk ordered a US army under the command of Louisiana enslaver General Zachary Taylor to proceed into Mexican territory and provoke a war.  Taylor’s orders were simple: invade until the Mexicans fight back.  Taylor made it deep into central Mexico before a Mexican army could launch a defense.  As soon as Polk received word (carried by hand and telegraph from Mexico to DC) that fighting had finally erupted, the president went to Congress on May 11, 1846 and asked for a declaration of war.  The US, he lied, had been invaded by Mexico.  Mexico had “assumed a belligerent attitude,” engaged in an “open act of hostility,” and perpetrated “grievous wrongs” against US citizens.  There was a crisis on the border that required swift military action: “The most energetic and prompt measures and the immediate appearance in arms of a large and overpowering force are recommended to Congress as the most certain and efficient means of bringing the existing collision with Mexico to a speedy and successful termination.”  With no way to quickly verify Polk’s false claims, Congress provided the declaration, and Polk got his war of conquest.

President Trump’s misleading claims about Mexico’s relations to the US bear eerie resemblance to those used by President Polk to justify war.  In particular, the assertion that Mexicans are invading the US and committing crimes against US citizens is right out of the Polk playbook.  Equally troubling is the fact that Trump’s rhetoric exhibits a blatant disregard for the history between the two nations.  Rather than Mexico being the “abuser,” it has historically been Americans who invaded, and the US who was the belligerent, whether it was Polk in 1846 or President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 and 1916.  The American public should keep US-Mexican history in mind when weighing policy decisions that may result in the massive loss of lives and property.


Iowa Has a Long History of White Supremacy, Going All the Way Back to its First US Senators

Republican Steve King, who represents Iowa’s 4th Congressional District in the US House of Representatives, has made quite a name for himself as an outspoken and unapologetic White Nationalist.  His disparaging comments and fallacious statements about women, people of color, Jews, Muslims, and newly-arrived Americans have landed him in political hot water (he was stripped of his Congressional committee assignments in January 2019), but have made him a hero to the Far Right and the White Nationalist movement.[1] 

Many may be surprised that such racist vitriol and combative bigotry – most often associated with unreconstructed Confederates – are coming from an Iowan.  But the state has a long history of white supremacy and White Nationalist politicians, starting with its first two US Senators back in the 1850s.  Augustus Caesar Dodge and George Wallace Jones were both “doughfaces,” meaning Northern men who supported slavery. 

Dodge grew up in a family of enslavers in the Louisiana Territory and was raised by a “mammy” named Leah.  His father Henry was a local politician of note, who, in the 1840s, rose to the Senate from the new state of Wisconsin.  After fighting in various wars against Indigenous Americans in the 1830s, Dodge married and moved to Burlington in the Iowa Territory, which had separated from Wisconsin in 1838.  There, thanks to his father’s growing political influence, Dodge was appointed one of two Land Registers, a lucrative post.  The office brought young Dodge political clout as well, and in October 1840 he was elected Territorial Delegate to Congress.

In December 1846, Iowa entered the Union as a free state, and thirty-five year old Dodge became the political boss of the new state’s Democratic Party.  Charges of a “Dodge Dynasty,” however, thwarted his plans for election to the United States Senate until the following year, when he became the first Senator born west of the Mississippi.  In the epic legislative battles of the 1850s that led to Civil War, Dodge voted repeatedly to empower enslavers and spread the “peculiar institution.” 

In Congressional debates over the infamous “Compromise of 1850,” he condemned abolitionists, energetically defended slavery, and voted for every pro-slavery aspect of the legislative package, including the heinous Fugitive Slave Law, which would force Northerners to participate in man-hunting.  Back home in Iowa, he saw to the law’s vigorous enforcement and bragged about Iowa’s record of returning escaped slaves.  By the mid-1850s, Dodge had emerged as a leading doughface and a rabid white supremacist.  It was Dodge, in fact, who introduced to the Senate the momentous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which, in its final version, would spread slavery to previously free land.  In the battles over that bill, Dodge waxed eloquent in defense of human bondage.  Slavery, he gushed, was a blessing that rescued Africans from “a dark and heathenish land; from the worship of filthy reptiles; from cannibalism.”  Africans were meant to be slaves, and it was by the “decrees of God” that they were brought to “a land of gospel light.”  Such assertions, while pleasing to enslavers, were unacceptable to free-state Iowans.  In the fall 1854 elections, Dodge was soundly defeated for re-election.  As reward for his service to the Slave Power, however, Democratic President Franklin Pierce (another doughface) appointed him minister to Spain, where he labored to acquire Cuba as a new slave state.

The tale of George Wallace Jones is not unlike his senatorial college.  Born and raised in the Louisiana Territory to a pro-slavery family (his father advocated for the introduction of slavery to the Indiana Territory), he received legal training in Kentucky, where he befriended future pro-slavery leaders Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and David Atchison of Missouri.  After serving with Dodge in the Indian wars, he was elected to the US House from Michigan, then Wisconsin.  In 1840, he was appointed Surveyor General of the Iowa Territory, which he parlayed into election to the US Senate in 1848.  Like Dodge, Jones proved a dutiful doughface, siding with slavery and Southerners on almost every issue, including the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  But while Dodge’s term ended in 1854, Jones remained in the Senate until 1859, long enough to vote for the Lecompton Constitution, which sought to force slavery on the anti-slavery majority of Kansas settlers.  Unelectable after such a long pro-slavery record, Jones accepted the mission to New Granada (present day Colombia) from Democratic President James Buchanan.  His sons, it is worth noting, served in Confederate forces during the Civil War, and Jones remained close friends with Jefferson Davis.

In short, there is nothing new about Steve King’s Iowan white supremacy and vocal racism.  Dodge and Jones would have wholeheartedly agreed with his dim assessment of people of color and his concerns for racial integrity.  Moreover, like King, Dodge and Jones grew distasteful to their constituents yet endeared themselves to the Far Right of their day.  The fact that King recently posted a Civil War-related meme to his Facebook page (wherein he bragged that Red states could easily kill all the Blue states, reminiscent of Confederate braggadocio of 1861) is further evidence that the representative has a sense of his state’s troubled history.[2]  If he fails to win re-election in 2020, perhaps he, too, will be offered a appointed position from his party’s president.


[1] For a catalog of King’s comments, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/01/13/brief-guide-steve-kings-long-history-racist-statements/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.82ab9054174b

[2] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/steve-king-civil-war-graphic_n_5c8ef5b9e4b03e83bdc25c86

The End of Epcot?

If you’ve been following WDWNT, listening to any of the Disney World-themed podcasts, or checking Disney fan Facebook pages, you know that dramatic changes are afoot in Epcot.   The sudden and jolting arrival of IPs (“Intellectual Properties,” such as the Guardians of the Galaxy characters) has become a dividing line among Epcot devotees.  Many observers are cheering the changes and welcoming a new era of entertainment at the (in their eyes) pathetically outdated park.  Others are despondent, weeping at the loss of a place for adults, free from the tyranny of princesses and film personalities.  The folks over at the “Drink Around EPCOT!” Facebook page even declared the golden age of Epcot long gone, arguing that the park’s best years were 1994-2014 (many in the comments section concurred).

The recent changes have been polarizing because for most of Epcot’s existence, IPs have been marginal or entirely absent. The original attractions, as well as those erected before the 2010s, were new creations of the park Imagineers, with no tie-in to some other film or franchise.  The Living Seas, the Imagination Pavilion, the World of Energy, the World of Motion, and Horizons were all unique, stand-alone attractions aiming at something deeper than just theatrics – they sought to educate, as well as entertain.  Even their latter-day incarnations (Ellen’s Energy Adventure, Test Track, Mission: Space, and Journey into Imagination with Figment) were still separate from other Disney endeavors.  The World Showcase, as well, was blissfully free from IPs.  You could wander the pavilions and immerse yourself in other cultures without being bombarded with product placement.  Guests could enjoy Epcot attractions and learn from them without ever having engaged previously with the Walt Disney Company.

And it was that lack of engagement that frustrated the accountants, suits, and money-men.  They wanted attractions to inspire purchases, not some vague appreciation for human progress.  Much to the dismay of Imagineers (who usually value creativity over profit), Disney executives began reimagining Epcot as a version of the Magic Kingdom, wherein every attraction (with the notable exception of fan favorites like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain[1]) is directly related to a pre-existing product line.  The first IPs to creep into Epcot were Finding Nemo (installed in the Living Seas) and Three Caballeros (replacing El Rio del Tiempo in the Mexico Pavilion), both in 2007.  Both have jettisoned creative and intellectual stimulation in favor of merchandising.  In the Living Seas, guests journeyed to Sea Base Alpha where they enjoyed direct encounters with ocean life.  Nemo and Friends, on the other hand, replaces the original educational intent of the attraction with a whimsical search for Nemo ending in a sing-along (and tie-in to the live stage show in the Animal Kingdom).  Similarly, the current Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros is a mindless sing-song that reveals nothing about the host country, while the original attraction was a thoughtful (though dated) tour of Mexico’s regions and traditions.  Neither attraction is much of an improvement on the original ride, but both explicitly connect with existing merchandise lines that would yield more expenditures by guests.  Ride the Nemo ride, buy a Nemo product, re-watch the Nemo film, repeat.

Over the course of the next decade, the Disney Company aggressively expanded its ownership of IPs (most notably the Star Wars universe and the motely Marvel characters) in an attempt to reach the ever-elusive demographic of tween boys, with whom Disney has traditionally been weakest. Likewise, executives sought to boost attendance at Epcot by appealing to younger guests.  Hence the sudden influx of IPs: Frozen Ever After replaced the beloved Maelstrom in 2016; the Akershus Royal Banquet Hall became princess-themed character dining; the “Guardians of the Galaxy – Awesome Mix Live!” show was shoe-horned into the America Pavilion (2018); a Ratatouille ride is in the works in France; and a Guardians of the Galaxy-inspired roller-coaster will open in 2019.  Of all the changes, the latter is the most difficult for Epcot traditionalists to stomach. While original, educational thrill rides like Mission: Space and Test Track are perfectly in sync with Epcot’s overall theme and concept, an IP roller-coaster seems like a jarring violation. Not only will the large boxy building ruin World Showcase sight-lines, but there does not appear to be any attempt by park executives to connect the coaster to its surrounding Future World context (education, inspiration, technology). 

For many, the arrival of an IP roller-coaster marks the beginning of the end of Epcot.  The attraction will doubtless boost attendance, which will likely inspire similar attractions that are likewise divorced from the Epcot concept, which may turn Epcot into another merchandising madhouse, like Hollywood Studios.             


[1] The IP obsession has even led Disney executives to retroactively create IPs for several of these originally independent attractions.  Pirates of the Caribbean has spawned a beloved film franchise, and the Haunted Mansion has had the cinematic treatment with a second movie in the works.

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