I spent the night before the 4th of July researching the Civil War and updating my lessons on Stephen Crane’s classic “The Red Badge of Courage.” I find it productive to do such work on quiet evenings with the TV on in the background.
That’s when I heard Donald Trump say these words during his Mt. Rushmore speech:
“Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes but that were villains.”
It was like Trump was looking over my shoulder, reading my notes about Henry Fleming, the main character of Red Badge. During his second battle, the young Union soldier, seemingly overcome with fear, abandons his company:
“Directly he began to speed toward the rear in great leaps. His rifle and cap were gone. His unbuttoned coat bulged in the wind. The flap of his cartridge box bobbed wildly, and his canteen, by its slender cords, swung out behind. On his face was all the horror of those things which he imagined.”
As my notes suggested, however, Fleming is not afraid; he is a hero, rejecting the war-hungry Union led by the savage and self-serving Abraham Lincoln. My lesson was taking shape. It would feature Fleming, the gallant David, battling Lincoln, the wicked Goliath. What a perfect allegory! What a most effective illustration to teach my students to hate America and vilify a so-called hero!
Then a curious thing happened. As I continued my research, I stumbled upon an interesting fact about the pivotal Battle of Vicksburg. Located on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was “the nail head that held the two halves of the South together,” according to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The back-and-forth affair lasted several years until Major General Ulysses S. Grant was able to force the Confederacy’s surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.
The interesting fact I uncovered was that even as Lincoln disagreed with Grant’s strategies at Vicksburg, he took the time after the battle was won to write Grant a personal letter “as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country.” Lincoln concluded with these words:
“…when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.”
Whoa! Here was a leader – a U.S. president, no less – admitting his error. Is such an act of humility still possible?
As it turns out, yes. I was struck, for instance, by a recent letter from a local leader in Connecticut regarding a more contemporary issue: Native American mascots.
After several years of discussion, the Guilford school board voted to drop “Indians” as their high school’s mascot based on “the offense offered and the harm done” to Native Americans. Furthermore, Superintendent Paul Freeman was blunt in expressing own failings:
“As Superintendent, I have been complicit and in large part responsible for not discontinuing the use of this mascot sooner, and for that I am truly sorry. I want to thank the friends and constituents who were honest enough to bring this failure to my attention and persistent enough to continue to do so over time. I will learn from this experience and will continue to learn moving forward.”
Talk about self-effacing! I was roundly heartened by the superintendent’s candor and grace.
Naysayers will undoubtedly label Freeman’s letter, like the entire mascot controversy, as “political correctness run amok.” Killingly’s board of education, for one, still stands by its reinstatement of the “Redman” mascot. But the tide is turning.
Additional districts in Connecticut have dropped their Native American mascots, including Manchester, Newington and Farmington. Others face petitions to do so, such as Glastonbury and Valley Regional.
At the national level, both the Washington Redskins of the NFL and the Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball have announced “thorough reviews” of their nicknames in the face of increasing public disapproval.
“We are committed to making a positive impact in our community and embrace our responsibility to advance social justice and equality,” Cleveland management said in a statement.
I’m not that naïve to think these teams are acting purely out of “justice and equality.” Redskins owner Daniel Snyder consistently rejected calls for changing the team name until FedEx, which paid $205 million to have its own name on the stadium, pushed for the change. And FedEx would not have endorsed the name change in the first place unless it was supported by the public – its customers.
The point is that public opinion changes with the times. New information and new realities cause us to reconsider longstanding practices and beliefs. It’s as American as, well, Abraham Lincoln changing his mind about slavery or creating a “Team of Rivals” to challenge his presidential judgment.
Back to “The Red Badge of Courage.” It’s not really about a Union soldier renouncing Lincoln. The sarcastic tone I used to introduce that idea should be as obvious as the absurdity of Trump’s claim that teachers indoctrinate kids to “hate their own country.”
Instead, Red Badge is about the emotional growth of a young man whose idealistic notion of war is replaced by an understanding of war’s very brutal – and very human – complexities. In the end, Henry Fleming has carefully measured all of his vivid experiences to develop a new perspective on life itself.
It’s a process that real leaders and proper citizens – those capable of humble introspection and authentic analysis – also employ. No hate required.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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