The Writer’s Page: Fighting the Lost Cause

In 2004, when I took my first journey through the Deep South since growing up in Lexington, Virginia, I couldn’t stop noticing all the Confederate statues. My childhood schoolbooks had led me to believe I’d grown up in a uniquely historic community that had been justifiably filled with monuments. But, decades later, I discovered that each Southern city and town seemed likewise to have its own chiseled tributes to a war that had been fought and lost.

Confederate statue in Troy, Alabama, hometown of Congressman John Lewis. Photo: Lee Hattabaugh.

Consider Troy, Alabama, a key destination on the drive I’d undertaken from my adopted home in Wisconsin. Lofted high above everyday life at the center of Troy’s square stood the seemingly requisite figure — in this case a solitary soldier, rifle at his side, ever the sentinel.

I’d sought out Troy as the hometown of Freedom Rider (and U.S. Congressman and national icon) John Lewis. I was doing research for my book Freedom Riders, framing the history through the points of view of two participants — one black and from the South, one white and from the North — who had united in common cause during 1961 in the fight for racial equality.

Unexpectedly, in my search for John Lewis’s history, I’d opened a window into my own. That 2004 journey through the South and the related research precipitated a quest I’ve been on ever since: to square where I started with the person I’ve become. By all rights, I should have turned out differently. That had been the plan, anyway, for my generation and others in the South.

I was born in East Tennessee in the late 1950s to academic parents. After first grade, my family relocated to Virginia, and I continued my education there. Only when I was in fourth grade — a dozen years after Brown v. Board of Education — did my public school integrate, and even then, the effort was suspect. To minimize the impact of the change, white families were discreetly encouraged to request white teachers, and most of them did, landing their children in predominantly white classrooms.

My parents rejected this strategy as disingenuous, and, in consequence, I was placed in the classroom of Mrs. Christine Warren, one of a handful of African American educators in my school. The racial makeup of my class didn’t register all that much with me at the time, but I’ve since learned that there were only a few other white children in the room. Everyone else was black.

I thrived in Mrs. Warren’s classroom. I made new friends, followed my teacher’s strict disciplinary standards, and strove to meet her academic expectations. Mrs. Warren challenged us to read independently at home, and I haven’t stopped reading since. She required us to begin collecting something; I chose postage stamps, and I still save them.

Ann Bausum, age nine. Photo courtesy of Ann Bausum.

Most importantly — for me, anyway — Mrs. Warren introduced us to the study of history. I fell in love at first sight. And why not? History was all around me. Our lessons about Virginia’s heritage were reinforced by a town filled with matching memorials and landmarks. In the course of meandering home from school each day, I crossed two historic college campuses and passed monuments to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, the tomb of General Robert E. Lee, the burial site for Lee’s horse, and the preserved remains of Jackson’s horse. (Jackson himself was buried elsewhere in town.) This was heady stuff for a nine-year-old.

Only decades later would I learn that there had been a dark side to my Virginia history lessons, one that had been carefully embedded into my schoolbooks in an effort to distort my view of the world. I’m talking about the so-called Lost Cause here, and I would argue that an understanding of its implications is essential to comprehending why Americans continue to have such divergent views on our nation’s history, on the sins of slavery, on its legacies, and on race and racism in general.

The Lost Cause was a carefully constructed Southern narrative that layered our national story with what we might today refer to as “alternative facts.” It permeated schoolbooks in the South, and even points beyond, enabled by textbook publishers willing to cater to the demands of state curriculum mandates. The narrative of the Lost Cause was reinforced by statuary in the public square, such as the Confederate soldier standing guard over Troy. These markers authenticated what Southerners were taught to call the “War Between the States.”

And where did we learn that expression? We learned it in the classroom. At least that’s where I learned it, starting in fourth grade. The Lost Cause propaganda campaign, which emerged following Reconstruction, was so successful, became so deeply embedded in the region’s consciousness, that we took our lessons at face value, students and teachers alike, accepting them as historical fact. Yet, as I would later learn, the history we studied was anything but accurate.

At its core, the Lost Cause narrative twisted the presentation of the past for such purposes as expunging whites of any guilt over the history of slavery; manipulating readers of all races into assuming that slavery hadn’t really been so bad; laying a foundation for promoting claims of white superiority; and germinating the myth that a defense of states’ rights, not slavery, had prompted the Civil War. My seventh-grade history textbook (which a childhood friend tracked down for me in recent years) is interwoven with the themes of the Lost Cause.

For example, the institution of slavery is presented as follows:

A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. The master needed the work and loyalty of his slaves. The slave was dependent for all his needs on the master. The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.

Bausum's fourth- and seventh-grade history textbooks.

My high-school American history lessons must have repeated the narrative from fourth and seventh grades, because I was in my early twenties, living outside the South and interacting with Northerners who had a markedly different understanding of Civil War and Southern history, before I had the first inkling that my schoolbooks might have gotten things wrong. I was older yet before I realized how calculated that deceit had been and how successfully it had manipulated me, my classmates, and even my teachers.

I have undertaken years of self-study to remediate the damage done by my indoctrination into the glorification of the South’s Lost Cause. The research required to write three books about the civil rights movement of the 1960s (Freedom Riders, Marching to the Mountaintop, and The March Against Fear) has been the foundation of my detoxification. These projects and my quest for deeper understanding have prompted countless trips to the South, conversations, interviews, repeated visits to museums and historical sites, widespread reading, and considerable reflection. When I leaf through my old history books now, I have visceral reactions of nausea and fury. The volumes feel toxic, poisonous. Corrective study has become my lifelong antidote.

Given the depth of the betrayal of my school history books, it’s not surprising that I’ve spent twenty years trying to present the past without spin or veneer in my own nonfiction. Children can parse the difference between right and wrong. As authors, we have to entrust young people with the truth. And sometimes that means pulling stories out of the shadows and into the light, warts and all.

This perspective led me to the Freedom Rides more than a decade ago, back when they had almost become forgotten history — pushed aside, perhaps, because these events didn’t follow the tidy trajectory of wrongs being easily set right. Local whites had beaten Freedom Riders nearly to death. They’d incinerated one of their buses. They’d arrested, jailed, and harassed waves of subsequent riders. It can be painful for those of us who write about such events, as well as for our readers, to grapple with the raw fury that this campaign provoked.

Sometimes we need a little pain. Sometimes our books need to slap us in the face with the reality of how hard it has been, and can be, and will be, to live in a society that has yet to account for its original sin. Glossing over this reality is akin to censorship because readers lack the context required in their search for truth. Avoiding it altogether simply perpetuates the cycle of denial that lets old wounds fester. And fabrication feeds pursuits such as the Lost Cause. Sometimes the bare-naked truth is best, even when it makes writers and readers wince.

While researching my latest book, The March Against Fear, I didn’t just wince. I gasped. Fifty years might have passed since the events of the 1966 March Against Fear, but it was hard to tell. In contemporary cries that Black Lives Matter, I heard the reprise of themes from the protest march that a half century earlier had followed the shooting in Mississippi of James Meredith during his attempt to walk — just walk — across his home state four years after integrating Ole Miss. When I saw racist symbols and slogans re-enter the modern news feed, I was reminded of the courage Martin Luther King Jr. and others had shown when confronted by a menacing, epithet-slinging, Confederate flag–waving crowd in Philadelphia, Mississippi, during the revival of Meredith’s walk. After law enforcement officers donned riot gear in response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, I recalled how during the marchers’ 1966 stop in Canton, Mississippi, state troopers had attacked them with rifle butts and tear gas over their choice of a campsite.

Echoes from past to present can make one question the impact fifteen thousand people made by hiking more than 275 miles for twenty days to reach Meredith’s destination of Jackson. Rather than acknowledging that accomplishment, rather than facing the racial tensions this protest march and other events of the times exposed, rather than atoning for the causes underlying such unrest, the nation turned away. Fifty years later, we have yet to fully grasp or acknowledge the extent to which our racial divide springs from wounds that have been left untended for centuries and persistently widened by lies.

It may seem as if today’s racist invective has resurfaced out of nowhere. But it isn’t from out of nowhere. It has sprung from ill-planted seeds that have been cultivated through generations. I may have gained an informed perspective on my childhood history lessons, but what about my peers and others who were likewise indoctrinated in the narrative of the Lost Cause? Have they received corrective insights about the past? Or do they follow flawed information streams that reinforce old lessons? Do they find comfort and validation in the expiating words of the nation’s president after events such as this past summer’s unrest in Charlottesville?

If so, then their worldviews are guided by a flawed understanding of the past, one that was built to deceive with alternative facts and designed to diminish any feelings of collective guilt, or rage, or responsibility about the institution of slavery and its legacies. Such misunderstandings aren’t just passed down through history books; they’re passed down through monuments and symbols and rituals and reverence and fears and family sentiments, until they become embedded in a sort of cultural DNA.

Here is where the power of the written word kicks in. Here is where our books and the truths they hold can slap us in the face and prompt deeper reflection. Here is where I seize motivation, as do others, when we sit down to write.

We observe that forgotten history tends to be repeated. Nothing good comes from distorted history, either, which is why we must hold fast to the truth, even when it’s painful, and do our best to set down stories straight. No one needs another Lost Cause. We’re still fighting to defeat the last one.

This article is based on the author's acceptance speech for the 40th Annual Nonfiction Award of the Children’s Book Guild, delivered on April 29, 2017, in Washington, DC.

From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Also read Notes from the Horn Book's Five Questions for Ann Bausum about Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights

Ann Bausum
Ann Bausum

Ann Bausum's latest works of narrative nonfiction are Viral: The Fight Against AIDS in America (Viking, 2019) and the upcoming Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair: Inside the 1944 Plot to Kill Hitler and the Ghost Children of His Relentless Revenge (National Geographic, 2021).

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