Great America

Is Your Christmas Tree Racist?
(And Other Tall Tales from Academia)

Statues have been toppled, flags were taken down, and they would have us dynamite a mountain. It’s easy to imagine a day when the “historian” inspectors come into our homes, turning up branches of spruce, sniffing their way around the kitchen for evidence of she-crab soup or mint Juleps. 

’Tis the season for rooting out discrimination and racism, whether it be the selection of Santas or hand gestures at the Army-Navy game—along with the culmination of a campaign beginning on January 20, 2017, to impeach a president declared “racist” by all smart and sophisticated people. 

Add to this racist Christmas trees. 

I learned this from the December 20 newsletter of the George Washington University’s History News Network, which featured an article by Nicole Maurantonio, associate professor of rhetoric and communication studies and American studies at the University of Richmond, and author of Confederate Exceptionalism.

While many colleges fulfill their mandate to school students about acceptable Halloween costumes, the parents paying $55,000 a year to send their children to Richmond can rest assured that one of their finest has undertaken a more novel scholarly project. She is warning families who blithely “undertake” an annual ritual, a “sojourn to the attic, basement or closet to pull out a box of treasured ornaments, created and collected over the years, even generations” that they may not realize their ornaments are sending a “racist message.”

Indeed, not only do the symbols of the Confederacy gracing town squares and university quads have to be toppled by enraged mobs, or removed by professional workmen under the cover of night, but we must all inspect our boxes of ornaments to see if—gasp!—there might be lurking somewhere in there a souvenir from a tourist site of the Confederacy, such as Stone Mountain in Georgia, whose engraving of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and “Stonewall” Jackson is reproduced on one side of an ornament, with “Merry Christmas Y’All” emblazoned on the back. 

It’s not the missing comma in the vocative case that has the rhetoric professor concerned, but “the very circulation” of such keepsakes that enables “Confederate myths and symbols to become ‘normal’ features of people’s daily lives.”

Maurantonio’s “research suggests they can thus desensitize Americans to the destructive nature of such stories and icons.” So let us tear down all reminders of a war that ended slavery and in which nearly three-quarters of a million men died. Let us pretend that, 154 years later, every black American will have flashbacks to slave days should a reproduction of a plantation house peep out from behind pine needles and flashing lights. Better, perhaps, to hang Mao Zedong ornaments, like the ones that graced the tree in the Obama White House

What’s the Problem with Stone Mountain?

While living in the shadow of Stone Mountain from 2003 to 2013, however, I noticed no signs of trauma during my visits to the place the New York Times called, The Largest Confederate Monument Problem in the World.”

As the Times noted, the area population is majority black. And during my visits to the park so were many African Americans who regularly visited to walk their dogs, jog the trail, or hike up the mountain. I saw no expressions of hate or fear. In fact, as is the case in the South more than the North (where I grew up and where I now live), total strangers exchanged smiles and greetings. On the street where I lived, one of my black neighbors, a lovely professional woman who organized our block parties, street clean-ups, and neighborhood watch, would rise at 5 a.m. to go to Stone Mountain Park for her pre-workday workout. 

But by Maurantonio’s logic such “symbols” have inordinate power to inspire violence. Because the deranged shooter of congregants at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston displayed a perverse fascination with the Confederacy, all symbols of it must be purged. Then-President Barack Obama’s reference to the Confederate battle flag was a “reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation,” claims Maurantonio, adding that “statues of Confederates that dot courthouse lawns and public plazas across the United States have prompted similar controversy,” and in the case of Charlottesville, have “triggered” violence.

That is why cities, towns, and colleges are removing or relocating Confederate statues. Stacey Abrams (who to this day still maintains she is the rightful governor of Georgia) after Charlottesville called to have the “largest high relief sculpture in the world,” measuring 90 by 190 feet and recessed 42 feet into Stone Mountain, blasted with explosives piece by piece, in a year-long process.

But could it be that academics like Maurantonio are the ones who have triggered the controversy over inanimate objects that no one noticed any more than the trees and benches on the town squares—for decades? 

Confederates in the Kitchen Cupboard

Would it end there?

Probably not, for Maurantonio has also uncovered “many unexamined Confederate symbols [that] have made their way into people’s kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms.” In your kitchen there might be—gasp!—“Confederate cookbooks that help modern-day chefs recreate the recipes of the Old South.” (Another guilty item is the “taxidermed war horse of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson,” although I am not sure how it fits in with any of your household items.)

Well, that was the seasonally themed article. Included in the HNN newsletter were other typical articles—about abortion, “The Purpose of History in the Age of Trump,” Medieval sacred objects and “Star Wars,” and a “Special Focus: Impeachment,” where—surprise, surprise—all contributing historians agreed that there was more than enough evidence to impeach President Trump.

“Presidential scholar” Douglas Brinkley explained why he signed an open letter along with more than 700 pro-impeachment “historians” (now topping 1,500).  Joseph Ellis, who was suspended without pay from college teaching for a year because of tall tales he spun about his service in Vietnam and in the civil rights movement, nevertheless, declared in a featured headline, “Every president since Washington has been accused of misconduct, but Trump’s is off the chart.”

Retired professor Walter G. Moss weighed in on “Omens of the Trumpian Nightmare in Literature, Film, and Song,” likening Trump to the Antichrist in a futuristic short story by 19th-century Russian writer Vladimir Soloviev. HNN’s “Impeachment Primer: 40+ Articles About Impeachment by Historians” contained not one article against impeachment. 

Not All Are Welcome

Yet, the editors prominently solicited tax-deductible donations from those who “share,” according to their “mission statement,” their “vision” of putting “current events into historical perspective,” “expos[ing] politicians who misrepresent history,” “put[ting] events in context,” and reminding us of “the complexity of history,” Their pages “are open to people of all political persuasions. Left, right, center: all are welcome.”

Yet, the conservative historical perspective is as rare there as is a conservative history professor on our college campuses. Most often the historical perspective comes from an academic who uses history in the same way the late Howard Zinn did—as a “weapon” in ideological warfare—a development made possible by the coup staged by the radical faction of the American Historical Association in 1969, with Zinn at the lead. 

As the case of Maurantonio shows, historians have become agitators, arousing the masses to get them to see what is in their own heads: America’s utter depravity in statuary, ornaments, and recipes. 

Statues have been toppled, flags were taken down, and they would have us dynamite a mountain. I can foresee a day when the “historian” inspectors come into our homes, turning up branches of spruce, sniffing their way around the kitchen for evidence of she-crab soup or mint juleps. 

Could we deplorables plead that Wagyu steak and arugula, quaffed with a 2015 Hall Jack’s Masterpiece Cabernet Sauvignon, is beyond our means? Will they make us eat tofu instead?