Pennsylvania has the breathtaking panorama of Gettysburg, where one can so readily conjure the doomed gray ranks charging into the maw of Hunt’s cannons. Maryland has Antietam, marked by Rohrbach’s scenic bridge where Confederate soldiers held off a bloody Union advance. Tennessee has the drama of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Texas has Sabine Pass.
Many, many years ago, a busload of 3rd graders piled out onto this patch of mowed marshland, harried by mosquitos and ringed with refineries and gas storage facilities. Under a sweltering spring sun, air like stew smelling of rot and benzene, we gathered to hear the story behind our field trip.
Here, a bar owner named Dick Dowling rallied a few dozen of his fellow Irishmen from Houston to defend this patch of mud from an 1863 Union invasion of Texas. Thanks to a couple of lucky shots that disabled two Union gunboats, the Yankees turned back. Now a giant Dick Dowling, improbably buff and inexplicably shirtless, forever surveys a landscape of gas flares, fire ant mounds and the occasional third grader.
As signaled by his bronzeness, Dowling was the star of this saga. Informed by a child’s simple sense of justice, I found this narrative puzzling. Sweat streaked, skinny legs spattered with blood from swatting mosquitos, I sidled up to Mrs. Jones seeking clarification.
“So, this Dowling guy,” pointing at the sculpture, “He’s the hero, right?”
“So, he was fighting to free the slaves?”
“Well, no, but…”
“Doesn’t that mean the guys in the ships were the heroes?”
“You see, they were invading Texas.”
“But they were going to free the slaves.”
“Sweety, Mrs. Stephenson has snacks.”
Others got the message more clearly. Our class was in its first year of court-imposed desegregation. My new black classmates were not confused about what they were seeing. A certain friend who shall remain nameless, muttered the jarringly profane “fuck that guy” during the presentation just loud enough to be heard. He was banished to the sweltering school bus, where he at least enjoyed protection from the insect swarms.
Why is there a statue of Dick Dowling out in the salt marsh near Sabine Pass, and why should a busload of school kids spend an afternoon there? The symbols, icons, heroes and stories we celebrate help us draw the crucial distinction between “us” and “them.” That bronze idol told a story which these children were absorbing into their System 1 filters even if they couldn’t articulate its meaning. Who is a hero? Who and what is good? Who can we trust and who should we fear? What are the values that define “us?”
Students visiting Sabine Pass Battleground soak up a narrative in which heroes are white people, fighting to protect the rightful order of the world in which innately superior whites reign for the benefit of all. It is admirable, even holy in that mythology, to murder other Americans to protect white supremacy.
As demonstrated by the fact that this monument even exists, the war never ended. Imagery at the site communicates that you too can become a hero like Dick Dowling, even if you began life as a mere Irishman, by joining the fight to preserve white supremacy.
Who is the enemy in this story, the crucial “them?” Black people of course, along with people of other races who fail to assimilate, adopting the habits, values and culture of the master race. And the most loathsome enemy in this narrative? Those boatloads of white men Dowling struggled to murder, the treasonous whites who betray the sacred racial bond that defines “us.”
This message caused me some confusion, as it does many other Americans, for its tension with the wider, more broadly touted “we hold these truths to be self-evident” values of the American experiment. However, for my Black friend back in the hotbox of the school bus, the message was crystal clear, clear enough that he couldn’t be allowed to remain at large, spreading dissonance. People might struggle to articulate these System 1 filters into a coherent, logical System 2 narrative, but they absorb the narrative none the less.
Symbols, icons and stories we elevate have consequences that can resonate across generations. Dick Dowling and his Confederates lost the war, but they never stopped fighting to establish a white nationalist republic. In 1892, the City of Houston renamed a street after Dowling. It was a pointed gesture. That street, formerly called Broadway, was in the Third Ward, where a community of freemen was battling to establish a sanctuary for themselves. The newly renamed Dowling Street ran past land purchased by freedman in 1872 to establish Emancipation Park, the only public park in the area open to them.
In case anyone might miss the intent, the council also renamed the cross-street north of the park to Tuam Street, after Dowling’s Irish birthplace. Houston erected a statue of Dowling at city hall in 1905.
History looks like a straight line. Examining the powerful infrastructure of white supremacy in this country from the perspective of the present, it appears inevitable, ever-present, even unstoppable. In fact, it took decades of relentless struggle for post-Civil War bigots to cement this white supremacist order into place. Dowling had been dead and largely forgotten for a quarter of a century when his myth was reanimated to intimidate freedmen. Most of the country’s Confederate monuments weren’t erected until the 20th century. The site of Dowling’s battlefield victory wasn’t marked until the 1930’s.
In our time, the power of a white supremacist mythology is crumbling, presenting us with an opportunity and a threat. We have a rare opening to promote a new, hopefully more just and powerful mythology to define an “us” for a coming century. At the same time, we face the dangers posed by the death of a unifying mythology. Human beings in close proximity who lack a shared identity will tend to destroy one another. How do we create, or update, a mythology of Us that can meet our needs before the death of an old mythology tears us apart?
A unifying mythology sits on a foundation of values, a set of traits, habits, values and actions which demonstrate the character of the purported Us. Atop that foundation are stories, sitting at a System 2 level, which encapsulate and lionize that package of defining characteristics. Reinforcing those stories is a galaxy of iconography, songs, art and other subconscious artifacts which bombard the System 1 mind with the values and stories of the Us. Then comes the most uncomfortable part.
It is hard to conceive of an “us” without a “them.” Perhaps the “them” can be merely conceptual, but habits of the human mind tend to translate a theoretical them into actual persecuted enemies. Establishing an identity is easier with an enemy, so we tend to create enemies out of whatever materials are available. How we manage our urge to define an other will largely determine the relative merit or malignancy of the new mythology.
Sabine Pass demonstrates almost all of these elements. Dowling, who in life was a whiskey-sotted bar owner is, here, a bronze Adonis. At his feet in marble are the demigods, men who achieved immortality by joining him in the fight to preserve the natural order of slavery. Unconscious imagery spotlights the heroes. Narrative plaques communicate the top-level story. Combinations of the conscious and unconscious narratives drill into the System 1 mind the foundation values defining us and them. And the presence of a loathed enemy seals the package.
Sabine Pass also demonstrates another challenge of mythmaking – it’s not hypnotism. A mythology will be stronger the less it depends on lies. A mythology is of course, by definition, not “true” in an empirical sense. It is an abstraction, a representation of an idealized reality. However, the less it challenges obvious truths the more readily it may take hold and survive.
The mythology of white supremacy was constantly at odds with lived experience, dependent on fear for survival. Maintaining this mythology required relentless policing of the boundaries of acceptable expression. Any half-alert third-grader could spot its inconsistencies, and people were constantly being “sent to the bus” for challenging its sanctity. Mythologies that fly in the face of daily lived experience will be very expensive to maintain.
In a post-racial America, what are the values that should define “us?” What symbols, rituals, memorials, songs and other cultural artifacts would best cement those values into place? Who are the heroes to emulate and the villains to reject?
Answers to these questions will emerge from an evolutionary process of trial and error, a process which is already in motion. The public will embrace or reject different expressions of our common values and aspirations until a new unifying mythology takes shape. Normally, a new unifying ethos only coalesces in the cauldron of a crisis. Perhaps two economic collapses and a lethal pandemic have been crisis enough, but probably not.
What follows is an outline for a new mythology, based in large part on the aspirations present at our founding. Only history will tell us what new unifying ethos will emerge, if one emerges at all, but we will each have a hand in influencing that evolution.
We can begin to see the promising outlines of a replacement mythology by looking at the values Jim Crow era bigots were struggling to obscure. America should become what we aspired to be from our beginning. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
A few years after Jefferson’s stirring words, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man put more context around his formulation. Including the concept that “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.” Not only are these laudable concepts in general, they remain embedded in the American subconscious, making them a natural rallying point.
An unavoidable outgrowth of these values is a respect for empirical reality, a definition of reality based on what can be measured and scientifically proven. There is no way for people of different religious and cultural backgrounds to reach compromises on disputes without reference to an external, shared reality. An emphasis on empirical reality brings with it a respect for learning, science and intellectual exploration.
“We” are the people who embrace human rights, popular sovereignty, rule of law, science, questioning, diversity of thought and background, and the right to find one’s own way in life to the extent that it does not infringe the freedom of others. “They” are the people who elevate a master caste as inherently superior, preserving for it special rights to power, leadership wealth and protection. They are suspicious of any expression of doubt or questioning that might undermine the master caste. They maintain a paranoid obsession with the perceived threats posed by the lesser castes, expressed through worshipful attitudes toward the security services, who they see as their last line of protection against change.
A new mythology finds its initial expression through the stories of its heroes. Places of veneration held today by Confederates are attractive targets, potential openings to elevate new figures of admiration and example. Virginia is planning to replace its statue of Robert E Lee in the US Capitol with Virginia Johns. As a teenager in the days before Brown v Board of Education, she led the fight to desegregate Virginia schools.
The US Treasury is planning to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, a move the Trump Administration managed to delay. Atlanta just renamed Forrest Hill Academy, previously named for KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, after Black baseball hero Hank Aaron. Congress last year established a commission to find new names for military bases named after Confederate figures.
Across many fields from science to the arts there are remarkable figures whose achievements have been obscured by their race or gender. Figures often only recalled in the special sub-context of Hispanic History Month or “great women you’ve never heard of.” We have a chance to elevate these people and the meaning of their stories into the center of a national mythology, and also into the lore of local communities all over the country. Houston should have a memorial to the Black soldiers executed in the Camp Logan Mutiny. Pine Bluff, Arkansas should have a memorial to Joseph Carter Corbin. The image of Robert Smalls should be plastered all over South Carolina, and probably much of the rest of America too. Get this right, and a future generation will ask us if Black History Month was a real thing.
One of the great intentional injuries of white supremacist mythology was its effort to strip non-white and non-male people from places of respect. For most of our history, people of color only saw themselves depicted in mass media as criminals, clowns, jesters or other deviant or subservient positions. People need heroes that match their identity. As we search for new heroes to replace those foisted on us by the promoters of white supremacy, consider an unpopular warning. As this process plays out and we begin to see the faces of great people once ignored being elevated to their rightful place, it would be strategic to find ways to include white men.
Perhaps your first response to that suggestion is hostility. Afterall, it was white men who created and nurtured white supremacy. If so, consider this question: how would you propose to establish a new “unifying” mythology that demonizes 31% of the US population on the basis on their birth?
If your response is to point out that our public life is already choked with celebrations of the achievements of white men, you’d be right. But you might be missing the point. Though anyone can immediately name a dozen prominent white male Americans, how many white male civil rights heroes can you name, apart from Lincoln? That’s not an accident. These men were written out of history, and often murdered, because of the unique threat they posed to a racist order. Including them as heroes of this new mythology is vital not just for the strategic advantage it offers, but for a much more potent reason that becomes clear from their stories.
Jonathan Daniels was an Episcopal seminary student from New Hampshire who followed Martin Luther King, Jr to Alabama for the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. He worked to desegregate Episcopal churches there and participated in protests organized by the SNCC. Daniels and two others were confronted while trying to enter a convenience store. He was murdered protecting his colleague, Ruby Sales. His murderer would be acquitted by an all-white Alabama jury. Sales would go on to a long, storied career in the civil rights movement.
Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and activist William Lloyd Garrison were the most vocal early figures in the Abolition movement. Col. Lewis Merrill, mentioned in an earlier piece, fought to dismantle the Klan in Reconstruction Era South Carolina.
Adelbert Ames was a heroic Union general who had a remarkable Reconstruction Era career. He was the Governor of Mississippi after the war, and later one of its Senators. As a Republican he struggled to ensure basic civil rights for freedmen. That struggle became a low-grade war in the 1870’s which Ames would eventually lose.
All across the South in the Civil War guerilla resistance to the Confederacy emerged. Most of the leaders have been forgotten, but John Lewis Johnson, a North Carolina druggist, stands out. He organized a resistance force called Heroes of America which supported an anti-war political movement and an underground spy and sabotage network. He was forced to flee in 1864 and his family suffered terribly, but he survived, and his movement continued to battle the KKK during Reconstruction.
Silas Soule was an anti-slavery militant in pre-Civil War Kansas who joined the Union Army. He was in command of a cavalry unit sent to confront a band of Native Americans at Sand Creek in Colorado in 1864. When ordered to attack the defenseless band of mostly women, children and the elderly, Soule refused and ordered his men not to participate. Soule reported the details of the massacre and testified before a military tribunal. A few months later Soule was murdered by one of the members of the militia that participated in the massacre. His murderer escaped and was never punished.
There are of course, many others, but their stories have been largely erased. Including these men’s often tragic contributions highlights an important dimension of a mythology of diversity. People always knew that slavery and white supremacy were wrong. Even among the most privileged caste of this society the truth was always apparent. Highlighting the courage of men like Silas Soule, or others like Anthony Bewley, William Brisbane, and Newton Knight makes the compromises of those who collaborated with slavery or Jim Crow even more stark, countering the old trope that “times were different then” used to justify the moral compromises of collaborators. We should find space to remember the white male heroes who fought slavery and white supremacy.
Where will all this statue and memorial construction come from? State and local governments can do much of it, but their work will be constrained by political resistance. Instead of waiting, take a page from the playbook of white supremacy. Use privately organized groups to raise money, buy land, and get these memorials erected. Private societies were responsible for the overwhelming majority of Confederate monuments erected during the first wave of their construction. Money raised all over the country could fund the establishment of new monuments in otherwise hostile local communities. As we’ve seen, once these monuments are erected, they become cultural beacons.
Beyond monuments, what art and other cultural artifacts might cement these heroes and their values into the System 1 imagination?
For starters, it makes sense to start experimenting with the replacement of the Star-Spangled Banner, at least at major gatherings that are not specifically political or “official.” Perhaps the best way to avoid the spectacle of athletes taking a knee during the anthem is to play “America the Beautiful” or “This Land Is Your Land.” If angry racists complain about our failure to ‘support the troops,’ switch to a song that addresses that complaint directly while doubling down, like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” There are plenty of already available artistic artifacts which already appeal to something deep in the American soul which can be summoned toward a new purpose.
We’re already beginning to see a very helpful development in popular culture – the emergence of shows and films featuring diverse casts, in which the diversity of the cast not only isn’t the point of the story, it’s not even noted. Depictions of mixed-race couples, ethnic minorities, or successful Black people in stories that are not specifically about that help us imagine a post-racial norm.
We need books and films about the heroes we plan to elevate to replace the gods of white supremacy. New images, like the BLM fist, the rainbow flag, even the appropriation of the Star Wars ‘Rebel Alliance Starbird’ as a symbol of the anti-Republican resistance should be the beginning of a wave of new iconography. Much of what a new unifying mythology will become is already apparent, but much remains to be done.
In 2017, just a week before Donald Trump took office, Houston removed Dick Dowling’s name from the street running along Emancipation Park. Three years later the city took down its statue of Dick Dowling, along with a giant “Spirit of the Confederacy” monument. Dowling still scowls over the refinery-dotted landscape at Sabine Pass. He lost his war more than a century ago. Now his Lost Cause is on its last legs. Like statues of Stalin or Saddam Hussein, his image will come down and his modest achievements will be forgotten. If nothing else, the rising seas that have already swallowed the southern road to his monument will eventually take him.
As the battle to destroy this mythology reaches a tipping point, it’s time for more thought and energy given to what comes next. These kinds of transformations seldom have a long tail. They usually appear pyrrhic until they suddenly prevail. We may have far less time than we think to imagine what will replace white supremacy as our unifying mythology. People sharing a space without a shared definition of “us” rarely share that space politely.