Commentary: Beware of the ‘history lesson’

Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 11:45pm

As most writers will attest, truth is stranger than fiction — always. That was certainly evident last week during the Nashville Film Festival. As if borrowing eyes from Alice, what seems clear, solid and sensible one moment can morph and devolve into absurdity the next.

That seemed to be the experience of many filmgoers who clamored to see a documentary called Southern Belle, which premiered
at the festival.

The film offers a glimpse of a weeklong camp in Columbia, Tenn., in a program where young women are given the opportunity to relive the summer of 1861. All giggles and excitement, the girls dress in beautiful gowns of the period and are required to stay in costume for the duration. They endeavor to “act like ladies”; this includes learning to hold a teacup, a conversation and the attentions of a man.

I know both of the film’s award-winning Nashville producers, Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley. Listening to the theatergoers at the post-screening party, many in attendance seemed to agree their film was visually appealing, well edited, fascinating — and, depending on one’s perspective, either deeply disturbing or darned delightful. There didn’t seem to be any in between.

Given the recent and highly publicized controversy over Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Confederacy celebration — during which slavery was never mentioned — the varied responses to Southern Belle are not surprising. We are still uncomfortable with slavery.

In one of the first scenes, we witness the girls receiving a “history lesson” given by a man dressed in full-length ministerial garb. Playing 19th century educator the Rev. Franklin Gillette Smith, the founder of what was considered a progressive program at the time, he conveys the “events of the day” to wide-eyed young women and explains that there is a movement afoot to rid the South of all forms of slavery — something for which the South is “unfairly” being blamed. He explains that inequitable taxation is the primary reason Tennessee has seceded from the Union, and there is barely a hinting at slavery.

Smith proceeds to ask the young ladies if anyone remembers what it says in the Bible about being a slave. The answer is matter of fact: “The Bible instructs us that we are to obey our masters.” And in an equally straightforward follow up: There were actually a “greater percentage of Negro slave owners than not.” No questions, no objections.

Smith also informs the class that “blackness and whiteness” will not be mentioned in the weeklong program, although he does clarify that the girls are responsible for doing everything for themselves — including getting themselves dressed, which is “something their slaves would have done for them during that time.”

The film, much like the program it documents, is a mirror that — depending on the perspective of the viewer — either reflects a distorted view of history that glosses over the oppression and brutalization of African people for the good of the South, or the “good old days” when petticoats, curtsying and knowing how to keep your voice from being shrill were imperative to white female survival.

It was fascinating to observe the collision of worldviews after the lights came up. Although the filmmakers’ intent was to create a documentary that would inspire discussion, there was a scheduling hitch that limited the amount of Q&A time. Conflicting emotions and complex questions hung in the air — many unspoken — and then the audience was ushered to the VIP tent for a celebration.

The young women featured in the film attended the premiere in period costume. Gliding across the theater were beautiful Southern belles in massive hoop skirts
dodging theatergoers in good humor at the spectacle of loveliness.

And then it happened. As the party began, there was a line forming for another screening in a nearby theater. It might as well have been in slow motion, for it was certainly dramatic. First a pair of boots, then the jeans and finally out stepped a striking African-American man in western boots and a straw cowboy hat. His face registered disorientation — or perhaps it was the lucid moment morphing into absurdity.

It was actor and director Mario Van Peebles. Following him were several African-American cast and crewmembers from his new film, Black, White & Blue. Whether he was startled or amused, without a word — I was told — he retreated back inside.

Yes, truth is always stranger than fiction.

Secours is a writer/filmmaker/speaker and co-host of “Freestyle” on WFSK-88.1FM. Visit her at

7 Comments on this post:

By: dnewton on 4/26/10 at 9:04

I agree that this was a wasted experiment. However it might have been more instructive to explore the problems of slavery coexisting with the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. Biblical slavery was limited, especially for Hebrews and it should be no surprise that fallen man would manage it badly. It is amazing to me that there seemed to be no record of public concern about the ability to raise more crops with fewer people as ag technology and the industrial revolution advanced the output per acre. Maybe this was an imaginary era where the export of free blacks to Africa was total and worked.

By: dogmrb on 4/26/10 at 8:59

The review is interesting but complex. But dnewton's comment is bizarre.

By: Loner on 4/27/10 at 6:00

The Confederate Constitution is the smoking cannon that exposes the white supremacist nature of the Great Secession and the war that folllowed.

Google it. "Slaves", "slavery", "African" and "negro" are all words that are enshrined in that sordid document. The poor white boys who fought for their rich neighbors' right to own negro slaves were duped into fighting by racist p[oliticians, preachers and newspaper editors. Those confederate soldiers were fighting to uphold and preserve a white supremacist society....that was the primary reason for the tragic confrontation.

Inded, the South never fully repented of its opriginal sin. When contemporary Southern revisionists distort the fundamental facts, the human tragedy is magnified.

By: govskeptic on 4/27/10 at 6:35

Loner has the cause of explaining all our "inherited" sins
on a daily basis. Just what he would like from the South
at this point is unknown other than to think exactly as he!
Never happen, pal.

By: Loner on 4/27/10 at 7:25

Govskeptic, it's a lonely thankless task, but somebody's gotta do it.

If revisionist crap is accepted as dogma. then 618,000 soldiers died in vain. I maintain my vigil for those guys. My great, great grandfather was wounded and taken prisoner at Cold Harbor, I owe it to him to speak out when false claims are made.

BTW, I only bring all this up whenever somebody tries to glorify or revise and alter the facts concerning the race-based armed insurrection known as the "American Civil War".

I would like the South to acknowledge and repent of its sin. A formal apology to black Americans whose ancestors were slaves is long overdue. It is time for Southerners to revile the Stars and Bars, not to venerate and justify that infamous icon of hate.

Hope that clears things up for you, Skep.

By: Kosh III on 4/27/10 at 11:51

Right Loner.

Southerners should acknowledge the fact that their ancestors were traitors and should stop venerating the symbols of their hate for other humans.

And maybe we should stop calling it the Civil War and call it the War against Southern Treason.

Lincoln was wrong. Lee, Davis & Co should have been hung. Instead they were allowed to take back their power and continue to oppress and hate.

By: localboy on 5/6/10 at 11:52

Well, if it will help everybody out...sure, I'm sorry that folks were mistreated by everyone and enslaved in the South because of the color of their skin. Slavery has no place among mankind, regardless of what the Bible may say or imply. Ignorance as much as force was used to punish and hold down those enslaved, and that ignorance also trapped many others under the bidding of a ruling elite. That same ignorance is still in evidence today, although thankfully it seems to be receding from many segments of the population.
Unfortunately there is still a need for the subject to be brought out into the light and discussed, and that need will continue until the last major pockets of resistance have learned to live and let live. No way will it ever be eradicated; man as a species harbors resentment towards those different from him/her self. I think for some who've posted to this column the subject would carry more weight if this publication had an actual person affected by this discrimination discussing his or her viewpoint, versus the proxy currently used. Evidently the author is a one trick pony, for seemingly she is seldom assigned a subject far astray from this one.
Native Americans, anybody?