Despite the Civil War ending over 150 years ago with a Union victory, events in Charlottesville, VA and debates over Confederate statues affirm that indeed the cultural wars spawned from the conflict remain with us today. BEN BUTLER provides a timely, historically significant drama that echoes the persistence of what W.E.B. DuBois coined, “...the problem of the color-line...” While this play captures the set of negotiations that informed the decision that ultimately secured a Union victory – that is, welcoming black people into the war effort so they too could fight to end slavery - the themes of the play ask critical questions about race and race relations in this country.
African Americans have provided valiant contributions to every military conflict that earmarks United States nationhood. From the Revolutionary War forward, Black people have fought and died for a country that, from its inception codified race-based slavery, later recognized Jim Crow segregation, and still fails to resolve racial inequalities in many arenas. From the Colonial Era through the Civil War, the impetus to fight was always freedom and emancipation. After the abolition of slavery, African American participation in military conflicts hinged on the belief that fighting for one’s country would lead to socio-political and socio-economic equality. While many have documented and heralded these patriotic feats and acts of heroism, public awareness of these contributions remains desperately low. The Civil War, however, was a particularly important fight given what was at stake. Despite the incessant denials of Union leaders, led by President Lincoln, African Americans knew the Civil War was a fight over slavery and therefore over their status as people. BEN BUTLER provides a glimpse into the decision that ultimately gave the Union army its greatest weapons; 4 million people who had intimate knowledge of the enemy, and a tireless commitment to throw off the shackles of slavery for good. This exchange between Shepard Mallory and General Butler highlights the historic moment:
MALLORY. General, all I’m saying is that we’ve been trained to build fortifications. We can do that facing north or we can do that facing south. The uniform and the gun and standing alongside your troops, well, that part is up to you.
BUTLER. You are delusional. Do you know that?
MALLORY. We can stay here and help to kill Virginians or you can send us back where we will help to kill you. We want to stay here and help you kill Virginians. That doesn’t seem too delusional to me. That’s just good sense.
Prior to the full welcoming of African Americans into the war effort in 1863, a Union victory remained elusive. The addition of African American servicemen, and Black women in various roles, eventually helped secure a Union victory.
But wartime participation was never a guarantee of full citizenship, especially during the Civil War. In fact, in 1861 African American status before the law was dictated by the pernicious Dredd Scott decision in which it was determined that black people were not and never had been considered citizens of the United States. Contrary to collective imaginings about enslaved people, they were certainly aware of these legal developments and understood that the ending of slavery necessarily included citizenship. Much like the War for Independence, or even WWII as a war against fascism, wartime service was a direct indication of one’s commitment to the nation and therefore ought to include fundamental rights. BEN BUTLER recognizes the ways African Americans navigated the Civil War with an eye on the prize of full citizenship, which to them was synonymous with freedom.
MALLORY. So, I am not a slave and I’m not a free man….What should I say I am?
BUTLER. Why do you have to say you are anything? I don’t walk around telling people I’m a Presbyterian. Just keep your mouth shut.
MALLORY. Yes, sir. I will do that, sir. And thank you, sir.
BUTLER. “Thank you”? For what?
MALLORY. Thank you for, well, for interpreting the law and applying it in such a good way to this particular situation. Thank you, sir.
BUTLER. You really have nothing to thank me for. Your situation is not improved over what it was when you were at Sewell’s Point.
MALLORY. Maybe things aren’t a lot different than they were. But they’re a little different. Just a little. Just a little bit better. When you are counting on favors from white men, I’ve learned not to expect too much.
This exchange also reminds us of the tension between a people daring to be free citizens, and another people who cannot imagine them free, nor as equals before the law. One of the core challenges presented by race and racism rests in the negotiation around Black identity. And it is in this nexus between race and identity where W.E.B. DuBois’ classic work remains so poignant. The legendary scholar wrote, “...the Negro is...born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, - a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world....One ever feels his two- ness, - and American, a Negro: two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body....” This “double-consciousness” where Black people traverse two worlds, one as Black Americans, the other as Black people who live in America, has been protective and made space for revolutionary undertakings. It is witnessed in the performative acquiescence that kept slave owners unaware of slave resistance and revolts; in the formation of Black institutions that softened the blow of Jim Crow and also served as anchors during the Civil Rights Movement; and even in the cultural productivity that hid the nuances woven into Negro spirituals, or in the brash, social commentary of hip hop lyricism. Throughout the play, Mallory has to craftily mask his revolutionary self to keep Butler at ease. The fugitive slave had learned this performance throughout his life as a bondsman. Yet, despite having to perform he nonetheless manufactured a reservoir of human dignity. This nuance is captured here by legendary author Ralph Ellison in his haunting work Invisible Man, “I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.” A similar commentary is found in this exchange between Butler and Mallory:
BUTLER. Mr. Mallory, may I ask you a question?
MALLORY. You’re the general. Seems to me you can do pretty much anything you want. Isn’t that the way it works?
BUTLER. Most of the time.
MALLORY. So ask me.
BUTLER. Are all Negroes like you?
MALLORY. (Takes a moment to consider how he should answer.) Yes, sir. Every one of us is exactly the same. I’m glad you noticed that.
BUTLER. You are making sport of me.
MALLORY. No, sir. I’m just letting you know that once you’ve met one Negro, there is really no point in meeting another one. Don’t even waste your time.
BEN BUTLER uses history to force us to consider our nation’s past, and how its remnants shape our present. It revisits the Civil War, when the nation was nearly torn asunder, and in doing so reminds us of the toll paid along the paths of liberty and democracy. It dares us to remember that African American contributions were central to winning the Civil War, out of which the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were born. It requires us to consider the meanings and preservation of identity in the face of daunting attacks on one’s true self. And in our city, like many other cities across this nation, BEN BUTLER dares communities to embrace the distinct wounds that are the progeny of our nation’s failings with racial equality.
Robert S. Smith is the director of the Center for Urban Research, Teaching & Outreach at Marquette University.