Civil War Day of Action: Leading a Reading Group

Civil War Day of Action: Leading a Reading Group

As protests for social justice began to spread across the United States this summer, I contemplated my options for participation and for making an impact. I read articles posted on social media daily that reviewed the organizations accepting donations, the candidates to support, the marches to attend, the books to read, the webinars to join, and lists of ways to best become an ally. At the height of this wave of activism, I did many of these things. It did not feel like enough.

An activist recently told me that the work historians do is vitally important to their success. Activists read our books, magazine essays, and op-eds. They learn from experience and from keeping their ear to the ground, but they also formulate their arguments based on the evidence that historians frame and interpret for them. We are knowledge-makers. Our intellectual contributions serve as one crucial column in the structure of activism.

This conversation shaped my engagement in this moment. I decided to use my professional background as a reader, interpreter, and leader of discussions about the written word to move the needle toward social justice. Leading a reading group would utilize my skills and allow me to help others expand their own understanding of this aspect of American history.

On this national Day of Action, called and organized by Civil War historians to highlight places of misinformation and silence in the landscape of our national narrative, forming a reading group is one effective way to make your own contribution. It is socially-distanced. It does not require a specific location related to the Civil War. More importantly, it creates meaningful conversation.

Here are four tips for linking your reading group to the goals of the Day of Action:

1. Select book.  Choose a book that is readable for a general audience. This is important because most people are unfamiliar with the writing style of an academic monograph. They will still ask you about the number of pages and will shrink from hefty tomes. Remember that not everyone reads voraciously or at all. Some people might hesitate because they fear they do not have the background knowledge to participate or because they are not sure that their perspective will be welcome. It is important to dispel both of these concerns as much as possible and make it clear that this is a group where everyone is welcome.

It is also important to choose a book that sheds light on the moment. Academic historians might be tempted to select a book whose topic is tangential to the current calls for social justice in society because we understand the connections. Resist this temptation. Stick to the books that will allow your participants to contribute to the conversations that they are having around the water cooler and around the Thanksgiving table. You want them to gain additional talking points when they are trying to hold their own against silence or vocal racism.

Book Cover with two hands gripping barsI started with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.[1]While not a Civil War book specifically, Alexander begins with the formation of racial slavery during the early colonial period and discusses the political, social, legal, and economic implications of the rise and fall of slavery as a system of bondage in the United States. Civil War historians can help readers understand the long history of Jim Crow and its relationship to the current racial caste system maintained through the sentencing, prison, and post-prison policies of our country.

2. Gather your group.  In June, I posted on Facebook a link to the book and asked if anyone wanted to join me in discussion. I reposted the invite twice more over the course of two weeks. I hoped to get a handful of volunteers and was excited when eighteen raised their hand. I created a private Facebook group in which participants could introduce themselves and we could keep track of meeting details. They quickly started to use the page to react to the book as they were reading it and to share related information that they came across in the news.

3. Set the stage.  Each discussion lasted 90 minutes. I began by explaining why I had to turned to book discussion as my form of contribution and then I read a paragraph from page 15 of the book. Alexander writes, “A new social consensus must be forged about race and the role of race in defining the basic structure of our society, if we hope ever to abolish the New Jim Crow. This new consensus must begin with dialogue, a conversation that fosters a critical consciousness, a key prerequisite to effective social action. This book is an attempt to ensure that the conversation does not end with nervous laughter.” This was the call that articulated my purpose and reinforced my original belief that this form of engagement could make a meaningful contribution. I opened with a broad question about the reaction to the book in terms of what had been happening this summer in our communities and then led the discussion from there. I rarely used my prepared questions verbatim or in order, but instead responded to where the group took the conversation and to which topics seemed most important to them to discuss.

4. Call to action. In the last 20-30 minutes, I brought the discussion to conclusion by asking each person to talk about what they will do next toward social justice, whether related to or inspired by the book. This part of the conversation was often very personal, ranging from an acknowledgement that the most work had to begin within to the identification of specific aspects of the incarceration problem upon which to focus time and energy.

In the end, I learned as much through these discussions as I had hoped to impart. We talked about how Alexander presented the knowledge as layers that we had to sift through and considered the adaptability of racism that makes it persistent over time and what we can do to call it out when we see it. We wondered about the possible impact of education – as one person said “the pen is mightier than the sword” – and we discussed how to talk with family and friends about these difficult topics. Alexander writes on page 257 that whites “should make the first move” and “be willing to sacrifice their racial privilege.” Our discussions of what this meant and could look like led us down multiple paths that I am still contemplating.

Civil War historians can play a pivotal role in helping the public understand the causes and consequences of racial oppression and social injustice. We know the history that has led to this moment. For this Call to Action, consider how you might use your time and talent to engage others in the knowledge that has been hidden in plain sight. We can use books for this purpose, just as we do in the classroom, and our efforts can cause a few more people to know how to assess information critically and to gain insight into what they might do as individuals to make a difference in their communities.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012).

Julie Mujic

Julie Mujic is a historian of the American Civil War who writes about the Midwestern home front. She recently published an essay in Household War: How Americans Lived and Fought The Civil War by the University of Georgia Press. Julie also teaches in the Global Commerce program at Denison University and owns Paramount Historical Consulting, LLC.

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