Sesquicentennial

One of the first big polysyllabic words I remember learning as a kid was Sesquicentennial.  The word refers to a time period of 150-years (sesqui = one-and-a-half + cetennial = 100).  I learned this word when the small town in Michigan where I grew up had its very own Sesquicentennial Celebration.  There was a big Broadway-themed variety show put on at the local high-school (“Broadway” may be a bit of a stretch: think more along the lines of Off-, Off-, Off -Branson), and my grandfather was the emcee for the evening’s entertainment.  I believe I was about six years old, and since my grandfather was helping produce the event it was decided that I would be paraded onstage between acts to play a brief kazoo interlude.  I was to come out in a suit and a spotlight would shine upon me, at which point I would loudly clear my throat and commence my tooting.  I think my spot was supposed to function as some kind of bugle call announcing the next act, only instead of the beauty and power of a horn I had… well, a kazoo.  I didn’t want to participate in the event: I was terrified of being onstage in front of so many people.  But such things as my terror never stopped my grandfather, and when the time came I was quite literally pushed onstage, at which point I stared nervously at the auditorium of people, forgot all about my kazoo performance, shit my pants and ran off-stage.

I realize this is the second pants-shitting story/admission of the month, which sets a dangerous trend for those of us here at And Why Not? However, and without being glib, all these thoughts somehow came running into my mind as I pondered today’s  more significant sesquicentennial: South Carolina’s decision on December 20th, 1860, to issue an Ordinance of Secession, which was followed up several days later by the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.  The titles of both are fairly clear-cut and obviate need for explanation, but in case you’re not following the drift here’s the short version: after years of mounting tensions between states that permitted slavery and those that did not, two very obvious problems had arisen: not only were the wealthy white people of the northern states failing to extradite runaway slaves back to the wealthy white people in southern state, those very same northerners were actively encouraing the abolishment of slavery altogether.  So on this day 150-years ago a group of folks in South Carolina got together and reasoned that since the United States Constitution was a contract between states, and since the northern states had violated that contract (runaway slaves were fugitives, and under Article 4, Clause 3 of the Constitution they had to be returned whence they came), South Carolina was no longer bound by it.  This line of thinking proved rather popular in like-minded southern states, and within months the Union stood fractured and our nation’s Civil War had begun.

There’s going to be a whole lot of to-do about this is the news this week and in the years following (we’re standing at the trailhead of Sesquicentennial commemorations for the entire Civil War period: prepare yourself for endless reruns of Ken Burns).  Those on the right will probably emphasize the south’s secession as an issue of states’ rights, a consistent theme in conservative circles and one that was especially pervasive in this most recent election cycle.  As the banter boils and balloons you can make up your own mind—the texts of secession for South Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Mississippi are all readily available.  On my reading of these things the only way this explanation makes sense is if “states’ rights” means “slavery”.  But so it goes.  This won’t be the first white-wash in history (pun intended), nor the most recent: after all, lots of people will tell you that the Senate’s failure on Saturday to pass the DREAM Act was about the illegality of illegal immigrants and not about white people’s dislike and fear of brown people (counting Jews as “white,” the Senate that failed to act upon this issue is composed of only one (1) black person and three other non-whites).

For my part, despite living in a “post-racial” America that has elected a black man President, I can’t help but think that unresolved racial tensions are going to keep rearing their ugly, cankerous heads, and whether we’re talking about enslaving black people from Africa or indenturing brown ones from down south, someday we white people are going to have to do as I did back at my first Sesquicentennial: stand terrified onstage and look out into that audience.  Most likely we’ll find then it’s not only our pants that are full of shit.

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