David Blight is a professor of American history at Yale University. His books include Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War, and Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Before taking part in a Smithsonian/ASU “What It Means to Be American” event titled “What Does the Life of Frederick Douglass Tell Us About America?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown Los Angeles, he spoke in the green room about teaching at a big urban high school, why the Civil War compels him, and rereading Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
You formerly taught high school. What’s the main difference for you between teaching high school and teaching college?
I taught in Flint, Michigan, my hometown, in the 1970s. It’s a large urban high school that had everything a large urban high school can throw at you. But I was in Flint when the school system was still very strong and the city was still prospering, mostly. And I left in ’78, which was just before the General Motors collapse slowly began. But I taught great kids from working-class, middle-class [backgrounds], black and white. That’s probably still the most important teaching I ever did, just kids from an industrial Midwestern city that you could turn on to history, most of whom never left the state. But I’ve also been lucky to teach at some great colleges and universities. It’s easier to teach at the college level in the sense that you can make all sorts of expectations that are mostly fulfilled; you are not always trying to just control adolescents. On the other hand, there’s an intellectual challenge to college teaching that I find more and more challenging. Colleges today have a lot of expectations; they want a lot of media, for example, a lot of visuals. And I’m still pretty much an old-fashioned lecturer. I still even use an overhead projector. The students get a good laugh about it. I don’t face the pressure now of that five-days-a-week, six, seven hours a day that is high school teaching. High school teaching is a physical challenge.
Speaking of teachers, were there some who really influenced you?
A couple of high school history teachers who were superb in their own peculiar ways. One was Jack Howe, this big, tall, gruff man who rarely ever smiled but he taught Western Civ. Loved that guy. I just found him beguiling and fascinating. He had something to do with inspiring me into history. Then for American history, I had Mildred Hodges and she was very schoolmarm-ish, but she had a method of teaching that I didn’t understand at the time. She taught everything about American history in terms of causes and consequences. The events mattered, but she was constantly harping on this idea of causes and consequences. Now that I’ve become a historian and a teacher I know what she was doing. Then I had some college professors who were pivotal. In graduate school I had a terrific mentor, Richard Sewell, I basically credit him with teaching me how to write clearly, which is what writing ought to be.
What are you reading now for pleasure?
I’m trying to get through Lincoln in the Bardo. I’ve started and stopped and it’s not an easy book to stay with, but I now have to finish it. I have a very close friend, Caryl Phillips, and I’ve been reading his latest novel. My problem now is I haven’t had enough time to read. I always keep certain books, though, near the bed. I’m always glancing through Leaves of Grass and Mary Oliver. I also have some of Robert Penn Warren’s poetry near the bed. They’re old favorites that I now and then just need to look at.
Are there particular poems—or pieces of music or artworks—that you revisit periodically?
There are Whitman poems—“Song of Myself,” some of the Civil War poetry. I sometimes read “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” especially in spring, for its beauty and also its story. There is music that I return to frequently. I do love the spirituals. I do love Motown, grew up with Motown. I do love some old folk music. As a kid we were folkies, my brother and me. I’m also really into sacred music, I have to confess.
Were you raised in the church?
I was raised in the Lutheran Church, which was very conservative, and I pretty much rebelled against it. This was a quite conservative Lutheran German church, from my mother’s background. On the other hand, there’s a lot about Protestantism, I confess, that has stuck in me. There’s a certain worldview that comes I think from Protestantism and theology. The other thing I keep near to the bed and re-read frequently are the Psalms. I love the poetry of the Psalms, although some of the Psalms can be so harsh; they can be so violent. But there’s a beauty in the poetry of the Psalms that I return to. Sometimes I just read them for meditation before sleeping. And at some point every year I reread Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and a few other things. I’m a huge fan of James Baldwin and Robert Penn Warren. I’m giving some thought, though I’m not sure I have the courage yet, to attempting a new biography of Robert Penn Warren, who was a fantastic writer and still isn’t appreciated enough. And Baldwin could do it all. There’s a huge Baldwin revival going on now.
We’re revisiting Baldwin, we’re revisiting the Civil War and these other chapters of our history. What do you make of it?
Every time we have a reckoning with race—and we’ve had a lot of ’em—we do tend to return to the Civil War, for good reason. The Civil War and Reconstruction are the first racial reckoning, and every one that has followed—if we’re smart about it—has to revisit that as a template.
When you first got into it as a field, as a historian, did you think these were battles we were still restaging?
I think no question that I did, but not very thoughtfully. I came of age in college in the late 1960s, started teaching in the early ’70s. So I was very conscious of how influenced we were by the civil rights movement, the Second Reconstruction. I don’t think I was old enough or mature enough or had been trained enough to take a long view. You don’t have a long view when you’re in your twenties. You gain it with time. We’ve never entirely finished the issues of the Civil War, and the truth is we never probably ever will.