How A Civil War Podcast Became Urgent Listening In Today’s America

"Uncivil" hosts Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt throw the book at traditional history narratives.

A gathering of white supremacists turns violent. The president defends public statues commemorating the Confederacy. A prominent pastor suggests peaceful protestors, kneeling during the national anthem to call attention to brutality, should feel grateful they haven’t been shot

To many, it feels like U.S. news headlines in 2017 belong in another era, 50 or 100 years ago. But the deep divisions these stories reflect are very much in our present, not just the past.

A new podcast — “Uncivil,” out Oct. 4 — seeks to clearly draw a line from American history to the present day by examining lesser-known narratives from the Civil War. In doing so, hosts Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt aim to illustrate how the forces that split the nation in half over a century ago are the same at play today.

“The reach is so short,” Hitt told HuffPost. “It’s so obvious to make the connection between now and then.” Hitt, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, said he and Kumanyika, an author and Rutgers professor, first began talking about doing the podcast a year ago. In the meantime, current events have given the project a new significance.

“As more and more of these [Civil War] stories got kicked around, you’d just [ask] — ‘Wait a minute, didn’t I just read this on the front page yesterday morning?’” Hitt said. “It just keeps coming up. In the last six months, it’s been kind of almost astonishing and embarrassing how relevant all of the fights [are] — the ideological, the political, the racial — everything that was exploding in 1865.”

"Uncivil" hosts Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt.
"Uncivil" hosts Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt.

Kumanyika and Hitt were working on their podcast when the announcement of HBO’s “Confederate” — a drama set in an alternate version of the United States where slavery is still legal in the South — raised their stakes.

Critics were quick to challenge the TV show’s premise, taking issue with the framing of slavery as modern-day fantasy and the potential impact it could have on viewers today. “[S]omething ’Confederates creators don’t seem to understand ― the war is over for them, not for us,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic. “At this very hour, black people all across the South are still fighting the battle which they joined during Reconstruction — securing equal access to the ballot — and resisting a president whose resemblance to Andrew Johnson is uncanny.”

″[The controversy] has made us realize that the stakes are high,” Kumanyika explained. “It made us realize people are thinking about this period and they care about how it’s represented ... It’s a broad community of people who really care about this.”

“Confederate” imagines a world in which the South won the Civil War, which was a problematic plot to begin with, the hosts explained. It’s a premise that only works if you adhere to what Hitt calls the “shellacked” version of history taught in high school textbooks, based on clearly drawn lines and winners, and white men fighting white men. For starters, the show’s premise overlooks the 4 million enslaved black individuals living in the South at the time of the war, for whom continued enslavement, as the show purportedly imagines, would not constitute “winning.”

“Part of that narrative is that all of the South is one group of Confederates and all of the North is one group of abolitionists,” Hitt said, explaining that, in reality, pockets of opposition to each side existed around the country at the time of the war — including a Confederate stronghold in New York City. 

“We try to start off the conversation from a sophisticated point that doesn’t buy into that kind of [history] that’s been long debunked already,” Kumanyika said.

Kumanyika and Hitt approach the subject matter, they say, as though the war never truly ended. Heck, maybe it didn’t even begin.

“It’s been underway since the beginning,” Hitt said. “Call it what you want, the original sin, whatever. But you know there was a split in this country about race, about slavery and about equal rights” long before the Southern states seceded in 1861. “I think this comes back to haunt us like some kind of recurring nightmare, the war just being when [the conflict] turns into gunfire,” he said.

Don’t go into “Uncivil” expecting a dry retelling of the Battle of Gettysburg. While listening to the show’s first two episodes, it’s clear that Hitt, Kumanyika and their production crew paid special attention to bringing atypical stories of the Civil War — and their far-reaching effects — to life for the listener. During the episodes, the hosts step back and allow different voices to take the mic; information unspools in a manner to heighten drama and surprise.

Instead of asking traditional questions about the war, Hitt and Kumanyika wanted to focus on perspectives that have been marginalized in the discipline traditionally taught as U.S. history ― notably, the perspectives of people of color and women.

“Were black people just kinda sitting around on plantations waiting to be freed? No. It didn’t work like that,” Kumanyika said. “Part of what that ‘official’ history does is it makes you look away from the really difficult questions about slavery, the difficult questions about the core of America.”

Part of the mission of “Uncivil,” it seems, is to bring to light the narratives that are missing from history books but live on in primary sources, new scholarship and in the descendants of those who lived through the war, removed from present day only by a few generations.

On the surface, the Civil War can seem like an open-and-shut history lesson: It happened a long time ago, so surely we must already know all there is to know. “Uncivil” is a reminder for the skeptic that that’s not the case. An upcoming episode profiles several female Civil War re-enactors who conceal their gender in order to fight on the battlefield — and who collect stories of the women who did just that during the actual war. One of those stories has only recently come to light among historians.

Civil War scholarship is in kind of a renaissance right now,” Hitt said. “In part because all kinds of different people are looking at all kinds of different things about the war ... The sort of vanguard of this podcast really is the amazing work that’s happening among historians all across the country [who are] looking back at this war and looking past the traditional narrative.”

If you look at it differently, you get off the battlefield, then all of a sudden, the conflicts of the war show up in all these other places,” Hitt continued. “People’s homes, on the main square.” The result is a broader picture of what life was like for a more diverse range of Americans in the mid- to late 1800s — people with fears and hopes that don’t seem so dissimilar to those held by Americans today.

While education is certainly part of the intent behind “Uncivil,” the episodes don’t come across as heavy-handed warnings against repeating history. Instead, the narratives Hitt and Kumanyika steer have more in common with the masterful storytelling seen elsewhere on Apple Podcasts’ Top 100 list. It’s a compelling addition to the historical podcasting landscape, one that arrives at another contentious moment in time. We can only hope future generations will better understand how to grapple with their dubious history.

“Uncivil” premieres Wednesday, Oct. 4. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.



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