Behind The Mic with Seizing Freedom Host Dr. Kidada E. Williams
In her new podcast, Seizing Freedom, host, Dr. Kidada E. Williams, aims to reframe what we think we know about the Civil War and Reconstruction eras of United States history. Through diary entries, letters, and other archival records, the show, from Witness Docs and VPM, brings to life the forgotten stories from Black Americans who fought for their own freedom.
Each week, the show premieres a new, full length narrative episode focusing on different themes, ranging from education to enlistment to religion and more, followed by interview episodes with historians and artists who know the archives and scholarship best. And in addition, the podcast premieres “Character Spotlight” mini episodes that take deeper looks into the remarkable journeys and triumphs of Black Americans who fought to make history in their own unique way.
Williams says that overall, “The story is much more complicated than the cookie cutter kindergarten version that we get.” I spoke with the professor, author, and historian about the stories our schools never told us, her rigorous research process, and the many parallels podcast listeners can draw from the tragic events of the mid-19th century to the present day.
I want to start with how the Civil War was framed to all of us growing up. African American men were initially not able to enlist in the Union Army because it was considered a “White man’s war.” When did you first realize that the history of the Civil War was White male centered?
I didn’t have any exposure to anything other than a White male, military-centered history of the Civil War. So that was K-12. And then when Glory came out I was in high school and I was a Matthew Broderick fan. I loved him in War Games and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off so of course I went, right? And then I learned this larger story and there was no place, there was no time for that in my history classes. So when I get to college I was [like]: “I’ve got questions about Black people in the Civil War.” My instructor and my classmates made it really clear that, that course on the Civil War and Reconstruction, there was no place [for it]. There was going to be no acknowledgement of Black people’s role, their presence, their existence other than as enslaved people. And so when I pressed I essentially got the, “this is a White man’s war and this is a White man’s history of it.” Now that’s not exactly what they said, but it was very clear that there was going to be no tolerance of anything other than a sort of White male-centered military history of the war. I posted this question on Twitter recently, asking when did you learn or not learn about Black people’s contributions or their roles in the Civil War? And a lot of people weighed in and they said that they also didn’t get it in K-12 and they didn’t get it in undergrad. Most of them only got it if they went to graduate school. What that says is that you have to be one of the small numbers of people who actually [went] and pursued U.S. History in graduate school to get exposure to this larger history, unless you’re really lucky and you’ve got a teacher in K-12 who actually covers it. It took going to graduate school to learn this history and then for me to find all of the scholars who had been researching it all of this time. In making time to study the history I started to gain a better appreciation of the history of the war.
How do you teach the Civil War?
I might not teach it the way everyone else had taught it, which is a strictly military history war. There’s plenty of military history in my classes, but we also look at the home-front. We look at Black people. We look at Native Americans. We look at all of these other things, the history that had been shut out to me and so many other people I make space for in the stories that I tell when I teach. And we do that in the show.
You have a fascinating interview on the podcast with professor Crystal Feimster. You both explore the false narrative that all Union Army members were heroic people. Many of them committed horrendous acts.
You think, Team Union, right? Not just as a Black woman, but as a descendent of U.S. slaves. So I’m like of course, the Yankees, those are my people! But the more you get into the records you see this story and you see stories like when freedom seekers went into the Union camps, some generals sent them back to the people who held them in bondage. So that’s one example where you’re just like: “This isn’t what I thought it was.” When Lincoln issues the call for seventy five thousand soldiers to serve in the war and free African Americans step up and they’re told by Lincoln, by the governors, by everyone else: “No, not you.” So there are like a million little moments where you’re like: “This isn’t what I thought it was.” Now, do you still recognize the Union for its good, for what they achieved in protecting American democracy and the role that they absolutely played in destroying slavery? I think what you have to do is sort of take it all in together so two things can be true at once. They did play a role in abolishing slavery, but it wasn’t guaranteed. And they had to be pushed into that largely by African Americans’ actions and by the war. Even though I am disappointed in the reality that men of the Union were men, fallible, I come back to what African Americans were able to do because they were able to convince enough people on the Union side about what needed to be done.
What were the things that drove the Union to not only listen to, but give into the freedoms African Americans were asking for?
For people who were held in bondage, they would do anything to get out of it and to stay out of it. But staying out of it was really hard because the system was set up to protect the slavocracy’s interest. For White Unionists, for some of them, they’ve got ties to slavery so they knew what slavery was all about. But then there are the others who, all they had was slave holder propaganda. And what you can see in things like their correspondence is they’re writing home saying, “I went and I saw these children and some of these women are as light as you are,” to their mothers and their sisters and they’re like, “they’re in bondage.” And what that tells them is that this system wasn’t just about economics. It wasn’t just about labor, which is what enslavers had claimed. There was a lot of sexual abuse and exploitation in this system. So for some of White Unionists, it [took] seeing slavery’s awfulness with their own eyes. The slavocracy, what they had done is they put the high gloss shine on slavery. “We love our people, Black and White. Slavery is good for us. Slavery is good for them. Slavery is good for you.” And unless you have access to see it yourself, it can be something you just don’t process. Very much like Americans and the realities of the world today, the global war on terror how it resonates in other parts of the world. If you don’t see it yourself you believe the high gloss shine, the spin. So for many White soldiers it takes seeing the realities of the awfulness of slavery up close and personal for them to sort of the change their position. But for the vast majority of White Unionists, what it takes to allow Black men to enlist in the war and to allow slavery to be abolished is the war goes on for longer than they thought it would. And they lose a lot of White Union men in the process. So emancipation becomes a way to win the war faster than they’ll lose the war if they continue fighting the way they were.
Was there a chance the Unionists would backtrack on giving African Americans what they wanted? Freedom, payment for their labor, etc?
Many Unionists thought: “Slavery was abolished, that means you’ll be paid for your labor.” But slavery involves so much more than that. So much more than that. What African Americans, especially those who were held in bondage, what they knew was that they were going to have a fight on their hands, a fight from the former slavocracy and a fight for their right to have freedom fully defined and protected by everyone else in the U.S. They said, “No, slavery wasn’t just about being paid for labor. It’s about family. It’s about freedom of movement. It’s about protection from harm. It’s about rights. it’s about education. It’s about all of these things.” And so what the large White population says,“but that’s not what freedom is.” And the enslaved people say, “We beg to differ. It actually is what freedom means. And these are all of the rights, protections, and privileges that you take for granted. And we want all of these things for ourselves. And we can’t trust you to just sort of allow that to happen. We need it formally recognized in the constitution, in law. In policy.”
While listening to the podcast I couldn’t help but make comparisons to present day events. The storming of the capital this past January, the family separation at the border. You revealed stories of African American families who were unable to reunite with their families after the Civil War. While you were doing the research for the show were you finding many parallels like this?
What you find in the historical record are so many parallels. We are in the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, but you wouldn’t know it because we’re not marking it. We’re not marking it because the nation has sort of crafted this story of Reconstruction being a failure. And when you push people on what failed and who failed, what you find out is that what that White supremacist narrative has allowed is for people to believe that Black people didn’t make the most of freedom. What you don’t realize is that Reconstruction was violently overthrown, by White men who didn’t really believe in liberty and freedom for all. So if you don’t know that then the insurrection at the Capital can be something that’s surprising to you. Detention of families, detention of immigrants, family separation, “kids in cages.” All of those things can be new to you if you don’t know this larger history. Who has a right to family? Who has a right to protection? Birthright citizenship? African Americans were pushing for birthright citizenship rights in the 1830’s. Free Blacks were pushing for it and then newly freed people were pushing for it and Whites in Congress who believed in something close to justice after slavery helped them get it.
How did this podcast come about? How did you whittle down what stories you wanted to tell?
So this podcast was originally the idea of Ed Ayers, our executive producer. He had been researching the Civil War and Reconstruction for a really long time and he had all of these archival records. And he just thought, “Well why not just use these records?” So one of the producers liked the idea, but reached out to me as the host. They knew me because I had appeared on Ed’s show, BackStory with the American History Guys. I had been on that show twice and the audience seemed to like me so I think they thought, “Well we’ll reach out to her.” As someone who specializes in African American history, who teaches the Civil War on its own and when I teach African American history I do it centering African Americans, I was in a good position to help tell this story.
So I came on board and then we had to decide what we were going to do. We knew we were going to center African Americans, so we had to figure out what the state of the existing scholarship was. Thankfully it’s robust. So after several decades of scholarly research on African Americans generally or African Americans in the Civil War and Reconstruction particularly, we’ve got books and books and books and articles and articles to help tell this story. One of the things that I insisted upon in the beginning was that we slow the story of emancipation down. What happens is that when people talk about Reconstruction you get: “There was emancipation, the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments, redemption, and then the end of Reconstruction.” So they often skip over the meaningful bits with respect to African Americans by only focusing on what’s happening in Congress and the fights with Andrew Johnson. I wanted to make sure we got to people on the ground and show freedom as a process that has to be fought, and built up over time, largely through the actions of newly freed people and their allies.
What did the research process look like?
There is a robust archive. There are all of these records. Thanks to the work of librarians and archivists at institutions across the country, a lot of it has been digitized. It’s available online. So we’re doing this research in a global pandemic. So we couldn’t go to the Library of Congress. We couldn’t go to the National Archives to examine those records. We started with the established scholarship published by the experts on African Americans in the Civil War and in some cases we follow up some of the stories they tell. So we see a line about Cyntha Nickols in a scholarly book or article and then we’d go and find the original source that the scholar was relying upon. And we examine and interpret it ourselves, apply the historical research method and establish facticity in terms of what we know happened. We rely on experts from the historians who have already done that work, who have authenticated these sources. So even if we have a sliver of one person’s story, we’ve got probably several hundred other stories around it that can help authenticate some of the specific dimensions of it.
I remember back in school one of my teachers emphasizing that the Civil War was ignited by states’ rights more than anything else, that slavery was not the main cause.
I think the question is: “What’s his investment?” Obviously he has an investment in that story that is “states’ rights” divorced from slavery. What I teach my students to do is to do two things: “One, figure out which states’ rights Confederates were interested in. And when you figure out which states’ rights they were interested in, it all points back to slavery.” I like the Spider-Man meme, where you got the two Spider-Man’s that are pointing at each other: “states’ rights and slavery,” they’re the same thing. The other thing I encourage my students to do is to read the secession declarations for themselves. Read those documents for yourself. Confederates were very clear on why they fought. Or read the Confederate Constitution. Slavery is all over those documents. They’re not embarrassed by it. Arguments about states’ rights are there in those documents. But states’ rights is inevitably tied to protecting and expanding slavery into the western territories. So there are hardly any degrees of separation between states’ rights and something related to slavery. These are the games that people have played to keep a White-centered history of slavery since the war ended.
What brought about the “Character Spotlight” episodes?
Part of it was that we knew that there were so many stories that we were telling, but not able to tell in great detail, either because of the record or because of the kind of story we were deciding to tell for a specific episode. And so the character spotlights became a way to shine a light on a few people for a little bit longer than we originally intended. We can’t do that for everyone, but for a number of people we’ve got the kind of records where we can tell a fuller story.
What should listeners look out for?
I think some of it depends on the kind of story you’re interested in. If you’re interested in family you should definitely take a look at the family episode. If you’re interested in questions of education and learning, not just for survival but for the sake of knowledge—then the episode we have on schools. We just interviewed Rhiannon Giddens so she will be coming up. So excited. She was great.
What would be the kind of things you’d want to explore in a season two of this show?
We would definitely go through 1880. We would go further west, much further west because the fight for freedom and Reconstruction and freedom look completely different in California than it does in Virginia. We would look at Native Americans because as African Americans get citizenship rights, Native Americans are losing sovereignty and land. We would certainly tell a fuller, wider story. If people are unfamiliar with this history, then the things that happened after 1870 are even more foreign to many of us today.
– Ian Scott Goldstein