The strange "Redemption" of U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds

The conservative Florida congressman's office embraces "Critical Race Theory" in a complex answer to a simple question about American history.

OFF RECORD:  I will not be entertaining such an asinine question. Questioning if the Congressman, a proud American and Black man, would support the overthrow of Reconstruction does not warrant the Congressman’s or my time.

This is a real statement from Harrison Fields, the spokesman of Republican Florida Congressman Byron Donalds, in response to several questions I emailed him. The “off record” part is meaningless. I did not ask “off record,” nor did I agree to go “off record.” This is the public voice of a Florida elected public official. He doesn’t get to unilaterally declare what’s public and what isn’t.

Fields ignored my primary question, which was this:

Was Rep. Donalds aware when he tweeted about “our country’s great story of redemption” that “Redemption” is actually the historical name white supremacists gave to the overthrow of Reconstruction and re-establishment of white supremacist governments in Florida and the South after the Civil War. 

Here is the Donalds tweet in question:

I suspected and suspect that Donalds did not know about Redemption. But he prides himself on “intellectual diversity;” so I did not want to assume anything or take away his agency. So I also asked:

If he was aware, could you clarify if he intended to praise the overthrow of Reconstruction and re-establishment of white supremacy as “our country’s great story”? Does he consider the white supremacist overthrow of Reconstruction “our country’s great story?”

Fields asserted in response that Donalds’ very blackness makes what I asked an “asinine question.” That assertion is the essence of critical race theory, as near as I can understand it.

It’s the idea that racism is systemic enough in American history and governing and legal structures that “a proud American and Black man” can be expected to perceive, experience, and act in response to events and state power in a particular way.

Under Fields’ critical race theory, “our country’s great story of redemption” becomes a particularly fraught phrase to use in addressing what the state says one can teach and learn in school about racial history — if one knows the historical meaning of Redemption.

It’s either willful carelessness or open trolling.

“Narrative” vs. “fact”

You can check out Jeff Solochek’s Tampa Bay Times article about the final critical race theory/1619 blahblahblah rule-making circus here. Key talking point from Ron DeSantis:

Florida must have an education system that is “preferring fact over narrative,” DeSantis said.

It’s important to understand that no word DeSantis uses has any meaning. Ever. He only knows that 2024 Republican presidential primary voters enjoy leaders who behave like petty assholes in order to provoke and own as many “libs” as possible. Everything he does and says that isn’t directly tied to enriching a particular subset of the powerful is aimed at that 2024 GOP primary electorate’s impulses. If critical race theory somehow “owned the libs,” DeSantis would immediately take up its cause.

You can’t debate any of this with anyone because debate is not the point. There is no content to this argument because it’s not an argument. It’s a troll.

What you can do is recognize what a gift this fake suppression trolling is to the short, medium, and long-term cause of spreading real history. The enemy of good history isn’t suppression and threats; it’s indifference and incuriosity.

And the more “fact” emerges, the more garbage cultural “narrative” falls apart. It can’t be reimposed on the culture without a level of force DeSantis and Corcoran and the rest are too feckless and incompetent to bring — even in the classroom.

Beyond the classroom, DeSantis and Corcoran and all the rest of the screaming anti-critical-mask-1619-theory performance artists are utterly powerless to affect the relentless march toward clearer, more honest historical understanding — unless they start killing people and locking them up for it.

If it’s going to come to that; let’s get to it now and force the confrontations that might prevent it.

In the meantime, want an example of the DeSantis/Corocan impotence?

Here’s an outstanding new podcast on Ocoee and the 1920 election, featuring the great Florida historian Paul Ortiz, sponsored by Proctor and Gamble.

Proctor. and. Gamble. That’s Pampers and Gillette and Tide and Crest and bunch of other stuff in your house paying for Paul Ortiz and others to tell the story of one of Florida and America’s many murderous racial pogroms. And teachers can play that podcast right now for Florida students — DoE says so. See here.

Florida political power hates Paul Ortiz. And yet …

“Redemption” is a fact; “redemption” is a narrative

Like I said, I suspected — and still suspect — that Byron Donalds had no idea “Redemption” was the brand name for the successful insurgent white supremacist war to overthrow Reconstruction. I had never heard the term used that way until I was about 40 and researching my Florida history books.

(For what it’s worth, Byron Donalds has own personal narrative of “redemption” related to some earlier life brushes with the law. I don’t know anything about that beyond this.)

More importantly — and more recently — Donalds and his wife Erika have been big players in Florida’s “Classical” charter school subculture. The charter school they co-founded in 2012 became awash in various scandals of abusive behavior and financial shenanigans in 2018. It’s never been clear to me how much happened on their watch. They aren’t connected to the school anymore.

But I do know that the “classical” narrative of American history long held that the overthrow of Reconstruction was at worst a necessary evil and at best an event to celebrate and worship — literally the “birth of a nation” through the “Redemption” of the southern states with white supremacy.

There’s a whole academic story about how “respectable” scholars of the so-called “Dunning school” of Columbia University laid the institutional groundwork for the Redemption narrative that would extend to popular culture and film. See here.

A very recent mutation in “classic” American historical memory

My circa 1988 Florida public high school history classes barely taught Reconstruction at all.

What the text book did teach essentially followed the Gone with the Wind necessary evil narrative.” I don’t recall hearing the word “Redemption;” but the narrative went something like this: Reconstruction was a corrupt, vaguely sinister period of northern overreach that somehow threatened women and children. It eventually collapsed of its own weight and kinda had it coming. Yes, it’s a shame about Jim Crow that followed, but … ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Also “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” bad.

The narrative of the film Birth of a Nation is basically the same as Gone with the Wind, but with explicit celebration and glory and the triumph of righteous racial violence built right into it. That’s the essence of Redemption as a brand for the overthrow of Reconstruction.

I consider Birth of a Nation the most influential and consequential film ever made. It stirred some protests at the time of release; but the white public overwhelmingly welcomed it as the Saving Private Ryan of its day — on steroids.

Birth of a Nation’s popularity literally launched the second Ku Klux Klan of 1915-1930 during its Atlanta premiere. (Here we see a “fact,” launched by a “narrative.”) The murderous hucksters of the so-called “revival” Klan explicitly emulated the first Klan (including in Ocoee and 1920 election), which had provided the shock troops and murderers of Redemption.

Birth of a Nation’s popularity is hardly surprising. “Redemption” is a revealingly celebratory and sacred word. It reflects the deep esteem with which mainstream American political, social, religious, and racial power long regarded the overthrow of Reconstruction.

Today, as Harrison Fields’ statement shows, Americans increasingly, rightfully perceive the overthrow of Reconstruction and creation of Jim Crow as a tragic national setback. The few people who don’t see it this way tend to storm Congress — and support Donalds’ political party and the former president with big flags of Trump painted like Rambo.

But this evolution in popular understanding has happened very quickly and very recently. “Redemption,” in both its Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind forms, has been the dominant historical “narrative” far, far longer than “setback.” Today, we’re witnessing more of a sudden mutation in the popular understanding of Reconstruction in historical memory.

“a proud American and black man” — and a conservative?

So it’s hardly self-evident that a self-declared political and social “conservative” like Byron Donalds — who celebrates his opposition to the prevailing racial world view of other proud Americans and black men — would lament Redemption.

His conservative, “classical” intellectual and political forebears certainly did not. His freely chosen political tradition celebrated it — and still does. Why do you think they object to the removal of monuments to white supremacy?

So it’s interesting that spokesman Fields did not use “conservative” in his statement about Donalds. He used “black man” and “American.” Again, that seems pretty “critical race theory-ish” to me.

Byron Donalds’ spokesman claims that performative “intellectual diversity” flies right out the window when “a proud American and black man” confronts the murderers and raw power-seekers and pogromists of Redemption and Jim Crow.

It’s hard to disagree.