Place, No-Place, and the Transnational Stage: “Minor” Works by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams

In his 1993 classic To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature, Eric J. Sundquist pays careful attention to texts many critics view as “minor,” such as Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. As Sundquist reminds us, we miss much when we focus only on “major” works by canonical American writers, including, often, American literature’s insistent cultural heterogeneity and its fundamentally transnational character. It is in this light that I have been thinking about some plays I read recently.

In the 1940s, Tennessee Williams established his gift for rendering the local on stage: the characters and social dynamics he introduced in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire continue to populate our imaginations when we think of the American South and New Orleans. His spatial metaphors still resonate: the streetcar that rushes us headlong through life; fragile characters trapped in a menagerie of societal constrictions. Written in the shadow of World War II, Williams’ highly successful family dramas might be seen (superficially) as reflecting a turn inward, a privileging of the domestic over the global at a moment of anxiety about America’s role abroad.

But Williams’ sense of place was more expansive than most remember. In Camino Real, first staged in 1953, Williams creates a surrealistic no-place that is alien yet familiar, fitting for this prescient allegory of American imperialism and state repression. In the first of sixteen “blocks,” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, looking bedraggled, arrive in a Spanish-speaking town “that bears a confusing, but somehow harmonious, resemblance to such widely scattered ports as Tangiers, Havana, Veracruz, Casablanca, Shanghai, New Orleans.” After consulting a map, Sancho notes that the Camino Real (Anglicized) and the Camino Real (Spanish) meet in a dead end. Soon arrives the protagonist, an American named Kilroy who sports a jeweled belt spelling out “CHAMP” and a pair of golden boxing gloves. The audience follows Kilroy as he travels the Camino Real, encountering desperate characters of varying nationalities. In this play, unlike in Williams’ more well known works, tensions and contradictions within American society are projected vaguely outward onto the global stage (so to speak), resulting in a play filled with abstraction and symbols, rather than crystallizing into a concrete narrative of dysfunction in the domestic sphere.

Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play The Emperor Jones, first staged in 1920, stands out as another allegory of empire and identity that has since been overshadowed by the playwright’s realist family dramas, which include Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. Brutus Jones, an African American who speaks entirely in minstrel dialect, has made himself ruler of an unnamed Caribbean island, and now faces an uprising. He escapes into the forest, where he encounters a series of frightening, surreal scenes that reflect the traumatic history of race in America. Like Camino Real, this play also creates an unspecific foreign setting as a way to explore both the moral ambiguities of U.S. actions abroad and the deeply rooted conflicts that characterize American identity at home. Over the years, the play has been criticized for its racist imagery and characterization, but has also been interpreted by anti-racists as a cynical commentary on American race relations. It is a significant work insofar as it highlights the global or transnational aspects of American cultural history, particularly with respect to race.


CFP: “Occupied: Taking up Space and Time,” March 22-24, 2012

Seems quite a few graduate conferences this year are tackling interdisciplinary themes relating to space! Indiana University–Bloomington’s Annual Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference seeks papers on the theme of:

“Occupied: Taking up Space and Time”

We are issuing a Call for Proposals for scholarly and creative submissions for an International Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference entitled “Occupied: Taking up Space and Time” to be held at Indiana University – Bloomington from March 22-24, 2012.  This 9th annual conference is hosted by the graduate students of the IU Department of English.Recent calls to occupy space for indefinite durations have provoked us to consider what it means to occupy or to be occupied both spatially and temporally.  The current position of “occupy” as a political buzzword confers a multiplicity of new meanings onto a concept already charged with complex histories and forms.  This conference seeks to explore the cultural significance and interrelations of its many meanings and implications, from mental pre-occupation and obsession, to the physical spaces we occupy (locked bathrooms to occupied nations), to the ways in which we spend or take up time.  Tracing the theoretical, formal, and political implications of this issue necessitates a variety of methodologies and disciplinary perspectives, so we particularly welcome interdisciplinary approaches considering any time period. Below are some suggestions for possible topics. This list is by no means exhaustive; rather, we hope these ideas might inspire some exciting new thoughts related to the theme:

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CFP: Graduate Colloquium on “Indigenous Spaces,” February 15, 2012

The newly created Collaborations on Indigenous Studies Project (CISP) at Columbia University is accepting paper proposals for its first graduate student colloquium:

Indigenous Spaces:

Pushing the Boundaries of History, Bodies, Geographies, and Politics

A Graduate Student Colloquium

Presented by

The Collaborations on Indigenous Studies Project (CISP)

Columbia University

February 15, 2012

We invite graduate students to submit proposals for a graduate student colloquium on the theme of Indigenous Spaces: Pushing the Boundaries of History, Bodies, Geographies, and Politics, to take place at Columbia University in the City of New York on February 15, 2012. Contributors are encouraged to think about ‘indigenous spaces’ that connect indigenous communities, bodies (understood in a broad sense), histories, geographies, and academia.

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CFP: “Exploring I–Lands: Borders, Identity and Myth,” March 16-18, 2012

The University of Virginia Department of English Graduate Conference seeks paper proposals from graduate students in all disciplines. Featured speakers will be Lorna Goodison and Jahan Ramazani. Abstracts are due January 21, 2012.

“Exploring I–Lands: Borders, Identity and Myth”

March 16-18, 2012

Borders abide and abound—between disciplines, between languages, between periods, between persons, between genders, between communities, between generations, between the self and the world. They define us in both liberating and limiting ways. This conference will investigate how borders and barriers are made, broken and refashioned, giving special attention to individual and national identities and the mythologies that inform them. Just how impermeable are such borders? Is there an unshakeable human drive to draw them?

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On Walls and the Spectacle of Sovereignty

My oral exams are scheduled for late January, which means the past month has been a frenzy of reading and the next three promise to be equally busy. The bright side is that my program gives us a lot of freedom in formulating reading lists, so one of mine is a rather idiosyncratic theory list focusing on race, global studies, law, and spatial theory—my small effort to chip away at the walls, so to speak, between the disciplines that have informed my studies.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of reading Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2010). The book begins with a meditation on the recent spate of global wall-building that paradoxically coincides with supposed weakening of nation-state boundaries. The most well-known examples are the winding Israeli West Bank barrier and the exorbitantly expensive (and ineffective) high-tech “fence” that now separates the U.S. from Mexico. Brown notes astutely that these walls are meant not really to strengthen borders between nations, but rather to keep out certain non-governmental, transnational forces perceived as a threat to sovereignty—yearning would-be immigrant masses, illegal drug trade, terrorism. Moreover, these walls serve a significant symbolic function: they are “iconographic of” and spectacularize the idea of sovereignty for a privileged population anxious about its porous cultural and political borders. Of course, to say that walls are spectacles of sovereignty is not at all to diminish their material, often destructive consequences, which have been many.

Reading Brown’s book reminded me of my visit to Germany this summer. Having only one day to spend in Berlin, I headed for the East Side Gallery, a kilometer-long section of the Berlin Wall that has been transformed by artists into an “International Memorial for Freedom.” I also walked through the bizarre historic site of Checkpoint Charlie, a former crossing point between the Soviet and American sectors, where a man dressed as a Cold War-era U.S. soldier still stands guard for photographic purposes. At both sites, I participated in the usual rituals celebrating the spread of democracy and economic freedom: that is, I took pictures (exercising my right to an individual point of view) and purchased postcards (participating in both transnational communication and the commodification of nostalgia). As Brown points out, something about walls offends the liberal worldview and westerners like to vaunt their demise, even as we deploy new walls for the “protection” of democracy.

Irony aside, the visits were actually quite moving for me, as I thought of the East Berliners who had risked (or lost) their lives trying to escape political oppression and economic stagnation, as well as my own family, which left Vietnam as boat people when I was a baby. I, like the average American, eschew romantic notions of how life would be better under communism (though my reasons might not be ordinary). Nevertheless, I know there are limits to the liberal tearing down of walls: in uncritically celebrating the spread of “freedom,” we risk forgetting the burdens we force on those living outside the walls we continue to build. It is true that freedom isn’t free—but Americans are usually not the ones who pay.


Mapping Native American History with Hopi Landscape Portal Software

Many thanks to @giantpandinha for tweeting the Hopi Landscape Portal, a new historical mapping project by Wes Bernardini of University of Redlands. Bernardini’s program, which uses ArcGIS Explorer software, allows users to explore 3D reconstructions of 32 Hopi villages. According to an Indian Country article,

Bernardini has been working with the Hopi for the last decade on mapping the ancestral villages. He uses conventional archaeological data as well as Hopi traditional knowledge to get a clearer picture of the past.

“Everything in my work started with, and continually goes back to, Hopi oral tradition,” he told ICTMN. “It was the clan migration traditions recounted to me by Hopi colleagues that first helped me to see that archaeological ideas about Hopi migrations were incomplete, and each visit to Hopi adds new pieces of information that help me to see the archaeological record in a new light.”


Teaching Property Law and Race: “Integrating Spaces” by Brophy et al.

My recollection of law school property class consists mostly of trying to fit a lot of archaic terms for ownership interests onto the one-page cheat sheet we were allowed for the exam. No fault of my professor, who made feudal language as interesting as it could be.

It was not until much later that I realized how truly fascinating property is. In a country where people used to own people, how can the law’s legitimation of a human’s attachment to something be anything but fascinating?

Today’s law students might come to this realization sooner, thanks to a practical, wide-ranging  book by Alfred Brophy, Alberto Lopez, and Kali Murray. Integrating Spaces: Property Law & Race (2011) is a casebook-style text that covers the many ways race and identity have shaped and continue to shape property in the U.S. It is intended as a supplemental text to help law professors integrate issues of race into their first-year property courses. Each chapter consists of a concise, clearly written overview of the issues and several illustrative cases.

Here is the table of contents:

Part I. Race in the Making of Property Law

Chapter 1. Origins: Possession and Dispossession in Property Law
Chapter 2. Property Rules and Slavery

Part II. Race and the Remaking of Property

Chapter 3. Racial Regulation of Public Spaces in the United States
Chapter 4. Discrimination and the Sale or Occupancy of Real Property

Part III. Race and Contemporary Property

Chapter 5. Redefining Housing and Neighborhood: Civil Rights and Its Impact on Property Law
Chapter 6. Contemporary Common Law Property
Chapter 7. Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in an International Perspective

I hope this much-needed book catches on.


The ‘Spatial Turn’ in Law: June 2011 Issue of Law, Culture, and the Humanities

The latest issue of Law, Culture, and the Humanities contains several articles relating to legal geography, space, and territorialization. Law joins, of course, a variety of other disciplines in taking this “spatial turn.”

Here are the titles and abstracts:

Law’s Spatial Turn: Geography, Justice and a Certain Fear of Space” by Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos

Abstract: This is a critical reading of the current literature on law and geography. The article argues that the literature is characterized by an undertheorization of the concept of space. The focus is either on the specific geography of law in the form of jurisdiction, or as a simple terminological innovation. Instead, the article suggests that law’s spatial turn ought to consider space as a singular parameter to the hitherto legal preoccupation with time, history and waiting. This forces law into dealing with a new, peculiarly spatial kind of uncertainty in terms of simultaneity, disorientation, materiality and exclusionary corporeal emplacement. The main area in which this undertheorization forcefully manifests itself is that of spatial justice. Despite its critical potential, the concept has been reduced by the majority of the relevant literature into another version of social, distributive or regional justice. On the contrary, if the peculiar characteristics of space are to be taken into account, a concept of justice will have to be rethought on a much more fundamental level than that.

Cuts, Flows, and the Geographies of Property” by Nicholas Blomley

Abstract: How is property geographical? The making of liberal property, I argue, relies upon a topographical logic, premised on the production of bounded, coherent spaces, through which the individuated subjects and objects of property can be rendered legible. Such a spatialization helps sustain the territorialization of property, in which the government of space becomes a means for the enactment of property. The production of such spaces requires conscious ‘cuts’ in the processual networks through which social spaces are produced. As such, property should be seen as a conditional achievement, ever threatened by unwanted relationality and boundary crossing. I draw from Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River to explore property’s spaces, and their ambivalent ethical and practical work.

The Constituent Power of Architecture” by Lior Barshak

Abstract: The claim that law is grounded in representations of authority hardly requires justification. The article outlines one view of the power of representations of authority to subject society to the law, and attempts to shed light on the social significance of architecture as a medium of such representation. I will argue that representation sets apart the realms of the living and the dead while sustaining a complex relationship between the two realms. It houses the dead in a separate realm where they exercise authority over the living. Monumental architecture founds the authority of law, and the entire realm inhabited by the living, by relegating the dead to a separate sphere where they assume the position of ancestral lawgivers. Architecture can separate the living from the dead and anchor the rule of law by virtue of its claims to perpetuity and aesthetic form.

‘Passing through the Mirror’: Dead Man, Legal Pluralism and the De-territorialization of the West” by Ruth M. Buchanan

Abstract: The failures of Western law in its encounter with indigenous legal orders have been well documented, but alternative modes of negotiating the encounter remain under-explored in legal scholarship.The present article addresses this lacuna. It proceeds from the premise that the journey towards a different conceptualization of law might be fruitfully re-routed through the affect-laden realm of embodied experience—the experience of watching the subversive anti-western film Dead Man. Section II explains and develops a Deleuzian approach to law and film which involves thinking about film as ‘‘event.’’ Section III considers Dead Man’s relation to the western genre and its implications for how we think about law’s founding on the frontier. Finally, the article explores the concept of ‘‘becoming’’ through a consideration of the relationship between the onscreen journey of the character Bill Blake and the radical worldview of his poetic namesake.

Law and the Foucauldian Wild West in Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gateby Diana Young

Abstract: Classic western films often conceive of the west as existing in a legal void, where the central conflict is a binary one between lawlessness and legalization. The law is a monolith, and the legalization process is linear—a narrative of the west’s inexorable evolution toward a modern state governed by the rule of law. Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate presents a more postmodernist, pluralist conception. There is no grand narrative of legalization; the film envisages a discourse of justice emerging from the interaction of a variety of discourses, and which appears to be a unity only from the vantage point of history.


Slave Cemetery at VCU Turned Over to the Richmond Slave Trail Commission

The Root (and its partner, National Public Radio) have picked up the story of Richmond’s Burial Ground for Negroes, which we posted about a while back. The historic slave and free black cemetery (c. 1750-1816), now also known as the African Burial Ground, has been used as a parking lot by Virginia Commonwealth University since the state purchased it in 2008. Today, it will be officially turned over to the City of Richmond’s Slave Trail Commission, which plans to preserve and memorialize the 1.6-acre site. The move comes only after years of community activism, an unsuccessful lawsuit, and growing negative publicity that put pressure on the state and the university.

As The Root reports, the Richmond controversy is one of several that have arisen in recent years over historic slave and free black cemeteries. The most well-known of these is the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan:

Chris Moore, a historian and curator at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, was one of the first to inform the public about the African Burial Ground [in lower Manhattan]. According to Moore, the GSA tried to keep the excavation quiet. He said that federal officials and archaeologists initially claimed ignorance, but workmen at the site informed him they were ” … taking truckloads of bones out of here.”

The GSA initially announced that no more than a few hundred people were buried at the site; it is now estimated that there are 15,000-20,000 remains under a five-block area.

A long battle ensued, involving community protests, court hearings and support from city and state officials that finally garnered national attention. As a result, the excavation was halted for some time, and the disinterred remains of 419 people were sent to Howard University for research (and later re-interred at the African Burial Ground). A memorial was built next to the new building and an interpretive center added inside the lobby, explaining the site, now a national monument.

Other burial grounds have been rediscovered in places as varied as Portsmouth, N.H.; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Dallas — and they often trigger similar community struggles to reclaim those sites. For several years, Harlem’s African-American community has been fighting to reclaim and memorialize a burial ground covered by a bus depot.

As the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation approaches (Jan. 1, 2013), efforts to recover Richmond’s African Burial Ground — and all other sites that contain black ancestral remains — gain special significance for all Americans.


Woodson Symposium: African American & African Studies at Work in the World

Today was Day 2 of the Carter G. Woodson Institute‘s 30th Anniversary Symposium, themed “African American & African Studies at Work in the World,” at the University of Virginia. The three-day program is packed with thought-provoking panels, keynote speeches, and musical and dance performances. I’ve tweeted most of the events so far, but wanted to share some favorite talks here.

Carter G. Woodson

Yesterday’s highlight was a panel after my own heart, “People Out of Place: Race, Space, and Social Movements,” moderated by Timothy Lovelace, featuring Risa Goluboff, Craig Barton, and Scot French, all from U.Va. Goluboff’s talk traced the history of vagrancy laws, which “regulated the physical and economic mobility” of marginalized Americans, particularly blacks, until the laws were declared unconstitutional in 1971. The talk by Barton, an architect, demonstrated how built environments can render “invisible,” literally and socially, racial minorities whose labor is necessary to sustain the structures. Barton also told the moving story of the Scrabble School, a former segregated black school that has been converted into a contemporary civic space. French screened and discussed his documentary film That World Is Gone: Race and Displacement in a Southern Town, which tells the story of Vinegar Hill, a historically black area of Charlottesville that was destroyed in the name of “urban renewal.” (The film won the Audience Favorite Award at the 2010 Virginia Film Festival.)

Also yesterday, Yarimar Bonilla of U.Va. gave a terrific talk called “Non-Sovereign Futures? Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment,” which began to map the many Caribbean islands that are neither independent nor colonized, but something in between. Her research asks what “sovereignty” means in an asymmetrically globalized world where political and economic independence do not necessarily occur simultaneously.

This afternoon, a panel entitled “Bio-Politics: Race, Health, and the Body,” featured a terrific talk by J.T. Roane of Columbia University on the social and racial connotations of the so-called “obesity epidemic.” Roane traces the technologies and mechanisms by which fat bodies have become “visible” as such, obscuring the structural problems that lead to poor health for blacks and other marginalized groups. For example, Roane argues, the BMI (body mass index), originally developed as a population-level indicator, was later adopted as an individual measure, which helped shape the discourse of obesity into a “politics of self-control rather than of the economics of food production and resource allocation.”

This evening, Dorothy Roberts of Northwestern University gave a lively keynote address entitled “Race, Gender, and Biopolitics in the Genomic Age.” Roberts described how the idea of race as a biological concept has reemerged through genetic technologies, a seemingly paradoxical (and certainly insidious) trend in this supposedly “post-racial” age. Roberts’ new book, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century, looks fantastic and I can’t wait to read it.


War Stories and the ‘Legal Geography’ of War

This weekend I attended (and live-tweeted) “Law and War: An International Humanitarian Law Workshop,” a two-day training for law and graduate students. It was held at the University of Virginia School of Law and co-sponsored by the ICRC, the American Red Cross, and the U.S. Army’s JAG School.

Among the highlights was Kenneth Anderson‘s presentation on the use of drones and targeted killing as part of the allied counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Anderson raised some interesting conceptual issues about contemporary warfare: Does war have boundaries? When an armed conflict moves from one location to another, which laws of war govern? Is there, in Anderson’s words, a “legal geography” of war?

The law of armed conflict (LOAC) is based upon classification of conflicts, starting with the distinction between international (state-on-state) and non-international (all other) armed conflicts. Civilian protections and combatant privilege don’t kick in until a conflict has met the threshold for either category, and the rules differ substantially between the categories. Consequently, location and intensity of fighting as well as identity of the participants are key to a LOAC analysis.

A common view, according to Anderson, is that armed conflict is located wherever its participants are. If an armed conflict authorized to take place in Afghanistan spreads to Pakistan, say, through the use of U.S. unmanned aircraft (drones), it is unclear which, or whether, LOAC rules apply. And if the U.S. were to, say, have the CIA rather than uniformed armed forces control those drones, it is unclear whether the actions even fall under the umbrella of LOAC. If LOAC does not apply, then what law governs? Is the U.S. operating in a legal void?

This is one example of how modern warfare, with its fuzzy geographic boundaries and blurred distinctions between soldiers and civilians, confounds LOAC.

My interest, as a student of literature, lies in how we conceptualize and narrate war when the traditional elements of a war narrative no longer exist. Where is war set? What is a front line? Who is a combatant and who is a civilian? To the extent that LOAC follows entrenched understandings of war, sovereignty, and combatant status, it is a window into the structure of the war narrative. When war as the law describes it ceases to resemble war on the ground, interesting things happen to the stories we tell about war. More to come on this.


Past Impacts of Earthquake/Tsunami

Such tragedy and terror from Japan. The past week my thoughts keep going back to the 1755 earthquake and tsunami of Lisbon, Portugal. What I know of it comes from Charles Withers’ Placing the Enlightenment. It occurred during the midst of the Enlightenment period, wiped out 900,000 people (essentially the city of Lisbon, it seems), and had an immense impact on the theological, philosophical and physical lives of Europeans. Some saw it as divine retribution, but it pushed many others away from the idea of a knowing and all-powerful God. As Withers says, it “accelerated existing trends toward materialistic and historical philosophies.”

What impact will this tragedy have on our world – next week? next year? in the next decades? What existing trends will it accelerate? What new ways of being in the world will it encourage? How will we shift in our understandings of who we are and what we mean to each other?


Virginia to Finally Get Its ‘Ass-Phalt’ Off People’s Ancestors

The controversy over a historic slave and free black cemetery in downtown Richmond appears headed, finally, for a reasonable resolution. The Burial Ground for Negroes (c. 1750-1816), which currently lies under a parking lot at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been the subject of community protest and an unsuccessful lawsuit.

Today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that VCU plans to remove the asphalt from the parking lot, which is slated to be turned into a memorial under a deal between the state, the city, and VCU. VCU will use state funds for the removal. But it’s still unclear how soon the work will be done, since the new plans depend on a budget amendment that won’t take effect until July 1.

I’ve been following this story since last fall, when I began researching the site’s history and analyzing the legal case that arose from it. Richmond was a major slave trading center, and the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood where the cemetery lies was once “ground zero” of the city’s slave trade, according to a documentary film by Shawn Utsey. The cemetery was always an abject space, located on flood-prone land adjacent to Shockoe Creek. It was near a notorious slave jail, as well as the gallows where Richmond’s most famous slave rebellion leader was executed. Over the years, the area experienced waves of redevelopment, much of it racially inflected, as black homes and businesses were torn down to make way for Interstate 95 and other structures. With such a sensitive history, it was no wonder that emotions rose when VCU purchased the 1.6 acre site in 2008 and began using it as a parking lot.

In early 2010, Sa’ad El-Amin, a former Richmond City Councilman and a divisive figure in local politics, filed a mandamus petition seeking to force the state to find the cemetery’s historic boundaries so that the site could be properly preserved. The suit was dismissed, as the standard for mandamus was clearly not met.

However, the case was instructive because it demonstrated the obstacles that descendants of slaves face when they seek to access or protect from desecration the burial sites of their possible ancestors. Due to conditions of slavery and racial inequities that continued after Emancipation, many descendants do not know or cannot prove their ancestry and, therefore, do not have standing to sue under the common law for cemetery access. (Alfred Brophy wrote a great article on cemetery law, available on SSRN.) El-Amin, not being able to prove direct descent from anyone buried in the cemetery, was limited in his legal options. The controversy, therefore, had to be resolved in the political rather than legal arena, and as such it was subject to the vagaries of local politics in a city that has historically “buried” its ugly racial past.

As with most conflicts over the dead, this one is really about relations between the living. Last fall, El-Amin stood in front of the Richmond courthouse and spoke to reporters about his mandamus suit and another suit he filed over the cemetery:

“We are here to get VCU’s asphalt off of our burial ground,” El-Amin said on the steps of the John Marshall Courts Building downtown, elongating the first vowel, as in “ASSphalt.” One can only imagine, El-Amin said, if the shoe were on the other foot.

“What do you think would happen if I drove over to Hollywood Cemetery and parked my car on one of those Confederate generals?” he asked.