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An antebellum ball brings up bad memories

The commemoration of the South Carolina Secession raises questions about how to best mark awkward moments in history.

Next Monday evening, the Galliard Auditorium in Charleston, South Carolina will host a lavish dinner and dance that has been described by its organisers as the "event of a lifetime!"

The event in question is the South Carolina Secession Gala where, for $100 (Dh367) a ticket, up to 500 guests have been promised an evening of entertainment, food and a free-flowing bar. The theatrical element of the evening will be a 45-minute recreation of the signing of the southern state's 1860 Ordinance of Secession in which "Senators and famous individuals" are expected to perform. Guests are encouraged, meanwhile, to make the most of this "wonderful event" by donning "period formal or pre-war militia" attire.

The ball will mark the 150th anniversary of South Carolina's secession from the United States: technically, the moment it left the union over the issue of states' rights, or the freedom of an individual state to govern without unnecessary interference from central government.

In truth, South Carolina's actions were inextricably linked to the threatened abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln, who had been elected America's president a matter of weeks before. This landmark decision would later pave the way for 10 more states to secede - a ruinous path that led inevitably, to the outbreak of a civil war that would claim the lives of more than 600,000 soldiers between 1861 and 1865, before the Confederate States finally surrendered. History records that the combined forces of the US suffered significantly fewer fatalities during the Second World War.

It is, of course, entirely appropriate to remember those who died in the Civil War or any other conflict. To do so only helps the world understand the mistakes of its past and, hopefully, to avoid making the same errors in the future.

On the other hand, an event that appears to glory in the long-abolished institution of slavery, that seeks to glamorise the antebellum years and, indeed, the moment that triggered a bloody conflict, seems, at best, wildly inappropriate. Surely this is a time to pause for thought, rather than to celebrate?

You might think so, although, as the flames of criticism have spread, the "secession ball" organisers have been quick to reposition the event as an observance of an extraordinary constitutional moment, rather than dwelling on the more difficult legacies of the ordinance. Their line is that "the secession movement in South Carolina was a demonstration of freedom... it has nothing to do with slavery".

Activists in Charleston, meanwhile, plan to protest against the event next Monday night, arguing that its organisers are simply rewriting history to suit their own purposes: "You couldn't pay the folks in Charleston to hold a Holocaust ball, could you?", asks Dot Scott, president of the state's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the movement that did so much to further the cause of civil rights in 20th-century America.

What seems certain in all of this is that the Galliard Auditorium will, like it or not, host the "event of a lifetime", one that will pitch period petticoats and protesting pickets in direct and (let's hope) peaceful opposition.

The organisers have also, unwittingly, opened up a much wider debate in America about how best to observe a series of troublesome anniversaries.

Indeed, if the staging of the Secession Gala encourages even a few more people to read and dissect a key period in history - imagine, if you will, what would have happened to the world if the southern states had prevailed and the Confederate flag was fluttering today on Capitol Hill - then it will have served up far more than the beef tenderloins and mint juleps it has promised each of its paying guests.

Published: December 17, 2010 04:00 AM

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