We Are Better Than Our Denial – Southerners, Slavery, and The Civil War

5680301650I’m a Southerner.   Despite having been born outside Philadelphia and living a number of my adult years outside the states who define themselves as The South, I still consider myself a Southerner. I love the culture, the lifestyle, the landscape (except the humidity and mosquitoes), and I even love the history, fraught as it is.

So when my fellow Southerners deny the actual reasons for entering the Civil War, when they want to not only believe but propagate the lie that the Civil War was only about States’ Rights and not very much at all about slavery, it breaks my heart.  Truly.  We are good people, smart people, caring people, and yet, some of us cannot see the truth of our history.

It’s a hard history – one that must allow for us to not only see the beauty of the historic mansions that line our rivers and coastline but must allow us to see that those bricks were not only laid by enslaved hands but also made from by those hands from the very dirt on which we walk.  It’s a history that must allow that something many of us have staked so much pride in – The Confederacy – was an institution formed out of a desire to keep owning other human beings. It’s a history that – like all histories – when seen in its entirety must make room for some ugliness, some legacy that is brutal and ongoing.

This is a hard thing given the stereotypes about Southerners as racist, hate-mongering idiots who cannot stand black people. We want to rebuff all aspects of that portrayal, to show off our manners and our deep kindness, to flourish our deep connection to family and our long history of folk music and art.  I understand the desire. I, too, weary of the assumption that simply because I speak with a little North Carolina and Virginia twang, I cannot understand epistemology or the nuances of sociological theory or that I hate people of color.  I understand.

But the irony of our refusal to acknowledge our racist history – and it is racist – is that we simply confirm the stereotypes of ourselves as buffoons.  When we deny that the Daughters of the Confederacy purposefully launched a propaganda campaign to not only change the nation’s perception of the Confederacy’s reasons for secession but also to promulgate the idea that slaves were “happy” in slavery, we align ourselves with the Holocaust deniers and those people who termed the phrase “Indian Giver” to malign the Native Americans when they would not cede over their land simply because men with guns wanted it. When we do not see our history with eyes wide open, we do not fool anyone; we simply make ourselves look foolish.

And more importantly, we lock ourselves into a lie that prevents us from being able to heal the wounds of that history, and until we are able to heal those wounds, we will not move past the stereotypes that wound us so deeply – the ones held about us and our intelligence but also the ones that lock us into denial about the painful legacy that this the system of slavery and this war have left us with.

As much as I’d love to look around my home and see unification and equality, I do not. I see us separate still – in church, in school, in our neighborhoods.  Almost every time I have a conversation with a Southerner, voices lower, and people start to whisper about “them,” about whatever race we are not.  If we don’t have any wounds to heal, if we don’t have any shame to unbury, if we don’t have any racism still to overcome, why are we whispering? Why are “we” talking about “them?”

One of the things that makes me most sad is willful ignorance. It hurts my soul because we – people, Southerners – are better than our ignorance.  If only we would see . . . if only we would own the truth like we once owned people.

What are your perceptions of The South? What are your thoughts about the reasons the Southern states seceded? 

*There are many sources we can read – primary sources from the 1860s – that delve into this discussion, including these documents from the Virginia Convention of 1861 that show the North’s position on slavery, as perceived by the conventioners, to be the reason to secede.


  • http://aboutproximity.com lisa

    I really love this piece. We do need to look at history with eyes wide open. The most courageous thing we can do is admit mistakes and grow past them. Sometimes, I do not see the change that should we in the United States. I think before reconciliation there needs to be acknowledgement of the problem it’s hard, but needful.

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      I so agree, Lisa. It’s quite hard to change something we refuse to see. . . seeing is hard, painful, disruptive. . . but it’s also the first step toward healing. Thanks for reading.

  • http://www.brendayoder.com brenda yoder

    As a history teacher and social science professional I affirm every word you have written. I am a Midwesterner and history here is seen everyday. I work in a school. I hear prejudices. Slavery was over 200 years rooted in our history. Racism for another hundred. Civil rights is just beginning. We have not arrived.

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      We have not arrived – so well said, Brenda. Thanks for reading and for the affirmation.

  • http://deuceology.wordpress.com LarryTheDeuce

    I’m a Southerner. Sure it was a states rights and economic issue. The South was fine with states being allowed to decide for themselves on the issue of slavery. The economic system was built on slaves providing labor. But I will say that I don’t believe that the majority of the North cared about freeing slaves.
    Regarding racism, the sad truth is that it is exists in all races. It is sad that segregation still exists in our churches. I’m glad that in a community of primarily white folk, we have other races in our church. It gives me hope that the Gospel changes some of us.

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Thanks for reading, Larry. I do think that the issues around the Civil War were complex, as you note. My concern is that we don’t oversimplify them in our own favor by ignoring slavery as the primary reason the South seceded. And I think the historical record proves just what you say – many Northerners, including Abraham Lincoln, were at best apathetic about slavery. But there was a growing abolitionist movement that was threatening to many Southern leaders, and it was this movement that prompted secession on many levels. Thanks for reading, Larry. And with you, I hope we will find ways to overcome our racism.

  • http://yahoo.com Joshua Wylie

    I don’t normally like to correct other people, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. The South did NOT fight for slavery, no matter what you, a Yankee who has no idea about Southern heritage, say. How can the war have been fought over slavery, when the “sainted” northern states had slaves as well. Read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and you’ll see that he was treated horribly at a plantation in MARYLAND, which is very far north. The Emancipation Proclamation is often thought to have freed the slaves. This is a lie. The Proclamation freed only the slaves in the Southern states. The north was still allowed to keep the countless slaves that they owned. Oh, and just by the way, at the beginning of the Civil war, only 6% of Southern families owned slaves. I wonder what the other 94% were fighting for? You are just another northern person who wants to claim that we TRUE SOUTHERNERS are nothing but a bunch of racists. Maybe you should also understand that Abraham Lincoln, the man sainted by so many Yankees, drafted the original 13th amendment which GUARANTEED SLAVERY!!!! The next time that you’re gonna sit there and claim that your southern, and that southern heritage is racist, you better be able to back it up with some history. I, a boy who is truly southern, know the real reason that my great great grandfather took up arms against the tyrannical U.S. Government.

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Joshua, before you step into someone’s blog space and insult her, perhaps you should consider what OUR southern heritage has taught us about manners. We can disagree, but we do not call names. And for the record, being a “Yankee” is not a bad thing – it’s simply a difference, as my northern Mom would proudly say. When you learn to speak with respect, perhaps then you will be heard.

      You state many “facts” here, but your interpretation of them is different and somewhat flawed. (For example, Maryland was a southern state – south of the Mason-Dixon line and part of the Confederacy). We did fight for the right to own slaves as a nation, even if most of us – including my family who have been tobacco tenant farmers in North Carolina for generations – did not do so. None of the things you say in your message make that fact different.

      If, however, you enter my blog space again, insult me or anyone else who writes/comments here, I will block you. That is a fact.

      My southern granny taught me how to treat people.

  • http://yahoo.com Joshua Wylie

    I was not insulting you. I was simply stating the fact that you’ve claimed that Southern Heritage is racist. My family has been in the south for over 175 years, and we know why our family fought for the south. I’ve always been extremely proud of the South, and I honestly didn’t mean to offend you. I’m just very angry that my history, my family’s history, is being destroyed and tarnished. I’ve been told many times that I should actually apologize because my family did own slaves. I won’t apologize because I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve been raised with true Southern Baptist values, and I just don’t appreciate the fact that, yet another person is saying that Southerners should own the fact that their history is racist, which it is not. My great great grandfather, the one who owned slaves, was actually not a racist at all. He had a negro school house built, so that black people could have an education. I ask pardon for insulting you. I just ask that you try to get the full story before jumping to the conclusion that our history is racist.

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Joshua, thank you for your apology. Just a note – when you imply someone is lying and doesn’t know her fact, you are insulting her, whether or not that is your intention. But again, I do appreciate your apology.

      You and I do not disagree at all in our love of the South. I love being from here – like yours, my family has been here a long time, since the 1640s. I love our culture, and I love the way of life. But that doesn’t change the fact that our economy was developed on the backs of enslaved people.

      I do not believe that every Southerner was racist – as evidenced by people like your great great grandfather. I do believe our culture was built on a racist system though, and I believe it’s important that as a culture we recognize that so we can all – black people and white people – begin to heal from that history.

      I am a historian by training and profession. I write about the history of slavery and its legacy, so while you may disagree with my conclusions from what I know – which is completely fine, by the way – my perspective is based fully in fact.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks again for apologizing.

  • http://yahoo.com Joshua Wylie

    Correction. We’ve actually been in the South since 1809.

  • http://yahoo.com Joshua Wylie

    I actually plan on becoming an historian. I know what I’ve been told may not always be true, but I know that I can never fully believe that the main cause of the Civil War was slavery. I understand that you are an historian, but I will have to respectfully disagree with your stance on this issue. I wish you well with your book.

  • Phillip

    I’m a Southerner who has lived on both the West coast, and in New England. I am not a historian, but i am an intuitive person who has opinions based on things I’ve experienced. First, I have to say that most other parts of the country are as equally as unaware of their complicity with slavery as Southerners who are accused of as being in denial about slavery.
    Slavery was a sociopathic institution that really took on different tones in the South than it did in other places.Slavery didn’t exist in the South without the complicity of others buying goods produced from that economic arrangement, and others (many in New England) profited and made great wealth off of the slave trade. New England for instance developed a collective amnesia about all of their involvement. That is denial on a grand scale. To my knowledge this is not even true of the South. But it could never be openly mentioned in New England without a fight. In the South even that wouldn’t be likely to take place given the same situation.
    One thing people forget is that slavery was a part of not only southern culture but throughout the Carribean and Brasil as well. People in those areas did not establish a strict form of racism which became established in the South because their Spanish and Portuguese ancestors had a culture that was based on the mixing of their Moorish and other bloodlines.
    There are many books written on the origin and maintenance of slavery, and of the Civil War. There will continue to be as many opinions as there are grains of sand on the beach. It was as difficult to discern now as during the Civil War. It was a sociopathic institution, but it didn’t exist in isolation by itself without complicity. I think what Southerners resent is when they are placed in a double bind; they are treated as scapegoats from people who don’t even have a clue about the conditions in the South (I had a similar conversation by a man from Chicago telling me about Katrina government abuse when in fact I was there when it hit and saw the whole process with a much clearer view than a man sitting in a recliner in Illinois.) Also, sometimes Southerners have to contend with a large segment of the population that has developed a victim mentality which is a covert way of manipulation…and it’s a shadowy form of control: “Give us everything because we were wronged in the past.” I agree with you about the South coming out of denial, but there’s a lot of denial going around on all sides. P.S. A lot of time I write comments people accuse me of “Trolling” because they don’t want to really hear my opinions, but “Trolling” has never been an intent of mine. Just wanted to clarify that I’m not that type of person.

  • Ann

    Thank you for expressing so well and accurately on how I too as a Southerner feel about the history of our region. Like you my family has deep roots and the legacy of good and shameful. The truth and seeking ways to heal sets you free. Here is to finding ways to acknowledge and heal towards freedom for all if us!