As I continue to work on You Will Not Be Forgotten, each Wednesday I am going to post about something I’ve learned in the process of writing this book. Maybe it will be something about myself or about slavery or about history in general; I’m not sure. One thing I do know is this – writing this book has changed me in more ways than I will probably ever know. I hope you’ll check in each week to see what I’ve discovered in the process. I hope you’ll share your thoughts, too.
The woman was crying over a pair of pistols that had once belonged to her great-grandfather, a man who ran guerilla raids into Kentucky to recruit soldiers for the Confederacy. It would have been easy for me to write her off . . . a few months ago I would have done just that.
But these tears, they were genuine, and I had to pause.
She was on a show called History Detectives, and the investigator had just shown her the guns that were stolen from her house – off a table where her great-grandfather’s widow had placed them in the 1800s. She was quite moved.
Now, I could dismiss this reaction as sentimentalism or some misguided Southern pride. But it wasn’t that – this was sincere joy mixed with sadness over her family’s heritage. I would be remiss to discount that.
While I have lived most of my life in the South, I am not a Southerner, in the way most true Southerners use the word. I cringe and get a little angry when I see the Confederate flag. I have no nostalgia over the Confederacy losing the War Between the States, and unless I am writing deliberately, I never call the Civil War, the War Between the States. I just don’t have deep sympathies to the Southern cause.
But the more I read about Civil War history, the more I understand the complexity of reasons that people fought the war, the more I allow myself to realize that people genuinely do not see it as only a war fought over slavery (although I still hold that this was the primary reason for the fighting), the more I am able to understand not only white Southerners during the ante-bellum period but also the black people enslaved during this time.
The reasons slavery persisted are complex – racism, economic investment, selfishness, ignorance, and even sometimes genuine care for the enslaved people. None of those reasons make it right, and I will fight with every breath in my body to show that so that we must all fight against the slavery in our world today . . . but the complexity of the situation gives me a place to find compassion and understanding for both slave holders and those Southerners today who still grieve the Confederate loss.
A few weeks ago, I watched Who Do You Think You Are? Paula Deen was the guest that day. Her journey into her family history led her to the fact that her ancestors had been slave holders, something her family had never known, and to the fact that one of her ancestors fought and died on the side of the Confederacy.
As her story unfurled, I found myself getting quite agitated. She seemed far more upset over the loss of her ancestor than over the fact that her ancestors enslaved people for decades. I was frustrated and disappointed with her.
Now, though, with a little perspective, I see why she felt that way. She could read the letters of her ancestor; she knew the details of his story; she could relate to him. The enslaved people her family owned – they were just numbers on a census. No stories, no relationship between the idea of slavery and her own identity. Had she read stories of the people enslaved by her ancestors, perhaps her feelings would have been different.
I get that. . . that’s why I so desperately want people to learn the stories of people enslaved here in the U.S. – they were people, human beings with loves and losses, who fought and cursed, who cried when their bodies hurt so bad they could barely walk home and who spent Sunday afternoons with music that danced into their souls. They were people, and until we start telling their stories, it’s hard for many contemporary people to really understand that.
Now, when Paula Deen said that her ancestors lost her life in a war that accomplished nothing. Well, that I take issue with . . . I’m not willing to let her off the hook for that one . . . but still, I can see her with more grace now.
So the irony of my journey is this – by being able to see Southerners as people who believed deeply in their home and in their culture, by being able to understand that people treasure the stories they know, by being able to see complexity and feel compassion, I’m even more invested in telling the stories of the people over whom the Civil War was fought. I am hopeful – wildly optimistic even – that these stories will help all of us understand that slavery was not just an institution, not just an economic reality, not just a piece of history – slavery was something that happened to human beings – both white and black, that hurt them, and changed them, and sometimes killed them.
Just like the Civil War isn’t simply battlefields and regiment numbers, slavery isn’t simply census figures and legal proclamations. We’re talking about people. Real people who were loved by someone enough to bring them to tears.
What is your view on the Civil War? On the South? On the Confederate Flag? On Slavery? How do human stories factor into your understanding?