The South speaks of slavery with every breath. From the columned plantation houses that we sometimes call estates or mansions or museums – or even “the big house”- to the boarded, two-doored schools that communities built when their children could not attend with the “fairer” children in the neighborhood. From the Confederate flags that dangle like wounds on poles and car windows to the universities whose ideas of academic freed were built, brick by brick, by enslaved hands.
It is not possible to live here and not be shrouded with this legacy. Unless, of course, willful ignorance is your choice. And well, then, I have nothing to say to you that you will not deny.
That is not to say there is not profound beauty here in my home, for of course there is, even in the powerful facades of those big houses. In the carved stonework of canals chipped and laid by skilled hands. In a tunnel carved by hand through a mountain. In the faces of people who can only be described as long-suffering or hard-scrabble or regal, no matter their history and lineage.
There is beauty here, peculiar and strong.
I drive the back roads of Virginia with both trepidation and bated breath – eager and braced for what I will find abandoned and what I will find preserved. My email opens to letters from men who speak of the canals that slaves built on the land they now own – there’s a strange joy in being tied to this terrible legacy. I know that joy.
It is easy to revel, to remember, to reenact only that bright side of beauty – the architecture and the fine-clothed petticoats. Eager to pine for days where things were simpler, where everything – and everyone – knew their place. Easy to make myths about “happy” slaves who stayed on the plantation because they just “loved their master.” These stories comfort us in our beauty.
But they are lies, the worst sort of storytelling that perpetuates hatred and prejudice and sustains only that willful ignorance I find so abhorrent. They speak nothing of truth and so undermine all that I stake my life on.
It is possible to see both the terrible history of The South and the beauty of it. But it is not possible to see any of the beauty without the truth. Because without truth, all we see is a lie.
I do not want my home to be a web of lies.