I am taking a course, The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877, to provide a mental skeleton on which to drape my family history. Thanks to the Open CourseWare concept, anyone can download the syllabus, reading list, and video lectures of Yale professor David Blight. Investing less than $200, I ordered the books online last week, and within days I have completed my first readings about the “peculiar” nature of antebellum South.
Already I know one task that I must complete as I narrate my family’s place in this country’s story. I must transcribe from family wills and deeds the names of slaves, and post them. Somewhere. I must do this. I must–for at least two reasons. I feel obligated to speak about slavery, and to insist that this American story be included in all of the coming Civil War Sesquicentennial Observances. White folks don’t talk about slavery, and that needs to change if we as a nation are to recognize our potential.
Last year I left the National Archives quite humbled by the papers I could hold, read, copy, study–and by all the details I could learn about my people. A local welcomed me to Washington as I strolled through the Conservatory garden, and I shared how touched I was that someone cared so much as to preserve and organize all kinds of documents. He smiled.
“You are lucky. There are no documents to tell my story. I can’t find my ancestors. They were slaves.”
“And my great-great-grandfather owned slaves. I feel so sad,” I replied.
On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration that was as close as strangers could get to talking about slavery, and how it had constructed very different legacies for our families.
In his 1853 essay, Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup described the slave market in New Orleans. One mother,Eliza, pleaded with an interested planter to buy her family, as a group. “She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived.” But the slaveowner could only afford to buy her small boy, Randall, leaving Eliza and Emily to be traded later. “Eliza ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her–all the while her tears falling in the boy’s face like rain.”
Perhaps my writing will provide a fellow genealogist with long-sought names and places. It will certainly provide me with an opportunity to shoulder the burden that slavery has left on this country. Race still matters. Differences still cause fear. We have way too much yesterday and not enough tomorrow in our national conversations, conventions and conferences.
” ‘Don’t cry, mama. I will be a good boy. Don’t cry,’ said Randall, looking back, as they passed out of the door.”
I hope our country can walk through the door, into a future of candid conversations about our past, our present and our future, as Americans, all of us.