Don’t Cry, Mama. I will Be A Good Boy.

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.

The Cloak of Defeat: Friday’s Facing The War

Author’s Note:  What began as a mere dabbling into my family roots has become a robust investigation of my family history. Slowly the search has become centered on the lives, decisions and events of the Civil War era, 1850-1880, as they shaped the physical and mental landscape in which my grandparents and parents lived.  Here I repost an essay from last summer, in which I first grapple with how those past lives reached out to touch my childhood, my mental landscape.  

  The Dodson Farm, Mecklenburg County, Virginia

I am American by birth, Virginian by the grace of God.

And like many southern white children of the 1960’s I grew up in a culture that wore its defeat like a thick woolen cloak draped around one’s shoulders, adorned by the tales of our brave soldiers J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson.  To be Virginian was to represent your family and your state with honor, as demonstrated by that great leader Robert E. Lee.  You may not believe in the cornerstone argument BUT you must honor your duty to the motherland and your family, and rise to their defense!

While the institution of slavery was mentioned, pro-slavery racism and its sibling Jim Crow segregation were not discussed.   Ever so subtly children inherited their parents’ mistrust and loathing of all things Yankee, and even with a Yankee mother I could not escape this net.

I remember walking the hall of my high school, surrounded by my black and white friends, laughing and taunting the plain clothes police officer lurking in the dark corner–present to protect any little white child from unruly mobs.  Discussing the latest desegregation violence in Boston, one of my gang cried,”Ain’t so easy, is it, Yankee Boy!”  We all hated the hypocrisy of the Yank, whose finger pointed to the South as the crucible of all American sin and never at himself, ignoring the seeds of racism within his factories, cities, and governments.

All this anti-Yankee sentiment persisted into my adult discussions of the Civil War, and I continued the tradition of defeat.  The Civil War was about states’ rights, far more than it was about slavery.  Most southerners didn’t even OWN slaves, and many who did were right kind to them.  Yankees always think they are so moral and pure, but even they didn’t like free blacks and took drastic measures to ensure that freedom and liberty to the emancipated did not equate into white men’s jobs.  And so it was until I began my genealogical journey.

In census documents, deeds and wills, slavery became slaves–people that my people owned, like the trees they sold for lumber and the hogs they raised to butcher.  My people participated in one of history’s slave cultures, using the commodity of bonded labor to produce commodities like tobacco to be sold in a global economy.  To ignore the stories of slaves, even if they are only names found in documents, is to ignore black pioneering in the United States.  What is contained in my family’s papers, documents and stories will be shared whenever and wherever possible.

For me, it is time to drop the cloak of defeat, and be a true Virginian, honoring all the people who contributed to the development and promise of that state, and to all of these United States.