I’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.