"Slavery is a moral evil in any society...more so to the white than to the black." -Robert E. Lee, Virginia
The magnolia trees and white-columned buildings are picturesque and Gone With the Wind tells a good, albeit one-sided story, but the truth is that the Confederate South was built on a heinous crime against humanity--slavery. This history is not ambiguous: the Confederates fought to preserve a system that would allow them to continue the crime of slavery, on which their economy was based, with impunity. The Confederate South was a feudal system.
The Virginia governor's decision to proclaim April "Confederate history month" and that, in his opinion, slavery was not an important issue in the Confederacy, made me think of an encounter I had with a self-proclaimed confederate.
About five years ago a woman, whom I will call Jane, came up to me and introduced herself as "a proud daughter of the Confederacy" adding that her mother and her mother's mother before her were also proud daughters of the Confederacy. It was a Sunday afternoon and we were standing in front of the American Church in Paris where we are both members. Although we had seen each other before, we'd never met. Jane said someone told her I was a published writer and she sought me out and wanted to talk to me because she was an aspiring writer. Informing me that she was a daughter of the confederacy, I assumed, was an attempt at full disclosure on her part.
I reminded myself that I was standing in front of a church and decided not to express my thoughts and feelings about the Confederacy to her.
As I was thinking this, though, Jane said, "We don't believe the Civil War had anything to do with slavery. We believe it was fought to preserve the sovereignty and economic independence of the South."
"Why God," I thought, "do I have to hear this--and in Paris?"
To Jane I said, calmly, rationally, "But the economic independence of the South depended on the free labor of black people who were held--against their will--as slaves."
Jane didn't deny this or argue with me. Instead, she told me that she'd grown up in Tennessee, but was married to a Frenchman and had been living in Paris for several years. As she described her background, she said, "My parents are racists," then she paused and added, "I guess I'm a racist, too, but I'm NOT teaching my children to be racists."
She was confessing her racist background to me! It wasn't my place to absolve, exonerate or excuse her, or to congratulate her for having the decency to not bring her children up to be racists. This was her moral dilemma, not mine. I was angry, but--again reminding myself that I was standing in front of a church--I did not express my anger. Instead, I began to say good-bye and turned to walk away, but
Jane hadn't finished. She told me the South hadn't really changed, in spite of Civil Rights laws, and that her parents and her parents' friends didn't think black people were as human as white people.
I was incredulous. What she said was so ridiculous that instead of rising, my anger dissipated and I said, "Then your parents and their friends are psychologically damaged because they believe something that is not true."
Jane didn't respond or try to defend her parents, but stood there facing me without moving.
"Racism," I continued, damages not only the people who are the object of hate, but the people who perpetuate hate. Your parents and their friends are psychologically damaged by their hate. It has blinded them to reality."
I told Jane it was nice that she is proud of her heritage and that I am proud of my heritage, too. I explained to her that I am the direct descendant of a family of African Americans who as free people, in 1793, moved to Pennsylvania from Connecticut and purchased land.
At this, Jane literally blinked and said, "I've never heard of such a thing!"
"It is true," I told her. "Our history is fully documented,"
I wasn't surprised that she did not know there were some free African Americans in the United States when the nation was still young and I thought to myself, "The Confederate version of American history is willfully ignorant."
The South seceded from the Union in 1861 because Abraham Lincoln, an anti-slavery westerner, was elected President. Today, in 2010, by proclaiming "Confederate history month" and his original denial of slavery's significance, Gov. Mc Donnell is cynically pandering to the far right of the Republican Party--a political party that, ironically, came into being to help abolish slavery.
In the 1960s, when the Democratic Party under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, passed Civil Rights legislation, southern Democrats (the Solid South Dixiecrats) began to migrate to the Republican Party. This migration was completed in 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan launched his presidentail campaign in Mississippi, alluding to a return to "states rights," which was used to disenfranchise African American voters in the South from the end of Reconstruction until the 1960s. "States rights" like "Confederate history month" are code words, a wink and a nod to those who would like to see a return to the most shameful chapter in our history.
Nonetheless, we as a nation have made progress. Whether or not Gov. McDonnell wants to accept it, the Civil War ended in 1865. The Union defeated the Confederacy--and slavery with it--and the United States of America was the victor. Thankfully, the better angels of our nature prevailed--and that is what we should celebrate. Let's proclaim April "American History Month."
Denise Dennis serves as President of the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust, established for the historic preservation of the northeast Pennsylvania property where her ancestors, free African Americans, settled 200 years ago including the family cemetery where African American veterans of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars are interred.