Over the past couple weeks, with all the outrage about the future of Confederate statues in the United States, I have been overridden with a particular idea rolling around in my head. It has not been about whether we should or should not take down the statues (although personally, I would prefer them to at least be put into museums instead of displayed on public property, and the same goes for the Confederate flag), but about the whitewashing of the main reason the Confederate States of America seceded from the union – slavery – and how societies and people often ignore the unsavory parts of identity.
Because of this recurring debate about Confederate statues, I’ve noticed there have been people on social media repeating the same tired line that the Confederacy seceded because of states’ rights which were being infringed upon. They state that what the South did was actually a righteous cause that they unfortunately lost, and slavery would have been done away with soon, anyways. This view is definitely wrong. Many Southern states specifically listed the potential loss of slavery as the main reason why they were leaving the Union, even though Lincoln never said he would totally eradicate slavery at that point. When I clicked on these people’s profiles, I unsurprisingly found out that many of these people were from the South. This was not alarming either, since many Southern schools do not have textbooks that portray the Confederates in less than heroic terms, according to a Salon article in 2013, even though the Confederacy shot at Fort Sumter in the first battle of the War Between the States (or War of Northern Aggression, as some Southern states say). This reminder of how the South covers over its ugly history reminded me of the silence of a particular issue in my own family.
This winter, just because I am a dork, I really got into my family genealogy. Because of how many documents are available, I was able to go into the distant past and see that many of my relatives lived in America over 100 years before the American Revolution, with some apparently arriving in Massachusetts around the same time that Governor John Winthrop’s ship arrived, which I hold as a source of pride. Later, my ancestors moved South. As it turns out, I have quite a few ancestors who fought in the Civil War (as far as I could tell, all for the Confederacy), but two are worth mentioning in this piece.
The first was an ancestor on my paternal grandmother’s side. He was a Georgia state representative, and he voted on whether the state should join the Confederacy. He actually voted against leaving, but he was obviously outvoted. He was also not a fan of slavery, my relatives say, although that might just be a story from family tradition. This ancestor fought for the Confederacy and made it all the way to lieutenant by the end of the war at an advanced age. This ancestor could be used as propaganda in the narrative that the South was just defending their homeland and that the Confederate Army was not much based around slavery. Though, like I said, this view is wrong historically.
There was also an ancestor from my paternal grandfather’s side who fought in the North Carolina infantry during the Civil War, and he died in 1865, supposedly from disease rather than battle. Curious, I looked more closely at his records, but I was horrified and disturbed at what I saw. In the 1850 census he had three slaves on his plantation, which were a nameless male and female, both 19 at the time, and a nameless one-year-old male. While I hoped that I would never come across an ancestor owning slaves, here it was in front of my eyes. At first, I felt shame about my ancestor before turning to the problems and tribulations the slaves my ancestor owned went through, which led to a long night of reflection and has led to thoughts I have come back to many times since then.
However, this ancestor does not happen to be mentioned to own slaves when my family discusses its distant history and is just mentioned in a similar matter to the other relative I focused on: as a Civil War veteran. I am guessing that years of expunging the memory of my ancestor owning slaves has covered this problem, but that in turn has become a problem. The issue has to be recognized and not pushed aside, and my children will know their ancestors have sometimes done shameful acts.
In general, the issue with whitewashing histories only makes us forget why the things we did in the past was a problem, and the problem needs to be addressed in a constructive and appropriate manner. It doesn’t matter whether it is in our families, in an organization or at Drake University, which has unfortunately had repugnant moments itself recently. We must recognize difficult topics and work past issues we would rather not examine, but we must do this to see our problems. This must start with acknowledging that there are sins in pasts, whether in an organization, cause or family, and striving to do better.