When I went to college I took a small wooden confederate soldier with me. He was no more than five inches tall, faceless, and held a cloth confederate flag firmly in his little peg hand. It was the cause of the only fight I ever had with my roomates.
Mr. Guthrie, my U.S. History teacher wore those snazzy polyester shorts with long white socks and liked his coffee black. He coached football and steered us through the textbook with a gruff southern drawl and friendly manner. That textbook was only abandoned from the years 1861-1865. It said the Civil War was about slavery.
"The War of Northern Aggression was about states' rights."
He laid it all out in a totally logical way. The yankees had more people in congress. They burdened us with tariffs. They wanted to control us.
And I bought it--hook, line, and sinker.
Nobody was there telling us slavery was wrong. Everyone was on the same page with the dark shadow in our southern past. We just weren't going to define ourselves by it and the history I was taught was filled with courageous rebels who wanted to simply put the federal government in its place, many of them not even holding slaves. Their swaying hoop skirts were full of stories, charm, and beauty.
Never mind what was hiding under those skirts.
I toured battlefields and watched Gettysburg and North and South for fun. The Civil War was a contest between us and them, and, yes, I called (and still call) people from the North, Yankees. I was proud to be a southerner and I still am.
It's just I'm proud of different things.
I remember sitting in my American Heritage class at BYU. It was an auditorium of 900 students and the professor announced the beginning of our Civil War unit. I was primed and ready. He declared, "The Civil War was about slavery."
Oh no he didn't.
I quickly raised my hand and he could probably smell the shrimp and grits on me from the front of the room. A TA brought me the mic and I fearlessly stood and with my slight drawl announced, "That is not true. The Civil War was about states' rights."
"Where are you from?"
"Exactly. Sit down."
It was then that I realized that the rest of this country was taught a completely different history that what I'd been taught. It blew my mind. These people thought Robert E. Lee was a monster. They applauded Sherman. They thought all southerners were deplorable racists, even if they did think my accent was cute. That was just the beginning of my unsettling that has continued for the last twenty years.
The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd, has turned over a few more stones.
I love the city of Charleston, South Carolina. It has gorgeous scenery, delightful carriage tours, and amazing food. I visited it often before the unsettling began and never saw the shadows. I saw them and shook my head over them, but then enjoyed my dessert at Garabaldi's without another thought.
Sarah Grimke, the real life slaveowner turned abolitionist who came from a top tier family in Charleston, saw the shadows that noone else saw. It writes of her as a four year old, witnessing her first slave beating, and the nausea that followed. For the rest of her life, she rubbed Charleston society the wrong way, in a big way.
The book also follows the story of Hetty, the slave gifted to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. The narrative of their complicated love and friendship resonated with me and my relationship with the south. Both Sarah and Hetty learned about love, freedom, slavery, and respect. In some ways, Sarah was as much of a slave than Hetty. And yet, there was a place in Hetty that Sarah could not touch or ever understand. Sarah, while bound by the rules of Charleston aristocracy and misogyny, never had her value quantified in a book between a cigar snuffer and an antique couch from Spain.
The story is beautifully told. It is moving, haunting, harrowing, and poetic. I loved it from beginning to end. And I can't seem to stop thinking about it. How would I see Charleston now? Instead of a carriage tour, would I try to find the workhouse and wonder about the torture that happened there? Instead of sitting by the shore and looking at Ft. Sumpter at sunset with a peaceful happiness, would I stare at the shores and imagine the families ripped apart, the men's teeth being examined like a horse and the woman's hips examined for breeding potential? I hope so. And then I also hope I could still find beauty in it, rejoicing that the city of Charleston in the 21st century is so vastly different from the Charleston of the 18th and 19th centuries.
I don't understand how we humans have hurt each other in so many ways for so many years. I don't understand how to reconcile the bitter terrible truths about the south with the fond memories I have of the music, the architecture, the food, and the general atmosphere of Dixie. That dissonance is uncomfortable. This book is uncomfortable. But, it should be read by everyone.
"Ef oona ent kno weh oona da gwuine, oona should kno weh oona dum from"
"If you don't know where you're going, you should know where you came from."
The Gulla hymn from the novel rings true. Where we have come from is an enormous part of who we are. But, we don't have to stay there, we just have to remember it, be willing to see both its lights and shadows, and learn from all of it, even the ugly stuff. Only then, can we really head to better places.