Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

….Why we should acknowledge the sins of our fathers

by April A. Cain copyright 2007

Author's note...Portions of this essay without references to Appalachian Virginia were first published at www.thewomenspost.wordpress.com

On January 10, 2007, Delegate A. Donald McEachin and State Senator Henry L. Marsh offered a resolution in the Virginia General Assembly which would constitute the General Assembly’s atonement, on behalf of the Commonwealth, for the slavery of Africans. The resolution also calls for healing and reconciliation which the bill’s summary states “are possible with the acknowledgement of past grievous indignities and injustices”. The resolution has been referred to the House Committee on Rules. If you want to read the full text of the resolution, here is one link: http://www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2007/hj728/.

The introduction of this resolution has caused quite a stir, particularly in the Commonwealth’s capital city of Richmond, which of course also once served as the capital of the Confederacy. While Yom Kippur, the Jewish observation of the Day of Atonement, happens in September or October each year, I am not Jewish. But as a Christian, with Lent right around the corner (the nearest Christian observation I can think of that roughly equates to a season of atonement), I thought I would reflect upon the proposed resolution and make some confessions of my own.

You see, I am a Daughter of the Confederacy. It’s not a phrase which I have ever used to describe myself, and I have never even considered belonging to any formal organization which might seek to bestow that title upon me. But by the definition which has evolved in the post-Civil War South, I am one. My Great Grandfather, whose first and middle names were “George Washington”, left his home in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky when the war began and joined the fight for the cause. If you are a student of Civil War history, you might wisely ask “which cause”? Kentucky never actually left the Union. It was officially “neutral”, which did not make the Bluegrass State a part of the Confederacy. But Great Grandpa left Kentucky and joined the Confederate Army to fight for the side he thought of as morally and politically right.

“G.W.” was also a slaveholder, which in the limited research I’ve done over the years on the subject, made him quite unusual in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. I know that at least in far Southwest Virginia where I grew up, people hadn’t gotten as riled up about the cause of the Old South as elsewhere. They were too busy just trying to survive and didn’t have a lot of wealth or property (human or otherwise) to defend. I know the Civil War was more than just about slavery, but slavery was a significant part of the struggle to retain “state’s rights”. Let’s not kid ourselves.

Students of Virginia history tell me that in Virginia we stubborn mountaineers west of the Blue Ridge were always viewed with suspicion by the other seceders,. They weren’t sure how loyal we were, particularly after our friends in adjacent counties split off and formed West Virginia or “seceded from the Confederacy” (A joke my dad used to make). We Southwest Virginians were culturally and genetically descended from the same stock as our West Virginia brethren, so I’m sure a lot of folks wished they could stay with the Union, too. I don’t ever remember my parents speaking much of G.W.’s actions during the Civil War. I was never encouraged to take pride that he had once fought for the South. The first time, perhaps the only time, I ever heard my mother make mention of it to me was a tongue in cheek remark she made when I was I was a very young adult. I called her when I was applying for a position with a government agency, to read her a statement which I was required to sign to the effect that neither I, nor any member of my family, had ever been part of an organization whose purpose it was to overthrow the United States Government by unconstitutional means.

She laughed and replied, “Well, you’d better tell them about your daddy’s grandaddy”. . .

When I moved to Louisville, Kentucky a couple of years later I was excited to meet lots of cousins I only barely knew, or whom I had not known at all. I learned that some of them took our Great Grandaddy's participation in the Civil War quite seriously as a matter of pride and heritage. I’ve never been able to relate to those feelings. It’s certainly not how I was raised. I don’t revere the cause of the South, which would have resulted in the continuation, at least in part of North America, of a system in which human beings were bought and sold as chattel.

And I have never been able to separate G.W.’s participation in the war, for a side which did not conscript him, from his role as slaveholder. I will never be convinced that his roles as Confederate soldier and as slaveholder were unrelated, and I would imagine that if the South had won the war he would have gathered up his belongings, including the people he “owned” and headed straight for the Virginia border at Pound Gap. Why else would he have risked his life unless it was to defend the manner in which he lived?

That brings us to what I’ve heard as the most common argument made against passage of the current resolution, that being that the people involved in the Civil War are all dead and we don’t have nuthin’ to apologize to nobody about…..

I for one am quite sure that my father’s family benefited economically from slave labor, which has ultimately benefited me. And yes, I realize that there are immigrants in this Commonwealth, from other countries and other regions of this country, whose ancestors didn’t give a hoot about, or didn’t even know about, the slave based economic system that helped build the infrastructure of this state. But no one is being asked to make a personal apology. This is a resolution simply asking our Commonwealth, this beautiful and living, breathing, growing entity where we live and work (and where some of us were born), to acknowledge some painful things that it did. And our Commonwealth should atone. It’s a gesture that could bring comfort to many whose forebears paid a grim price for what was done in our state’s name.

The death of a participant (either human or political) in history had never stopped anyone from giving credit where credit is due, or seeking credit where credit is due. For example, when our family visited France a couple of years ago, my husband raised his eyebrows as he and my son read the translation of the inscription on a World War II monument. “Look at this…. ” He motioned for me to come over and look. “They talk about how they defeated the Nazis but they don’t seem to think it’s important to mention the role of the Allies in the victory. Hah!” Yes, everyone, or most everyone is dead, but he and I both felt they should have given tribute where tribute was due.

Another time someone actually gave me such a tribute. I was with a group, and an extremely tall man in high boots came up to us and took his hat off to us. He was Russian and he told us he was 93 years old. In a dramatic voice and with tears in his eyes he told of the terrific battles he had fought during World War II. Our translator was almost crying, too, as he conveyed to us how much this gentleman loved Americans for having helped saved Russia from Hitler. I cannot remember ever feeling prouder of my country.

While my (deceased) dad hadn’t been starving at the Siege of Leningrad of course, he had spent most of the war at a submarine base in Key West, Florida doing his own part to save the world. I felt as puffed up as a peacock. Like Sally Field at the Academy Awards. “They like me”. I thought. “They really like me”. I felt entitled to take credit for the good things my country had done, and I challenge anyone, whether or not they are a son or daughter of the Confederacy, to say they wouldn’t have reacted with the same smug pride as I did on that day. So if we feel we can take credit for what dead people do, why do we feel we shouldn’t make atonement for what dead people have done?

Whether or not we were personally involved, shouldn’t those of us who live here be sorry that this Commonwealth once endorsed a cruel and morally indefensible system? I’d guess that the majority of people living in Virginia whose families were lucky enough to have avoided the holocaust at least have World War II veterans in their families. And if the Chancellor of Germany wanted to offer an acknowledgment of and atonement for all the misery the German government unleashed on this sorry world during the 1930’s and 40’s, causing suffering in some way to our parents, grandparents or great grandparents, none of us would say, “Oh no. It’s o.k. Those people are all dead now. Nobody living in Germany needs to feel the least bit bad about it”. No, we’d accept the gesture without hesitation. Arguing that everyone involved is dead or that a corporate expression of atonement is somehow a personal apology just doesn’t make any sense. And it’s ironic to me that the people who are saying African Americans need to move on are likely the same people who objected to the placement of a statue of Abraham Lincoln in downtown Richmond because they themselves weren’t ready to put the past behind them.

We can’t put the past behind us until we acknowledge the past for what it was. For the life of me I can’t understand what it would hurt to do just that.

April A. Cain is an attorney, writer and mother who lives in Richmond, Virginia. She is a native of Saint Paul (Wise County) Virginia.


jane said...

"We can’t put the past behind us until we acknowledge the past for what it was. For the life of me I can’t understand what it would hurt to do just that."

I agree.

There's a wonderfully insightful look into the attitudes of Appalachia during the civil war in the book Appalachia: A History by John Alexander Williams, by the way.

Michael Mason said...

...and the bigoted opinions start to fly...

a Hanover County lawmaker's published comments that blacks should "get over" slavery were denounced on the House floor Tuesday by two black delegates who are supporting a resolution of apology. The comments by Del. Frank Hargrove lit the first spark in what figures to be an emotional debate in coming weeks.

Hargrove made the remark in a story published Tuesday by the Charlottesville Daily Progress. In explaining his opposition to the resolution, Hargrove said today's Virginia has no responsibility for slavery and added: "I personally think that our black citizens should get over it."

The same story also quoted Hargrove saying: "Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?

Former Frontier Editor said...

Having spent most of my early life away from swVa, I always felt a bit detached from the whole Union-Confederacy debate, but I've always felt slavery was morally wrong and that the Civil War was a tragedy, pure and simple. Especially after the war, when much of the talk about emancipation turned out to be nothing more than lip service as an industrialized North showed it could be just as racist and anti Negro on a typical day as the plantation-driven Southern economy could be.

I have two descendants - a Union Army surgeon and a Confederate color sergeant. While Andrew Still went on to become the first osteopath, the sergeant - by all description from my relatives - was quite happy to survive the war intact, move back to Scott County, and get on with his life.

I hold no romantic visions of the South, antebellum or postbelleum. But I'm not ashamed that part of my ancestry is from southwest Virginia.