“Mom, who won the Civil War? Did we win?” my 9-year-old daughter asked me the other day, grabbing a Capri Sun from the fridge.
Hold that flimsy straw while I unpack:
#1. “We” in her question = the South, because me and my husband and my kids are so Southern. Generations Southern. And white.
#2. Yes, she should probably already know this in 3rd grade. I don’t have an answer for you on this one. (Maybe it’s because we currently live in Texas. I’m sure she knows about the Alamo.)
#3. I was SO GLAD she asked, because even though the answer is “no”, I need her to understand more. Understand that nothing about the history of her birthplace is simple or without its share of pain or anger.
And, mostly, I needed to do something with the recent news stories of fellow Southerners chanting with fire torches around falling Confederate statues, the images that have stuck me the past few days like a sore splinter.
May 16, 2017
To my Southern, white, smart, opinionated girl,
No, we – the South – didn’t win. And that turned out to be a good thing.
See, the people in charge of the Southern states wanted to secede (separate) because they were fed up with the Northern states telling them what to do. I know you understand this because you hate being bossed around. But one of the BIG things the North was telling them to do was to stop owning slaves.
It seems obvious to us now, that it’s a terrible thing to kidnap other humans and keep them trapped and force them into hard work with no pay and no freedom. The older you get the more you’ll learn about it, but a lot of really bad things happened to slaves.
However, at the time, giving up slaves meant land owners would lose a lot of money and have to start over on how they ran their plantations (big farms), so they kept doing it and didn’t want to change. Remember this lesson from them: Money and comfort make people find excuses to do things that aren’t right – they still do. Watch out for that. Your ancestors weren’t immune from it and neither are we; neither is anyone.
When the South lost and had to give up slavery -a good thing- what happened to all the people who were suddenly freed, but who’d never chosen to be here in the first place? They had to start out from scratch; they had to figure out how to get homes and jobs and education all from nothing.
All of that – from the beginning of slavery to well beyond the end of it – set up a whole system of problems that we are still trying to work out today.
I need you to see that. A lot of the problems and unfairness in the South today has long lines attached to them, like kites with tangled strings. Some people want the kites to just go ahead and just fly already; and sometimes maybe the kite is the problem, but a lot of the time it’s all of those tangled strings.
I’ve got two things to tell you:
- This is not your fault. You were born like every other baby on this earth: innocent and plopped right in the middle of things. You didn’t set this up; you didn’t make the decisions that made the world like they are today, you just showed up here like everyone else.
- However, it is your responsibility. Being white and Southern has a lot of responsibility. You have to learn what happened before you got here as truthfully as you can. It’s OK to be proud of the good things, but you can’t turn away from the hard things too, all of those tangled strings that keep people from flying higher. They exist whether you look at them or not, and not looking at them doesn’t help anything get better.
Sometimes this responsibility is to just be quiet and listen to other people, even when you want to interrupt. Sometimes it’s to speak up. I can’t tell you when to do each one, and I’ll be honest – it’s easy to mess up. Some people think that makes it not worth trying. I feel like if you don’t at least try to make things better here by the time God calls you home, you have misspent your time.
I love being from the South; I love the pine trees, the Smokey mountains, the sugarcane and cotton and soybean fields, the Carolina low country, the beaches along the Florida panhandle, the sun on the lake in Georgia and even the red dirt on its banks. (Not gnats. You never have to like gnats.)
But I also love being Southern because I have more power to change things. Nobody wants to hear about how they should change from outsiders (remember that Civil War paragraph from above?), but, my sweet Georgia girl, we are insiders. We have a say because it’s ours, too.
There is a lot of hurt and anger out there, but also a lot of goodness and people who want to do the right thing and make the South better for everyone. Here are some shortcuts I’ve learned on my way:
- Always think for yourself.
- Always speak for yourself.
- Use your gift of observation.
- Be cautious of ANY mob mentality, no matter what side it’s on. (That means a group getting carried away with a feeling, basically like Gaston leading those villagers in Beauty and the Beast. Even if you think there really is a beast and you’re scared of it, mobs aren’t known for making the best decisions.)
- Always be willing to learn.
- Know it’s OK to get something wrong or misunderstand, but it is NOT OK to be too prideful to change.
Expect that if you speak up about something unfair, people might answer with mean or harsh things, but that’s better than never speaking up at all. Maybe if more quiet people had spoken up 200 or more years ago, the kite strings wouldn’t have gotten as tangled up as they did.
So yes, the South lost.
Some people think things looked better back in the distance, but don’t be fooled. Anything better in the past was only better for some people. Assume you would not be that person. Don’t squander your insider opportunity looking backward for a myth.
History has shown us there is really only one way: forward. Even with pitfalls and snags along the way, still forward. I believe a large part of your generation is being raised on empathy and justice and will move even more quickly than the ones before. You can either be dragged along, or you can help clear the path the way you think it should look.
And from the moment you arrived on this scene -innocent, feisty, and stubborn – I knew you were the kind of Southern girl born to be a trailblazer.
My love always,