Family Friday: Reconciling Our National Family History

Shabbat Shalom! This week NASCAR banned the Confederate Flag from all of their events and properties. After their unsuccessful attempt to implement a ban after the Charleston Church shooting in 2015, I still find myself hopeful for their success. Meanwhile, Mississippi is deciding whether to finally remove the emblem from their state flag. As we purge these symbols of hate and rebellion from our society, I know the backlash that is coming.

When I was a first year in a southern college, my friend’s seminar class called, “Heritage Not Hate,” attempted nuance on divisive topics like the Confederate Flag. She attempted to explain it to me then, being a native born Virginian, but the culture of the West made me foreign to the Southern soil– see, I grew up thinking the Union had actually won the war. I never heard the phrase, “War of Northern Aggression,” until I was living in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I discovered the white South, still holding a grudge over General Sherman’s destructive march to the sea and proud of Southern Generals like Stonewall Jackson. On a drive to her Grandparents’ home in Northern Virginia, we stopped at roadside attractions like Foamhenge and put on Civil War caps in a toy store. I donned the Union Blue and pointed my toy rifle at my friend, Johnny Reb.

It was at Hollins that I started dedicating my independent studies on slavery. See, I wanted to understand the culture I had thrown myself into– the wounds that I discovered festering instead of healed. I realized that first year of college my country was still deeply divided. What I thought was history felt palpable in the South. Early to the dining hall one evening, I decided to be brave and eat alone but while grabbing some juice I ran into a new friend who I worked with in the basement of the admission’s office. “Let’s be even braver,” I decided and walked over to her table where she sat with an upperclassman. I asked if I could sit as I sat down, receiving a withering look from the upperclassman and a mournful, “oh, girl,” from my friend. Unbeknownst to me, I had just sat down at the Black girls’ table and my white face wasn’t invited to the party. A conversation about juice spiraled into the upperclassman talking about the *white man* pushing kool-aid into black neighborhoods to cause diseases, while more Black students arrived to eat, grabbing their trays, giving me the once over, and then choosing a different table. I didn’t know that years earlier, a club on campus had been temporarily disbanded because of blackface. I knew nothing of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, nothing of Henrietta Lacks and why some members of the Black community would have such deep institutional mistrust. Really, I knew next to nothing about the institution of slavery at all, let alone that the University I was attending enslaved people. I just knew that I had a lot to learn if I was ever going to understand what happened in the dining hall that day.

As my mother untangles the roots on our family tree, we have discovered our own Johnny Rebs, enslaving and breaking up families in their wills and estate papers. Over the years, I have come to realize that these wounds are festering because the Civil War isn’t just history–it is family history. To look for their family, Black Americans have to look at property records and follow adverts in old newspapers selling their ancestors or requesting help in hunting down a “run away.” In graduate school, I felt like I was doing real reparations work while working on the “O Say Can You See” digital project. By making the records more accessible, alongside historical context, we can create digital spaces full of human dignity for Black genealogists to use while looking for their ancestors. I hope that reuniting families through records helps to heal, though I know that alone it cannot suffice. Reading from several different voices in the Jewish community concerning current race relations, I realize more than ever that the work I started in grad school is woefully incomplete.

White guilt is unproductive. My family history doesn’t make me feel guilty– if anything, it makes me feel obligated. Obligated to learn and use whatever skills I have to help heal the wounds my ancestors made. How do you reconcile familial love and pride, with a painful, violent history of slavery and racism? We can no longer pretend that our heritage wasn’t hateful– it isn’t an either-or, this-not-that, situation. Reading the phrase “our family, white and black,” in a diary of a white woman slaveholder, did not negate the earlier pages where she forced a Black woman to start working in the fields because she gave birth to a “fatherless child” and the white woman would not have someone working about the house who “behaved in such a manner.” Of course, I thought of rape and the vulnerable Black women working in white houses– unable to name the father for fear of corporal punishment. A complicated and painful relationship, mixed with love and hate must be held in its entirety. Today we need to be honest about our family histories and strive to understand the complex tangle of our shared national heritage. We cannot divorce the Confederate Flag from the violent oppression of Black Americans– it is impossible. There is no room for the Confederate flag in public arenas like NASCAR or on state flags if we are going to reconcile our intersecting family histories.

This is the final resting place for the men, women, and children enslaved by James Madison, overgrown and photographed in 2012
This well maintained plot is where the white Madison family rests, photographed in 2012

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