“Revered” is a bad word, I know, for Dallas playwright, social activist and teacher John Fullinwider, because it means old. But, look, he is old. And he is revered. He had a piece on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News yesterday suggesting a much better approach to the Confederate symbols problem than anything you would have gotten from me.
Fullinwider wants the mayor to charter a special commission to study what we ought to do here in Dallas about Confederate memorials, statues of Robert E. Lee, schools named after confederate generals and all that stuff. He also suggests leavening the loaf locally with new memorials to leaders of the abolitionist anti-slavery movement before the Civil War.
The first thought that came to my mind, maybe because I had just read about it in yesterday’s New York Times, was the image of Jefferson Davis attempting to escape Union authorities in woman’s dress. I thought a memorial to that scene could cross a number of lines and serve multiple social purposes.
Failing that, I was thinking along the lines of some really big man-on-horse memorials to a few Civil War heroes of my own — William Tecumseh Sherman, who brought the South to its knees, George Gordon “Old Snapping Turtle” Meade, who defeated Lee at Gettysburg in the war’s decisive fight, or, of course, the great Ulysses S. Grant.
Especially in this day of swirling demographics, not enough good can be said about presenting both sides. I always remember the late Molly Ivins’ remark that, as a child traveling from Texas to New York for the first time, she was perplexed to find statues of war criminals on every corner.
But does telling both sides of a war really tell what was important? War stories, even when told from both sides, can be compelling for a while, then fade inevitably into gray equivalence and ultimately become boring. People shooting people: Where is the surprise?
I like much more Fullinwider’s idea of celebrating the abolitionists, because it is in that story we can glimpse the underlying issues and the overarching grandeur of the struggle. Two I would nominate right away are the celebrated Grimke sisters , born in the early 19th century in Charleston, where their father was a wealthy prominent judge and slave-owning planter. The sisters moved to Philadelphia and became influential speakers and writers in the abolitionist movement, arguing, among other things, that the institution of slavery corrupted and endangered the white soul.
I was both amused and disturbed a year or so ago at the very tale end of a long house tour in Charleston to learn that I had been touring the house where the Grimkes grew up. It had been described during the tour as the Something-or-other-and-Washington House because George Washington rented it once.
When we were shown the separate kitchen building, the docent-lady told us that the people who lived upstairs in that building were, “… well, how to put it … I really don’t know what to say … they were …”
Someone in the crowd offered helpfully, “Slaves?”
“Yes,” the docent said with grateful relief, “I suppose so.”
By the way, Charleston, which we all know by now is a very cool city, has recognized the error in how the Grimke house was presented to tourists in the past and is working on a better treatment. And me anyway, I’m no great student of the abolitionist movement. But just before we visited Charleston I had watched a segment of the PBS series, American Experience, on abolitionism, and I thought I remembered that one of the Grimke sisters had first doubted the institution of slavery as a child after witnessing the savage beating of a slave. Probably somewhere in that very house, maybe the kitchen where the … umm… whatevers lived. For a split-second I wanted to ask the docent lady where the savage slave beating scene took place, but then I took another look at her and thought, “You know very well she doesn’t know that, so you just want to make a scene.”
It is exactly that kind of questioning, however, that memorials to the abolitionists could spark in our own city. What a wonderful occasion for self-exploration.
There is so much about slavery that we white people never seem to discuss openly with each other. Maybe the abolitionist memorials Fullinwider suggests would help.
The 1853 journal of Solomon Northrup, called Twelve Years a Slave, on which the 2013 movie was based, is especially powerful. This brilliantly written true story describes in harrowing, understated detail the corrosive effect slavery had on white character, not really fundamentally unlike what happened at Abu Ghraib or the Nazi death camps, wherever one set of humans comes to view another as their not fully human chattel. Something about that dynamic reaches down to the pit of the soul and drags up a monstrous sadism.
Northrup, who played the violin, described a slave-owner whose habit was to come home drunk and make his slaves dance:
“All of us would be assembled in the large room of the great house, whenever Epps came home in one of his dancing moods. No matter how worn out and tired we were, there must be a general dance.
“When properly stationed on the floor, I would strike up a tune. ‘Dance, you d-d niggers, dance,’ Epps would shout. Then there must be no halting or delay, no slow or languid movements; all must be brisk, and lively, and alert.
"‘Up and down, heel and toe, and away we go,’ was the order of the hour. Epps' portly form mingled with those of his dusky slaves, moving rapidly through all the mazes of the dance. Usually his whip was in his hand, ready to fall about the ears of the presumptuous thrall, who dared to rest a moment, or even stop to catch his breath.
“When he was himself exhausted, there would be a brief cessation, but it would be very brief. With a slash, and crack, and flourish of the whip, he would shout again, ‘Dance, niggers, dance,’ and away they would go once more, pell-mell, while I, spurred by an occasional sharp touch of the lash, sat in a corner, extracting from my violin a marvelous quick-stepping tune.
“Bent with excessive toil — actually suffering for a little refreshing rest, and feeling rather as if we could cast ourselves upon the earth and weep, many a night in the house of Edwin Epps have his unhappy slaves been made to dance and laugh.”
Between 1936 and 1938 the Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era federal program, sent out writers to interview the last living former slaves. Among numerous horrific recurring themes in those oral histories are eyewitness accounts of severe whippings of black children by white women. An example is this remembrance by a former slave named Mary Armstrong, who was 91 and living in Houston when she was interviewed in the 1930s.
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“That was in St. Louis, where I's born. You see, my mamma belong to old William Cleveland and old Polly Cleveland, and they was the meanest two white folks what ever lived, 'cause they was allus beatin' on their slaves. I know, 'cause Mamma told me, and I hears about it other places, and besides, old Polly, she was a Polly devil if there ever was one, and she whipped my little sister what was only 9 months old and jes' a baby to death. She come and took the diaper offen my little sister and whipped till the blood jes' ran — jes' 'cause she cry like all babies do, and it kilt my sister.”
Those are the stories and the moral issues that white people still have not faced in this country. Instead of handsome white men on big horses with swords, we need memorials to the moral giants who called evil by its name and put their own lives in jeopardy by so doing.
If Fullinwider’s call for a Confederate memorials commission goes unheeded here, it will only be because political leaders here still don’t think white people have the fiber or the backbone to face the past squarely. And if you can’t face the past, how are you going to deal with the future?
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story conflated Jefferson Davis with Robert E. Lee. The author is from Michigan.