The South’s spectre of slavery

When I mounted a horse-drawn carriage for a tour of old Charleston in the Carolina heat last summer, the starting point was the Old Slave Mart. Here private slave auctions were held until the Union army occupied the city in 1865 and shut it down. Encountering such an historic landmark on my first day in the deep south was a bracing reminder of the historical proximity of slavery. But while it’s slightly shocking to discover, one expects these reminders. They’re named in the tourist guides, and their conversion into historic sites that educate the public about the realities of slavery suggest a continuing effort to heal. The south today appears to be doing it’s reputable official part to own the past. But in my ten days traveling through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia, I sometimes sensed the undercurrents of a consciousness that refuses to fully surrender the past.

On that first day in Charleston, I felt uneasy with the scruffy young driver who described his family ties to the city stretching back many generations. He was genial enough, offering his tremendous knowledge of local history. He guided us around the old town telling stories of local luminaries, pointed out the features of the antebellum houses, including slave quarters, and described historic landmarks such as the house where South Carolina proclaimed its secession, presaging the Civil War. These facts in themselves were essentially neutral, but I detected a note of nostalgic bitterness. He had a tic of following his flatly stated information about the demise of the old way of life with a jerk on the horse’s reins. Maybe he was just burnt out after countless tours in the heat with clueless Yankees and foreigners. But at one point he offered a cryptic unsolicited commentary. “You know slavery isn’t dead,” he said. “Today, all over the world people are being trafficked. In fact there’s more slavery now than there’s ever been.” I tried to parse this. Was it a progressive statement for social justice designed to harness our outrage at America’s slave past to confront current reality? I wanted to believe it was, but as he jerked the reins yet again, I concluded that in fact he was saying something sinister, that if we so easily accepted slavery in today’s global society, we shouldn’t be so judgmental of slavery in the South’s history. The Old South was not any worse than contemporary Burma or Sierra Leone, he seemed to suggest. Whatever the case, as he guided his mare over the cobblestone streets he was clearly wrestling with a demon.

On my second day in Charleston I drove out to the Middleton Plantation to see the sculpted gardens and ride a horse around the grounds where slaves once cultivated rice in disease-ridden swamps. Circling the surviving swamp on horseback I could imagine an overseer with a lash lording over the laborers. The work was backbreaking, perhaps even more so than that required in the cultivation of the two other commercial crops the Old South is known for, cotton and tobacco. I felt slightly guilty traipsing around the plantation. The idea of actually enjoying a place where human beings were tortured for profit was disturbing, but I felt it was the best way to understand the reality of a plantation. The Middleton owners themselves, however, do not seem to have any desire to acknowledge their history. The estate website tells the history of the family since the 17th century, but says nothing of slavery, referring only once to the “family’s interest in rice culture.”

Further north, in Lexington, Virginia I discovered that the great military hero of the Confederacy, Stonewall Jackson, is still revered. The problem wasn’t that his home downtown has been turned into a museum. After all he was an historic figure. It was rather the quote above the entrance to the student barracks at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) reading “You may be whatever you resolve to be.” For a military college to invoke Jackson as a paragon and inspiration is, whether conscious or not, to embrace the legacy of the Confederacy. On the VMI campus I walked the enormous immaculate parade grounds surrounded by neo-Gothic buildings. As it was summer, I saw only a few cadets. One who crossed my path saluted me despite the fact that I was wearing plaid shorts. I wondered what he thought of Stonewall Jackson. I wondered what he thought about the Confederacy losing the war. I walked back down the hill past downtown and out towards the cemetery named after Jackson. I entered the grounds that contain 144 Confederate soldiers and approached the enormous statue of the general. There at the base was a Confederate flag.

The Confederate flag is a pernicious symbol of the Old South whose dark connotations so many of the southerners who flaunt it refuse to acknowledge. Whoever planted that flag at Jackson’s grave would probably say it’s just a way to honor a brave man in his proper context. It doesn’t mean anything more than that. I wonder what the politicians would say in South Carolina where the flag still flies on the state house grounds. I wish I could interview on their back porches over Jim Beam shots the Georgians who display the flag on their pick ups. Something surely remains veiled.

I will acknowledge that while it may be easy to judge those in white southern society who seem almost to condone the South’s past, it’s also true that they have a burden of having to face the story of that past in a way those of us outside the south never have to. I was reminded of this in Savannah, Georgia when I opened the city’s alternative weekly paper and saw that the cover story was an expose on how the city government had owned slaves before the Civil War. This fact amazingly had never been publicly documented. If you live in the urban south you cannot escape the surrounding reminders of painful history. Some people wrestle with it, some willfully ignore it and some obliquely justify it. Whatever the response, there is still work to do.