Thursday, December 16, 2010

Listening for the Civil War's True Legacy

I walked down the newly plowed row with my grandpa, feeling the warm, red clay on the soles of my bare feet and listened to his stories and words of advice. I held a tomato plant in my hands, the rich, black potting soil falling off of the small, vulnerable roots, as he knelt and dug a place for it in the garden. “Hey,” he’d often start, “here's something my daddy told me when I was little. ‘God gave you two ears and one mouth because He wants you to listen twice as much as you speak. If you do that, you'll learn something. If you don't, you won't.’”

The memory of walking with my grandpa in his garden came back to me after I read Maureen Costello's Teaching Tolerance blog post, “What To Do About the Civil War?” I especially remember grandpa’s stories about his childhood on the family dairy farm in Greenville, S.C. in the 1920s. I liked to hear stories about the black folks who came and worked with him and his family. I heard hard work in his voice and saw struggle in his face when he talked about those times.

Remember, my grandpa was a son of the South Carolina soil, a soil that had produced slavery and Jim Crow. And his stories reflected his philosophical shift from the idea of white supremacy to the idea of equality. He described the black folks he’d grown up with in words both simple and stark.

“I guess I looked around our farm and saw them as tools,” he told me once. But “there was a teenager, about my age, who worked on our place. His name was Billy, and he helped me with my work. One day we were in the barn together, cleaning up the milking area, when he cut his hand on a piece of metal. Daddy wrapped it up in a rag soaked in kerosene, as was the remedy for most farm accidents at that time, and asked me to drive him home. As we headed toward the black folks part of our town, I thought to myself, ‘Billy must get up very early in the morning, earlier than me, to make it to our house on time.’ As we drove up to his house, which was what we called a shack, I thought, ‘I wonder if Billy can stay warm in there.’ As I saw him holding his injured hand and watched his momma hold him up and lead him up the creaking steps and through the rickety door, well, it seemed to be one of the first times I knew that black folks had hands and feet and needs just like me. They weren't tools. They were people.”

My grandpa didn't fill my mind with the idea of white supremacy. He filled my heart with the stories of humanity. For that, I am thankful.

So now we are walking down the row of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Unlike in my grandpa's garden, this row is not newly plowed. It has been gone over year after year, decade after decade, with the same rhetoric. A group just met here in South Carolina to remember the 1860 convention where the first Secession Ordinance was signed, creating the Confederate States of America. A group will meet next week in Charleston for a Secession Ball to remember, as the organizer of the event said, that "the secession movement in South Carolina was a demonstration of freedom."

I think about my students—who are 7-, 8-, and 9-year-olds—listening to the stories around them. What will they hear? Will they hear hard work in the voices and see struggle in the faces of the storytellers as they explain what happened 150 years ago? Will they hear that white supremacy was a blight on everyone it touched and undermined the notion that all people are created equal?

I hope they will. I'm listening. So are the children.

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