You may know that I’m from the South. It takes about two seconds for my Tennessee accent to let the cat out of the bag.
Coming out of that great American “family” holiday of Thanksgiving,* I’ve been thinking recently about “where I’m from” and its impact on my life and work. Place and storytelling are so central to life in the South that it is not surprising that many of the early and influential historic preservationists came from the region, beginning with South Carolina’s Ann Pamela Cunningham who led the campaign to save Mount Vernon.
I have always lived below the Mason-Dixon line; have worked to preserve many of the region’s buildings, towns, and landscapes; and have long been fascinated by Southern storytelling. To state it clearly, I love the South. But the region comes with a troubled history, including slavery and racism, that continues to inflict damage on our civic life today. I’m asked on a regular basis about the appropriate response to saving places and communities that were first taken from Native Americans and then often built on the back of enslaved African-Americans at unfathomable cost to those men, women, and children; not to mention the enormous moral cost to our nation. The monuments to the false narrative of the Lost Cause that exist all across the country are also highly problematic to those insistent on understanding and honoring the more richly layered American story. Retired General Stan McChrystal just addressed that particular challenge in a pre-Thanksgiving Washington Post op-ed that called for the nation to move beyond icons like Robert E. Lee and move toward our full potential. Next year is often recognized as the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans at Jamestown. But as Dr. Michael Guasco has written, focusing on this date and place creates another false narrative:
“. . . the most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619 is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables in the effort to understand what it means to be American. Elevating 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that those very same Europeans who lived quite precipitously and very much on death’s doorstep on the wisp of America were, in fact, already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens. Uncertainty was still very much the order of the day…
We shouldn’t ignore that something worth remembering happened in 1619. There are certainly stories worth telling and lives worth remembering, but history is also an exercise in crafting narratives that give voice to the past in order to engage with the present. The year 1619 might seem long ago for people more attuned to the politics of life in the 21st century. But if we can do a better job of situating the foundational story of black history and the history of slavery in North America in its proper context, then perhaps we can articulate an American history that doesn’t essentialize notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (in the broadest possible and various understandings of those words). That would be a pretty good first step, and it would make it much easier to sink our teeth into the rich and varied issues that continue to roil the world today.”
These are tough issues for all Americans, and as a Southerner I find them especially challenging. It is important to get the narrative right, or as right as we can in this day and age. Narrative—or storytelling if you wish—sits beside place in my mind as the other key component to preservation. Storytelling is also another constant in the South. A recent New York Times article entitled “What is a Southern Writer, Anyway?” speaks to how many of those who tell stories about the South today are also at work to shape a better narrative. The author, Margaret Renkl, asks “What if being a Southern writer has nothing to do with rural tropes or lyrical prose or a lush landscape or humid heat so thick it’s hard to breathe? What if being a Southern writer is foremost a matter of growing up in a deeply troubled place and yet finding it somehow impossible to leave? Of seeing clearly the failings of home and nevertheless refusing to flee?”
Renkl, who edits a website on Tennessee literature (yes, there is such a thing!), notes that she may be wrong. “For one thing, Southerners don’t hold the copyright on a close connection to home, and there are many exceptions to the rule anyway. Historically, African-American writers tended to leave the South as fast as they could, and for obvious reasons.” I don’t think Renkl gets it completely right, but I think she’s on to something about why people—in the South and elsewhere—care about the past and tackle hard issues in order to shape the narrative in a way that is relevant today and into the future. Her take of these writers loving a damaged and damaging place is similar to Dr. Mindy Fullilove’s observation that “emotions flow through place.”
The editors of The Bitter Southerner note that there is a shame that comes with recognizing that too many Southerners are still “kicking and screaming to keep the old South old.” That is balanced in knowing that “many others, through the simple dignity of their work, are changing things.” It is that work that is so important. I would argue that it isn’t the refusing to flee part that is critical to Renkl’s definition, but it is, instead, the unwillingness to paper over the troubles of your homeland. I’ve spoken all across the country about the fact that my beloved grandmother—she of the way with words that still rings in my ears—was a lifelong member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and subscribed to a false story about history. When I’m working to tell the full American story, I feel it is one way I’m making a small contribution to begin to undo the wrongs her “Lost Cause” narrative brought to so many.
I can do my part in the work to change the narrative about places in the South and, in the process, keep the past engaged with the present as we look to the future. I see that work in changing narratives to ensure that the history of contrabands is central to the story at Fort Monroe. In saving the sacred places at Shockoe Bottom. In recognizing the extraordinary Pauli Murray, who grew up in the most ordinary of houses in Raleigh, and keeping both her story and home alive and relevant in the 21st century. In honoring those marchers who gathered in Memphis’ Clayborn Temple with their “I Am A Man” placards. In raising up the story of Bunk Johnson from the gardens of Shadows-on-the-Teche. There are so many extraordinary places with rich, layered stories to tell, and I’m humbled that I get to work with my colleagues in this endeavor.
As I stand and look around our office, I see many whose connection to their place is very different from mine. But it doesn’t matter if you come from upstate New York, New England, Los Angeles, or are a child of an immigrant to the U.S.: there is still work to do, in your time and place, in “giving voice to the past in order to engage with the present.” I believe with Michael Guasco that only when we do that can we “sink our teeth into the rich and varied issues that continue to roil the world today.”
Have a good week.
More to come…
*Of course, the narrative around Thanksgiving in America is also deeply flawed…something General McChrystal notes in his op-ed. But coming out of this weekend you probably knew that.
Image: Portrait of Pauli Murray, on a wall in downtown Durham, NC