To preface this piece, Avenue Fifteen accepted this submission based on the value of its content and my confidence in the writer. Because of the topic and its potential detriment, the author has chosen to have this article published under the nom de plume “M”.
I will respect the author’s wishes.
Thank you. Enjoy.
Generational Sin: Facing the Ghosts of My Confederate Ancestors
Heritage. It’s a term being thrown around a lot right now. It’s a term that’s been shoved down my throat since I drew my first breath. I am a southerner. I am white. I was born on MLK day 1987. As confederate flags slowly come down throughout the South, I’m hearing this word heritage used again in the same disturbing ways. I’m being told that these flags are representative of my heritage, and that’s horrifying. A heritage is defined in two ways. First, heritage means property passed from one generation to the next. Second, it refers to one’s cultural traditions. It refers to worldviews passed from one generation to the next. So what is my heritage?
I am the descendant of at least one civil war veteran. I had always suspected we had at least one in our bloodline, and recently that was confirmed. You can’t be white in the South and assume that your ancestors didn’t fight in the Civil War. According to so many of my fellow southerners, this is supposed to be my heritage.
Somewhere in the backwoods of the rural south that I love so much, there was a home in which this man lived. He owned this home. There is a photograph of himself and his wife that has hung in my family’s home my entire life. I remember as a child being frightened of that photograph. I didn’t know who this man was. I just knew there was something eerie about the photograph.
The story goes that his home was sold after he died. The new owners moved out almost immediately, claiming they came home and, on multiple occasions, saw him (long after his death) sitting in his rocking chair, just looking at them. I don’t know if these stories are true. But I do know his ghost has followed me my entire life, in the form of this term. “Heritage.”
I remember digesting symbols of the Old South and associating them with a special kind of freedom when I was a kid. It was a specifically southern freedom, and a specifically southern rebelliousness that I envisioned. It was completely colorblind. It was inclusive. It was the invention of a child’s mind. I was surrounded by these symbols. It was everywhere from clothing to album covers. I had rationalized all of this. This is a human response. Nobody wants to really know that the people around them are carrying symbols of such wicked intent. Completely inundated by this symbolism, it didn’t occur to me until my teens that these were symbols of the same Old South that I openly and vehemently rejected. This realization, though, was a jarring and painful experience. This was me paying for the generational sins of my family tree. Realizing you’ve been lied to is a difficult thing to wrap your mind around. The sheer weight of this lie crushed me, and continues to bear down on me with great force.
Right now, there’s a lot of folks who look a lot like me, who haven’t yet paid for their generational sins. They haven’t yet accepted the truth. I offer to them that, though the truth will cut and cause deep pain, and possibly resentment, it will set the next generation free. It’s going to hurt badly. But you need to consider that the weight of this sin compounds over generations. The generation of white southerners which preceded my own failed to acknowledge the truth. They then passed down that heritage to my generation. This is a heritage of being conned into believing a war fought to protect the profit margins of wealthy plantation owners at the expense of our black brothers and sisters was somehow about ‘state’s rights’.
Know your history. But your history needn’t be your heritage. My heritage is Ray Charles and Robert Johnson. Leadbelly and Percy Sledge. It is William Faulkner, and both Hank and Tennessee Williams. My heritage is specifically southern, and I’m proud of that. I wear it like a badge. My heritage is Harper Lee and Elvis Presley. My heritage is having had the privilege to walk on the same ground as so many great civil rights leaders. My heritage is alive today in the form of amazing artists like The Drive By Truckers. I pick my heritage.
I choose what traditions and values I will live by. I was conned once, and I’ll not quietly see the next generation be conned. You cannot pick your history, including your family history. But you can always choose your heritage, your values. I am a southerner. I have white skin and evil in my history. But I was born on MLK day in 1987 and I will not be conned by the ghost of my ancestors. I will not perpetuate the myth that they were anything but evil. I am from Alabama. Our state motto is “We Dare Defend Our Rights.” I dare defend my right to determine my heritage. My ancestor’s ghost may have run some people away from his earthly home. But he will not discourage me from choosing my own heritage. And certainly the voices I see on my social media every day will not somehow convince me that the damn confederate flag should be a part of this heritage I am building for myself, and for my future children.
Those who engage in revisionist history are leaving this generational sin for the next generation to handle. That is a truly unforgivable sin. But if you ever wonder to yourself: when will these people pay for this sin? Don’t worry. They, too, will have to carry the weight of it.