Learning a lesson in oppression, identity, by Leonard Pitts Jr.
VICKSBURG, Miss. — There is no silence quite so profound as that of the deserted battlefield. Once, awful things happened here. Now there is a hush in which is seems quite natural to listen for the footfall of ghosts.
Only birds serenade the grassy Vicksburg plains that rang with explosions and gunfire and screams. Only beetles disturb the surface of Tennessee’s Shiloh pond, where dying men crawled to slake their thirst with water stained with blood. And children play on Maryland’s Antietam bridge, where soldiers fell, shot down by snipers on the bluffs above.
It is impossible to be in these places and not feel.
As my traveling companion, Michael Browning, and I leave the scene of a Southern defeat, he is talking, as is his wont, about some small twist of fate without which “the battle would have been won.”
And I tell him, “It was won” by way of reminding him, I guess, that only one of us in this car is white and Southern.
Michael gives me a look, and one might reasonably wonder, is there anything on which a white Southerner and a black American might agree?
Actually, I think we agree on more than we know — are alike in ways we have yet to figure out. It’s just hard to get at that, because it is tangled in four centuries of recrimination, denial and outrage.
In the Civil War, the South became The South —a loaded, coded phrase embodying racial violence, lynch law and no excess of intelligence. But of course, history is written by the winners and it’s worth nothing that the North did not become. The North despite the fact it was no hotbed of equality and reason itself.
In the popular mind it was the South — aided in no small part by its own meanness and arrogance — that came to be seen as sole refuge for unsophisticated, semi-literate white buffoons, poorer than dirt and twice as dumb.
This, in turn, helps explain the level and character of the violence those people directed against ostensibly “free” blacks. When one is down, it’s a comfort to know that there is someone lower still.
Black people served that purpose for Southerners. We gave them someone to feel superior to.
And in that appalling process, we discovered the same thing they did: Oppression from without creates identity from within. It circles the wagons. It makes you a people.
More than once, I’ve heard Southerners say they are Southerners first and Americans second. My first thought was how backward and wrong-headed this was. I’m certainly not a Californian first.
But I find myself forced to admit —to myself as much as to anyone —that I am black first and American second.
Do you find that lamentable? Injurious to our sense of nation? I agree.
But if you’ve never been part of a despised class, you can’t know what an emotional lifesaver it is for that class to take you in and confer purpose and identity upon you. You can’t know what it means to be told that there is greatness in the thing that makes you despised.
White people never had to reassure themselves that white is beautiful. Northerners never had to say they were Northern by the grace of God. It’s easy for them to say tsk tsk: they weren’t human chattel. They didn’t lose the war.
The ironies are intricate, stark and awful. The givers and receivers of pain are bound in a bloody handclasp across history by the pain itself. By the miserableness of their shared existence, the mutual dependency of master and slave, the circumstance of being lowdown and lower still.
They needed us. And we cannot escape them.
It is a truth too true for shouting, too painful almost to acknowledge with words at all. Maybe it whispers in the silence of the battlefields, but if so, who hears it? White Southerners seem caught up in their fables of glory. And black folks? We don’t often come to Civil War battlefields.
Maybe we think they are a white thing. Maybe it taxes our patience to listen to those damned glory tales. Maybe a lot of things.
“Are we running from something?” asks Roger Lavender, a 49-year-old Californian who, on this morning, is the only black tourist in the Vicksburg gift shop. “Are we keeping ourselves distant from other populations? It’s something I can’t answer.”
“Regardless of how you want to look at it,” he says, “we’re still part of this history. We suffered, we gave… We are part of this.”
Long after war’s end, pride and piety can’t quell lingering doubts, by Michael Browning
PINE MOUNTAIN, Ga. — Almighty God deserted the Confederacy on this spot, on June 14, 1864. This is where the beloved Confederate soldier-bishop, Gen. Leonidas Polk, was punctured like a human balloon by a well-aimed shell from a Union Parrot gun.
The large projectile exploded Polk’s chest, heart and lungs. It smashed through both arms, left to right. It flung him several yards. He landed face-up beneath a tree. His remnant arms folded over his smashed chest in a floppy, gory parody of repose.
Polk had refused to duck when two other shells passed nearby. He thought it would set a bad example of cowardice in the face of the enemy.
Then came the third shot.
In an instant, Northern steel rushed up against Southern illusions of Divine Providence, chivalry, good manners, conspicuous courage and the power of prayer. Steel won.
Polk had been an Episcopal bishop before the war. His very presence in the ranks seemed to confer God’s blessing on the Southern cause. He was a pompous man, a middling-to-poor general with a very high opinion of himself. He was seen placidly reading a newspaper on the morning of the second day of the battle of Chickamauga, when he ought to have been charging the enemy; and when Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham finally got the troops under way and shouted: “Give ’em hell, boys!” the soft-spoken Polk flinched at this language.
“Do as General Cheatham says, men!” he echoed politely.
Polk’s horrible death presaged the final Southern defeat. To this day, behind our piety and faith, there remains a flicker of doubt that the North has never known.
For years after the war, Southern partisans vainly refought the Civil War battles, particularly the crucial second day of Gettysburg, as if trying to get a different answer to a math problem. It was Lee’s fault. No, it was Longstreet’s.
This canker-worm of doubt, this irresolution, this chagrin, is something Southerners share with blacks. How, wonders the Southerner, if we were as good as we thought we were, could we be defeated? How, asks the black, if I am as capable as a white man, can I be oppressed?
“We are larger than life. We are braggadocious,” says my black traveling companion, Leonard Pitts. “But in private, amongst ourselves, we are full of self-doubt. You cannot criticize us anywhere near as harshly as we criticize ourselves.”
“This is something I ask white people in the seminars I give on racial justice,” says the Rev. C. T. Vivian of Atlanta, who marched with the late Rev. Martin Luther King during the 1960s. “Have you ever gotten down on your knees and asked God to forgive you for your racism?”
Vivian looks at me. The question is no longer rhetorical, but I do not reply. Southern irresolution: How, if I am as benevolent as I think I am, can black people see me as such as such a monster? Am I an inert part of some vast weighty boulder of oppression? Do I injure blacks by breathing and just being white?
Martin Luther King’s associates recall how, hours before he was shot to death on the balcony of the $13-per-night Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he seemed to have a presentiment of his own death, a sense of the nearness of God and eternity. Instead of discussing trivial details about schedules and appointments, King began to preach about the role of God in the struggle, his dreams, his hopes, his certainties about victory. No one thought to write this last sermon down. No one imagined it would be his last.
A bullet silenced the preacher moments afterward. The hotel has become a museum, and the coffee cups, ashtrays and room service dishes are still displayed in Room 307, behind glass.
I look at them. I remember hearing white Southerners call this man “Martin Luther Coon” and “that goddamn King” while he was alive. I was in my early teens. I did not contradict them as they were much older than I. You didn’t do that in the South of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
Now it is too late. Steel won again.