Black Lives Matter Comes Home
On Friday, in my hometown, there was a Black Lives Matter rally in the same park where we have held Walker Percy Weekend events. I didn’t go — I haven’t left the house much since mid-March, when the Covid-19 thing hit — but a couple of (white) friends did. They said it was a hopeful, peaceful event. I was very glad to hear it, and I wish in retrospect that I had put on a mask and driven the thirty miles up to the country to march. It has been a difficult week for the town — a hard one, but a necessary one. Let me tell you a story.
Forty-nine years ago, the Historical Society started an annual festival called the Audubon Pilgrimage. Its intention was to use the time John James Audubon spent in West Feliciana Parish. From a 2010 travel story in The New York Times:
In June 1821 John James Audubon stepped off a steamboat in West Feliciana Parish and immediately wished he were back onboard. Audubon, poor and unknown, had arrived in plantation country to tutor a landowner’s daughter. It was humid, he missed his wife and sons, and he feared he would be awkward at his host’s table.
But his doubts disappeared when he saw how strikingly the landscape had changed from that of New Orleans, just 100-odd miles south. “The rich magnolia covered with its odiferous blossoms, the holly, the beech, the tall yellow poplar, the hilly ground,” he wrote in his journal, enumerating the wonders that greeted him. “Even the red clay I looked at with amazement.”
West Feliciana’s scenery has surprised other travelers in the years since Audubon visited. Its center today, St. Francisville, is a collection of historic cottages, old churches and newer buildings perched on a ridge above the Mississippi, 30 minutes north of Baton Rouge. Although it may be less celebrated than Natchez, Miss., 60 miles north, the region exudes the almost-supernatural beauty of which Audubon wrote.
For a short time, Audubon lived at Oakley Plantation, in a smallish house south of town, where he tutored the daughter of the plantation owner, and worked on his Birds of America portraits. He completed 32 while living at Oakley. Audubon had a phenomenally interesting life (read this story from Smithsonian Magazine to learn more). He left his wife Lucy in West Feliciana while he went to London to print Birds of America. Eventually he returned to fetch her, and they moved away.
I was four years old when the Pilgrimage started. I don’t remember a time without the Pilgrimage. All my life, I have taken it to be a celebration not of Audubon, but of the antebellum South. Every spring we had it. Tourists would come and visit our gorgeous plantations, admire the azaleas and other spring flowers, and get a taste of 19th century history. Some of the women would dress in period clothing, and gad about town. It was something the whole parish participated in, and by “the whole town,” I mean the white people. Even though half the population was black, there were no black people participating in this festival. And why should they? It was a celebration of a time and a culture in which their ancestors were enslaved on these same plantations.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think the incongruity ever occurred to me until I moved away for college. You might find this hard to believe, but if you grew up white in the South with this double-mindedness, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. When you look at it from the outside, you might think, good Lord, fellow white people, what are we doing? In 1990, my first year working as a journalist, in Baton Rouge, I told my editor I wanted to do a feature story on why my hometown had a festival that excluded the black half of the parish. He agreed with me that it was wrong, but being a wiser man than his crusading young underling, told me that this was not a good idea for me. I was sore about it. In time, I recognized that for complicated reasons, my editor had been right.
Well, that story was finally written, in a way — by my very progressive niece Hannah Leming, who is now living in Spain.
Last weekend, inspired by the George Floyd moment, she posted a change.org petition calling on the Pilgrimage to change its ways, and open itself up to black people and black history, or shut down. She wrote, in part:
I understand that the Pilgrimage is a tradition that a lot of people cherish and is a good form of tourism for our small town. I understand that it was created to celebrate an artist. But in turn, it celebrates slavery by hiding that part of the 1820s from the tour. If it truly is going to be an exploration of the past, we have to see all sides of history at that time.
I grew up going to the Audubon Pilgrimage wearing the dresses and dancing the Maypole. It was an enjoyable part of my childhood. But time, reflection and listening and learning from the Black community has made me realize that the Pilgrimage is part of the system of oppression.
When students are brought to the Rural Homestead for field trips, white and black students are either given or encouraged to buy wooden paddles engraved with their name and whips, both objects used to torture slaves, without any explanation.
I remember going to Oakley Plantation on a field trip and the whole plantation life being glorified and the real history of oppression never was told to me or my black classmates. We didn’t see the slave quarters and they were never even mentioned as being a part of this “educational” field trip.
When you really think about it, the Audubon Pilgrimage is a celebration of slavery. Does our Black community come out and do plantation tours and dress up “like the good old days”? No. Because the “good old days” are only for the white people who gained money off of slave labor and continue to benefit even today.
Well, no, it is not “a celebration of slavery.” That’s unfair, and I’ll tell you why I think so in a moment. I don’t recall when the State of Louisiana moved slave cabins to Oakley, which is a state park, but they are not original to the site. There were slaves on the original plantation, certainly, but the addition of slave cabins to the exhibit was done in recent years. I don’t know exactly when — perhaps after Hannah’s field trip — but the state relocated those cabins to Oakley, to give visitors a sense of what slave life was like.
But these are arguing over details. On the whole, Hannah is right. I was one of the early signers of her petition. I wrote there, in part:
This needs to happen. It’s not a conservative thing or a liberal thing: it’s about human decency, and justice. I didn’t realize until I was a grown man what a one-sided myth our local history was, as my generation was taught it. I had no idea until 2012 what the Civil Rights movement was like in our parish (e.g., that there had been a white near-riot on the courthouse lawn when a black pastor registered to vote on Oct 17, 1963 … just four years before I was born). Our common history is not only one of slavery and oppression, but those evils were real, and must be acknowledged, and repented of. How can the parish have a historic festival that leaves out half the people of the parish, and not only leaves them out, but celebrates an era and a culture that enslaved their ancestors? I hope there is a way to go forward with a new Pilgrimage that is truthful and fair, that celebrates the good that we share in common while acknowledging with sorrow the evil that is also our legacy.
The petition quickly garnered a thousand signatures, and they kept coming. One of the signers was Ann Dart, the daughter of the late Libby Dart, a distinguished local historian who was one of the founders of the Pilgrimage:
Hannah quotes my mother, Elisabeth Dart, in her capacity as a founding member of the West Feliciana Historical Society in her petition. What she does not quote is my mother’s initial opposition to resurrecting the Jim Crow tradition of opening up the plantation homes for touring. As a teenager growing up in St. Francisville, donning antebellum skirts and working in those homes, she was struck then by the hypocrisy of celebrating them on tour. She called them “earthly mansions built on spiritual dung heaps”. These beautiful monuments to wealth and privilege were built on the backs of black slaves owned by white men. She had misgivings about restarting that tradition in the late 1970’s, preferring instead that the art of John James Audubon be the focus. She was outvoted and the tradition was begun anew.
Some years later, her attempt to chronicle the other reality of life in antebellum West Feliciana was to establish the Rural Homestead. She and my father donated land that the original homestead stood on and they both supported its continued success every year. It was a half-measure at best during those fragile post-segregation times, but it was a start. Now is the time for a full- measure to tell the complete history of the parish—to include voices from the other realities of poor black and white residents, as a true historian would. I know that my mother would support that effort were she alive today to add her voice to that of the petitioners.
The Rural Homestead was a wonderful exhibit showing how life was for West Felicianians who were not living in plantations, but in dogtrot cabins. Hannah’s petition talks about paddles and whips, but those were not created for visitors to the Rural Homestead with any reference at all to slavery. The paddles were made by a local craftsman who made wood shingles for roofs; he would make paddles for children to take away as souvenirs. The whip-making was by an area craftsman who made them for cattlemen, and who came to demonstrate how people of the 19th century made them. It is unfair to claim that those things were presented as adjacent to slavery, though I have learned that that is how many local black people saw them. I want to make that clear here — that the story is more complicated than the petition presents it — even as I wholeheartedly agree that the Pilgrimage needs to change.
Well, as you can imagine, the petition caused quite an uproar in town. A number of black residents signed it, and in comments, spoke of their pain at having to go to Pilgrimage field trips as students, and to see celebrated a culture in which their ancestors were slaves, with no acknowledgement of the moral horror. Their pain is real, and absolutely justified. It cannot be ignored. Within days of the petition’s appearance, the Historical Society board met, and canceled the Pilgrimage permanently. It said in a statement that it will look for new ways to tell the parish’s history in a more balanced way.
I hear that there’s a lot of anger and hurt by some of the white folks who had been involved in the Pilgrimage over the years, and who believe it was unfairly targeted. I know most of these people, and though I haven’t talked to any of them about this, I am confident that they carried this festival on without malice, and without being aware that there was anything wrong with it. You non-Southerners are going to find this hard to believe, but it is entirely possible to live in a small town, observing the same rituals that your parents and grandparents did, and not realize that you ought not be doing what you’re doing, or at least that you ought to do it a different way. Remember me telling you that I didn’t realize there was anything wrong with the Pilgrimage until I went off to college? This is what it means to grow up white in a place like that. The power of collective myth is immense.
In my generation, the first to go through integrated schools, we didn’t use the n-word. We knew that we didn’t carry within us the segregationist outlook of our forebears, so we thought we were fine. I think the term “unconscious bias” is mostly a political construct, but you know, it absolutely applies to white people like us, back home. I guarantee you that at Pilgrimage time, most white people simply thought they were going to do something nice for tourists and celebrate our antebellum history. Who is against celebrating history? It’s educational, right? The absence of black people from any of it just didn’t occur to folks. That’s my guess, anyway. Even until last week, I figured that black people in West Feliciana regarded the Pilgrimage as my late father did: a bunch of stuff and nonsense, and an excuse for society ladies to wear fancy dresses and hats in the spring sunshine.
I was wrong. The pain the black residents expressed in their comments was shocking, but not surprising, if you think about it. At first I was disappointed that the Historical Society cancelled the Pilgrimage without at least trying to find a way to reconceive it in a more inclusive and historically accurate form. But then I thought about how difficult it would be to do. It’s very hard to keep alive the romance of moonlight-and-magnolias — which is what tourists want — when you also have to look squarely at the evil side of antebellum culture.
And then there’s the human dimension. Ann Dart, in her comment on the petition, spoke of “those fragile post-segregation times.” This is something that people of my generation and younger can’t appreciate, because we were little kids then. Only when I was older did I come to learn how hard some local people, black and white, worked to make integration of the public schools come off successfully. That didn’t happen until the late 1960s. For kids of my generation, it was the normal thing for blacks and whites to go to school together. It wasn’t too many years before I started elementary school there that Jim Crow was in full effect, and the Klan rode at night. I’m 53 years old, and this world ended around 1970, before I started kindergarten. Our white parents never, ever talked of it. On the comments to Hannah’s petition, there are remarks by younger whites from West Feliciana who testify that all of this had been hidden from them. It’s the truth.
I was angry about it, like Hannah, when I was her age, and began to realize how much history had been kept from us. But as I grew older, and learned more about the Civil Rights Movement, I came to see that the price of being able to kill segregation, and make one school system for all West Feliciana children work, was burying the past. Right or wrong, that was the decision made to keep the peace, and get on into the future as best we could.
Was it worth it? Well, West Feliciana has one of the best school systems in the state now. Our neighboring parish, East Feliciana, chose a different path. It established a segregation academy, where most of the white kids went to school. That parish is divided by race in ways that West Feliciana isn’t, because our parents generation learned how to make it work.
However, the price paid by black people of the parish included having to stand on the sidelines while the white people got to have their antebellum festival. The price paid by black people included sending their children on school field trips to hear whitewashed (!) history that edited out the unpleasant parts of the story West Felicianians told themselves about who they were. The “they” was white West Felicianians. Not black ones.
But now, that’s going to change. How very strange that the killing of a black man in Minneapolis led to a series of events that killed a small-town Louisiana festival that has been going on for nearly half a century. I am confident, though, that something good is going to come out of this. It is going to require hard work for whites and blacks to engaged each other, and a lot of patience and grace on both sides. But I have faith that the people of the parish are going to work out a way to face our common history together — the good and the bad that make us who we are.
I strongly reject the idea that we must despise plantation homes because of their connection to slavery. Slavery isn’t the only story of antebellum Louisiana, nor is Jim Crow the only tale of post Civil War West Feliciana that has any meaning. There is so much rich history there, black and white. Audubon’s legacy too is so vivid — much more vivid than I ever heard growing up. Here, from that Smithsonian Magazine story I linked to above, is a description of Audubon’s coming over from London to fetch his wife in West Feliciana:
By 1828 Audubon had convinced himself that Lucy expected him to amass a fortune before she would leave Louisiana, while she feared her husband had been dazzled by success in glamorous London and didn’t love her anymore. (Audubon hated London, which was fouled with coal smoke.) Finally, she insisted that he come in person to claim her, and after finding a trustworthy friend to handle a year’s production of plates for Birds, he did, braving the Atlantic, crossing the mountains to Pittsburgh by mail coach, racing down the Ohio and the Mississippi by steamboat to Bayou Sarah, where he disembarked in the middle of the night on November 17, 1829. Lucy had moved her school to William Garrett Johnson’s Beech Grove plantation by then, 15 miles inland; that was where Audubon was headed:
“It was dark, sultry, and I was quite alone. I was aware yellow fever was still raging at St. Francisville, but walked thither to procure a horse. Being only a mile distant, I soon reached it, and entered the open door of a house I knew to be an inn; all was dark and silent. I called and knocked in vain, it was the abode of Death alone! The air was putrid; I went to another house, another, and another; everywhere the same state of things existed; doors and windows were all open, but the living had fled. Finally I reached the home of Mr. Nübling, whom I knew. He welcomed me, and lent me his horse, and I went off at a gallop. It was so dark that I soon lost my way, but I cared not, I was about to rejoin my wife, I was in the woods, the woods of Louisiana, my heart was bursting with joy! The first glimpse of dawn set me on my road, at six o’clock I was at Mr. Johnson’s house; a servant took the horse, I went at once to my wife’s apartment; her door was ajar, already she was dressed and sitting by her piano, on which a young lady was playing. I pronounced her name gently, she saw me, and the next moment I held her in my arms. Her emotion was so great I feared I had acted rashly, but tears relieved our hearts, once more we were together.”
And together they remained, for the rest of their lives.
Isn’t that incredible? Find a way to tell that story — a dramatic reading of Audubon’s diaries. How about lectures on slave culture out at Oakley’s slave cabins? Some of the black country churches in West Feliciana trace their roots to slave families first evangelized on the plantations. What was the life of the black church like then? What role did they play in the Civil Rights Movement? Take a look at this incredible Ebony magazine story of a brave black pastor who risked the agony of a white mob to register to vote in 1963.What an incredible story! The heroism of the Rev. Joseph Carter. There might be some people alive who remember it.
Now, the fact is that the fathers and grandfathers of a lot of us white people alive today might have been in that courthouse lawn mob. In 2014, three Freedom Riders who had been present, and who had been shot at, came back to visit St. Francisville. I accompanied them to the courthouse where it all happened, and blogged about it here. This is what they saw that day, recounted in the Ebony story:
The bus pulled up in front of the St. Francisville courthouse. About 100 whites milled around in front of the building. … “Look at ‘em over there like a bunch of buzzards,” shouted one white. “Look like coons,” taunted another. “Are those your good niggers?” shouted still another white man. Curses and racial epithets disturbed the morning air.
… Rev. Carter signed a vote registration book and received a receipt. As he left the courthouse, a photographer snapped him. “Take his picture,” shouted a member of the white mob. “It may be the last one he takes.”
This makes me ashamed. But this is our history, and we must face it. It is a history of good triumphing over evil: the brave Rev. Carter became the first black person to register to vote in our parish in something like 61 years. He deserves a bronze statue on the courthouse lawn.
The history of West Feliciana also includes the founding there of the West Florida Republic, an independent nation in North America for something like 74 days, before the American imperialists came in and took us over. There was a large Jewish merchant community in the late 19th and early 20th century. There was a famous Civil War incident in which the combatants stopped the war to give a Union gunboat commander a Masonic burial in Grace Church cemetery. I’m telling you, the history is really rich. A re-imagined festival that dug deeper into the complex history of the place would be potentially great.
Here’s what I worry about, though: that having spent nearly half a century wrongly erasing blacks and slavery from the cultural remembrance of the antebellum times, we will overcorrect and cancel all mention of antebellum culture. Yesterday on Twitter, the writer Cathy Young repeated an old Russian joke she has told before:
File under “A Soviet joke for everything”:
1917. Raucous communist rally in St. Petersburg. Elderly granddaughter of a Decembrist (1830s liberal rebel) asks her maid what they want.
– No more rich people, Ma’am.
– Funny, my grandfather wanted there to be no more poor people… https://t.co/0C5oLeKCIZ
— Cathy Young (@CathyYoung63) February 6, 2020
My fear is that rather than making the cultural memory of our shared history richer for everybody, in the name of equality, we are going to end up making it poorer for everybody. This is what would happen if, in our moral ardor, we misconstrued the commemoration of antebellum history as “a celebration of slavery.” There is a lot more to the black historical experience in America than mere suffering. Eugene D. Genovese’s much-acclaimed book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaves Made details the complexity of black life under slavery, and how the culture of Africans in America developed under the pressures of slavery. And, there is a lot more to the white historical experience than mere infliction of suffering on blacks. That is as much of a distortion of fact as the Myth of Moonlight And Magnolias.
I am thinking this morning that these words of Walker Percy’s, published as a letter to the editor of The New Republic in 1957, are helpful. On the race issue, Percy was a Southern white liberal, an “integrationist,” which was a very courageous thing to be in Louisiana back then. Anne Percy, one of Walker’s daughters, told me about the time her father hid her sister and her mom in the attic when the Klan burned a cross on their lawn. Walker Percy had skin in the game. Here are parts of his letter in response to an article critical of the South and the Southern tradition:
More, about the argument against segregation:
Percy’s wisdom is needed today. If we want a more truthful and just commemoration of history, we have to change. That’s why I signed the petition. But if getting on the right side of contemporary liberalism means holding everything about the antebellum past, and the past before 1968, in contempt, count me out. That would be as false as the myth it replaced. You will never, ever get anywhere good if you require a people to despise their ancestors. If that is the price of admission to the circles of the enlightened today, it’s not one I will pay.
My guess is that one reason the Pilgrimage ignored black people for half a century is that white people were too snowflakey to allow the curse of slavery to mar their idealized portrait of our past. I can remember an older white woman saying to me in 1994, “Rod, you know, we have always been so good to our blacks.”
Our blacks. The children entrusted to our care.
Now, what occasioned our conversation was that this woman was engaged in a charitable effort to help the black community, and in her mind, she was joining the long line of white folks who had behaved with paternalistic charity towards black people. I didn’t challenge her because she was older, and trying to do a good thing for needy black people. There wouldn’t have been any point in it. I’ve thought about that statement a lot over the years, though. It is a story that local white folks — my people — tell to diminish or dismiss the cruelty of slavery and Jim Crow, and to distance themselves from the moral taint of it. The thing is, that lady said that line in total innocence. She got it from her mother, most likely. She never would have heard any counternarrative. It’s a self-flattering myth. There are lots of these around. The United States is always right. Policemen are always our friends. That sort of thing.
I heard commonly when I was a child the myth that lots of times, slaves loved their masters, who treated them like family. If you grow up with that narrative, it gets deep inside you, in ways you may not realize. Even though you know as an adult that it cannot possibly be true, you don’t think about it too much. For example, I’d bet cash money that no white people involved with the Pilgrimage today really believe that “we have always been so good to our blacks,” and would cringe if they heard it. But in order to put on the Pilgrimage year after year in good conscience, and to keep the black people you are excluding invisible, you have to at some point accept a version of that myth. After the events of this past week in West Feliciana, that is no longer tenable. This is fantastic news.
But what comes next? I know there are bound to be a number of white folks in the parish who believe that Hannah’s petition and what it uncovered “caused division.” The truth is, the division has been there all along; the black folks have just remained silent about it. Their silence allowed whites to think that blacks were fine with what was happening. They weren’t. We know that now, and we can’t un-know it. This is good. It’s time that lie was put down.
Can we tell a new story about ourselves, together? A story that is truthful, but also hopeful? A story that leads us to true repentance, true forgiveness, and true reconciliation? A story that allows us to hold the good and the bad in our gaze at the same time, and affirm the good while lamenting the bad — and denying neither?
I don’t believe in bloodguiltiness. I don’t believe that whites today inherited the guilt from the slaveholding culture, and the Jim Crow culture. But I also do not believe that whites are free from the moral responsibilities left by the sins of our forefathers. We may not be guilty, but we are responsible. We cannot claim as our own the parts of the past we like without addressing the parts we abhor. The truth of Faulkner’s memorable lines — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — was vindicated this week in my hometown. The future we make for ourselves depends on how we deal in the present with the past.
A little more armchair psychology. A few years back, when I interviewed an older black man for a book project, and listened to him tell stories of the suffering he and his family endured under Jim Crow, I felt a deep sense of shame, because these things were terrible. Gratuitously cruel. Some of them were things I had never known about. I had not done those things to them. I wasn’t even alive when they were done. But sitting there in his living room, I could not get away from the burning awareness that somehow, I was implicated in it, because my ancestors — none of whom held slaves — had been part of that society.
Sitting here in my kitchen right now remembering that interview, I recall at some point wanting, and wanting intensely, the old black man to forgive me. He wasn’t manipulating me; he was just telling me stories. But as he did, I acutely felt a sense of responsibility for it all. I must have felt guilt, because I wanted his absolution. You know, I make fun of those white people who have abased themselves at the feet of black strangers in these past couple of weeks, but I know what it’s like to feel that sense of shame (shame more than guilt), and to want release from it. Anyway, I suspect that a lot of white people in my home parish are like me: we want to think of ourselves as good, and maybe we really are good, for the most part. But we have no idea how to talk with our black neighbors about what happened. Do they hate us? They shouldn’t hate us … or should they? If we don’t talk about any of it, maybe we can continue to get along. Let’s just keep looking forward, and not go there.
What I’m telling you is that the ignoring of black history and black people in my parish was likely not done out of a sense of malice, but out of a weird, most likely subconscious, desire to avoid the accusatory black gaze. My generation learned from our parents and grandparents how to deal with this conflict: don’t talk about it. And recalling my discussion earlier in this post about how “fragile” things were immediately after integration, the silence option might have been the best one available to everyone, black and white, at the time. You have to remember that the parish went from a period when blacks and whites went to separate schools, Jim Crow was the law, and some local officials were in the KKK, to the sudden and mostly non-violent end of that world.
I was two years old when the local schools integrated, in 1969. As I told you, mine was the first generation to go to fully integrated schools. We had no idea about any of this history. Nobody talked about it, at least among whites. Was it the shame of defeat that whites couldn’t bear to discuss? Was it a practical realization that the struggle was over, and it was time to do whatever it took to construct a peaceable future?
Two years after the integration of the schools, the Historical Society launched the Audubon Pilgrimage. Coincidence? Maybe. Don’t get me wrong, I would and do support any effort to explore and celebrate history, no matter when it is announced, and knowing two of the Pilgrimage founders, I am confident that their intentions were not to conceive of the event as a reaction to integration.
But if I were a black person in West Feliciana, I wouldn’t think there was anything coincidental at all about any of it. And I would still be mad. Here’s what I would think happened: the federal government told these white people that they had to go to school with us, and they decided they would do that, but they would also create a civic ritual to keep alive memory of a community without us, or with us pushed to the margins, out of sight and out of mind.
That may not be what really happened. But if you’re a white person in West Feliciana, you have to reckon with the fact that this take looks mighty plausible. In religious terms, a “pilgrimage” is a journey to a holy place as an act of devotion. The word isn’t accidental: the Audubon Pilgrimage, in the hands of elite white women, eventually became an act of devotion to the memory of a lost world. It was a ritual, though a civic one, designed to keep memory alive — not memory of the whole truth, but memory of a mythical truth that constitutes consciousness of historical white identity. The participation of subsequent generations of white children in the collective ritual was a way of construing their cultural memories. Whether this was the intention or not, this was the effect. Nobody told us at the Pilgrimage that slavery didn’t exist. It was simply ignored, because it interfered with the way whites preferred to remember history. Me, I stayed quiet about it all when I moved back to town in 2011, because I thought that my non-participation in the Pilgrimage was enough. [UPDATE: My wife has just read this piece, and reminded me that we participated as a family in the Pilgrimage one year. I apologize for getting it wrong; I had honestly forgotten. And for the record, I don’t think it is morally wrong for someone to have participated in the Pilgrimage. — RD]
Now the spell has been broken. I am not at all party to the discussions of the Historical Society board to end the Pilgrimage, but it is instructive, I think, how quickly it all collapsed. They must have known, deep down, that the day of this kind of historical memory is done. Nobody wants to try to explain why a civic ritual focused on local history that leaves out the black half of the community is not racist in effect, if not necessarily in intent.
But again: what next? I suppose we could all adopt the strategy of the 1970s leadership in both communities, and not talk about it for the sake of keeping the peace. But why would we do that? Theirs was a strategy of desperation, based in historical contingency. We should be careful about judging them for it. One reason West Feliciana has a school system today that is one of the best in the state is because of the decisions those people, now all dead, made to do whatever they had to do to make it work. That was then; this is now. Times have changed. We, whites and blacks of the parish, have been living together in a modified way — in that we have been going to school together, and sitting at lunch counters together, and the like — for half a century. America has had a two-term black president. We can do this.
I don’t believe we can do this without the church — I mean, the black churches and the white churches of West Feliciana. Our shared Christian faith gives us the mechanism for repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Guilt and shame are a terrible burden. So is anger. I would not have phrased Hannah’s petition the way she did it, but I see her act as bringing about opportunity for the inbreaking of radical grace — if local people, white and black, will receive it — and of transformation.
This is the moment for the church in West Feliciana. Who else? It would be very easy to lose the moment of grace through unbending white defensiveness, or unappeasable expressions of black anger. Jesus Christ teaches a better way. West Feliciana is not like other places, places that have lost their faith. Belief in Christ is still real for many black and white folks alike in West Feliciana. Yesterday’s Black Lives Rally march there began with a long communal prayer. We need the faith now like we never have.
To be clear, I do not align with the Black Lives Matter movement. Look at its profession of belief, and you’ll see why. And BLM, the organization, calls for the defunding of the police. I strongly reject that.
A few years back, I wrote a book that paid tribute to the kindness of the people in my home parish — a book that was truthful, and a love letter. I meant it. West Feliciana is a good place, filled with good people. If you’ve come to the Walker Percy Weekend at some point over the past decade, you’ve experienced that. But there can be no doubt that in the Audubon Pilgrimage, the official ritual celebration of communal memory, black lives did not matter in West Feliciana. This was wrong, and we have to say so, and mean it. And not only mean it, but do something about it.
We can’t change the past. We can change the future. Funny to think of it, but in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Hannah’s abrupt revelation to me on a Paris street of a long-buried family secret changed the narrative I thought was true about our family. I came home emotionally shattered, and confronted my dad about it. As I wrote in the book, he couldn’t accept it. It was true what Hannah had blurted out on the boulevard, all of it, but acknowledging the truth, and renouncing the false narrative he and our family told itself about who we were, was too painful for him. He mostly denied it all till his dying day. They all did. As a family, we never recovered. The force of gravity of their family myth, the story that told them who they were and who I was, and the way the world was, was so powerful that none could escape its pull. By choosing not to reckon honestly with the past, they foreclosed on a future for our family.
Will it be the same for the parish, now that the truth about the Pilgrimage, and the fact that black lives have not mattered in it, has been spoken openly? I don’t know. My mother called just now to talk about the continuing fallout from Hannah’s petition. I mentioned to her that Hannah had revealed a myth-busting truth to me in Paris in 2012, and though things never were okay after that, her speaking the truth was a gift. My life would have been more peaceful had I never known what she told me, but it would have been worse. It is always better to live with a painful truth than with a comforting lie. Lots of people did not want to hear what Hannah said. All of us, myself included, needed to hear it, though. I am very far from her woke politics, but I am proud of her for speaking truth about black lives in West Feliciana, and opening the door for change.
UPDATE: Folks, reading some of the comments, please understand that in this post, I am not making general comments about life in America between whites and blacks. I am talking about a particular people, in a particular place, who are heirs to a particular set of historical circumstances. I am probably not talking about you.
UPDATE.2: A Czech reader writes:
I know virtually nothing about the American South so I am not going to comment on that much. However, as an external observer:
“But this is our history, and we must face it.”
When communism collapsed all I wanted was revenge — naturally. Communism did happen, hence they must own up to it, pay for it. Vaclav Havel said no. “We will draw a thick line between the past and the present”. As a result, nobody was made face anything. The generation that was responsible is now largely dead or dying. The contemporary Czechs know little about the past but are not burdened by it or divided and polarized because of it. Václav Havel was a wise man. (This was not his idea, btw. Juan Carlos — King of Spain — made this decision after Franco’s death. Their alternative was a new civil war.) So, really, the only way out of it – as I see it – is to forget. It will take generations but it will work. The alternative is the Balkans – grievances and revenge in perpetuity – or as it is known around here The 1619 Project.
UPDATE.3: Lauren Field, writing for the West Feliciana Historical Society, forwarded to me a letter she wrote to Hannah Leming about her petition. I’m not going to quote the whole thing, because there is some personal stuff that doesn’t really pertain to the historical question. But in the interest of fairness, here are the parts in which Field addresses what she says are historical inaccuracies in the Leming petition:
From its earliest days, the Historical Society Board made a conscious decision to shift the focus of Pilgrimage away from the “Gone with the Wind” Civil War era to another historically significant era of the 1820’s when John James Audubon was hired to come here and tutor Eliza Pirrie. While here, he also undertook to paint native birds for his Birds of America portfolio. At the time Audubon was here in
West Feliciana, our nation was less than 50 years old. There were far more pioneers settling here than there were wealthy Plantation owners who owned slaves. You see, back then, as today, the Board of the Historical Society and Pilgrimage Steering Committee were, and still are, very sensitive to slavery and
the cruel treatment of slaves during the time leading up to and including the Civil War, and they are always looking for new ways to share our history in a meaningful way.
In fact, the primary focus of the Rural Homestead (established in 1976) was to show the life of a typical farmer in West Feliciana. When I became co-chairman of the Rural Homestead (along with Mr. Ed Daniel), we took great care to connect with each year’s Audubon Pilgrimage Chairman to help coordinate the school field trips that came to visit the Rural Homestead. Below is an excerpt of the brochure
written by Libby Dart that we mailed out to each school group to prepare for the field trip. We saw it as educational and an opportunity to get local children involved in learning a part of Louisiana History. While the focus was not on slavery, it was mentioned. It was never intended to gloss over or ignore slavery. We are only learning in recent times how to address such a sensitive subject and
incorporate it in a meaningful way to young children and the general public who visit.
Excerpt from the RH Brochure:
“Not all farmers in the Old South were large planters. The majority were smaller land holders, settlers who alone or with the help of a few slaves cleared the wilderness and built rough dwellings such as these. In the 1820 census in old Feliciana Parish, only five families owned more than 100 slaves, 107 owned 10 to 50 slaves and 295 families owned one or no slaves.
As you walk through our Homestead, stop to talk to our folk artists who are practicing skills passed down by their families for generations, and our guest artists who make a living with their hand crafts. The rest of us have learned skills such as spinning, weaving, cracklin cooking, blacksmithing, soap making, candle making, etc… for the pleasure of showing you the ways of the past. As you walk
through our live exhibit, imagine what it was like to live in a frontier where nothing went to waste: where a hog meant fresh cracklins, hot cracklin cornbread, and a new batch of lye soap; where planning for a new dress meant planting the cotton, spinning the thread and weaving the cloth; where even corn
husks were not thrown away but were plaited into mats for the floor or collars for the mules and seats for chairs.”
You see, the fact is, in the early days and well into the 1990s, the original leadership engaged the black community at the Rural Homestead. There was a black family from Centerville who came out to the Rural Homestead each year and taught the craft of basket-making and corn husk plaiting. In more recent
years, Geraldine Robinson, a black Louisiana Folklife Artist, demonstrated basketweaving and cornhusk doll-making. All of them were allowed to sell their goods and keep the money for themselves. In the same way, for a number of years, a black ladies quilting guild demonstrated quilting. For no other reason than that these folks died off and their craft died with them because their children and grandchildren didn’t bother to learn what their ancestors could teach them, were they no longer visible at the Rural Homestead. Time and again, it became increasingly difficult to recruit black craftspeople to participate at the Rural Homestead.
All other volunteers, yourself and your peers included, eagerly contributed to and embraced the educational piece in their own way: they learned and taught soapmaking, candle-making, spinning, weaving, quilting and cornbread and woodstove cookery.
Now to address your wildly inaccurate and misstated accusation about the whips and paddles that were sold at the Rural Homestead: “Dump” Metz demonstrated riving cypress shingles, and also demonstrated the craft by making paddles and swords for the children. As stated in our brochure, “nothing went to waste.” In the old days and as demonstrated at the Rural Homestead, the paddles were used to stir lye soap and cracklins. The swords were toys for children. Incidentally, all the shingles “Dump” rived were used to roof all the old buildings at the Rural Homestead.
Secondly, the whip-making was demonstrated by a local craftsman who made his living creating whips for cattlemen to drive their herds…. As a child, I’m sure you were taken to Oakley and I’m sure you were showed the slave cabins. I’m 54 years old and even I remember that tour. But it’s not surprising that you either don’t remember it or have selective memory now. Quite possibly it could have been under renovation that year. That’s not something incredibly relevant – what adults try teach children, often “goes in one ear and out the other.”
Field goes on to question how many of the petition’s 2000+ signatories actually live locally, and understand the situation. She also says that the Historical Society has been doing things quietly to advance a more honest conversation:
How could you know that we as a community were not already making strides to be more inclusive of black history and the history of slavery? We are only in recent years able to even openly address the sensitivity of racial disparity in a meaningful and dignified manner that doesn’t hide the atrocities of slavery, but rather tells the story in a thoughtful way that gives their families a sense of dignity and pride. It’s not right for white people to tell their ancestors’ stories for them. We need them to tell the stories and we stand ready to support them…when they are ready.
This outrage has made a difficult conversation, so much more difficult and quite frankly an open and gaping wound. People want to hear those stories. I want to hear those stories, but it takes time and careful conversation to allow black people to tell their family stories in a way that gives justice to the past, honors those victimized by cruelty, and promotes healing and positive change for the future. Unfortunately, your statements also generated more rage and division.