Evil Doers in the Family

So we prayed Psalm 34:15-22 at church this morning, the second verse of which is:

“the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,*

to root out the remembrance of them from the earth.”

Psalm 34:16

I read that and into my brain popped the thought, That’s the statue removal. Confederate statues, my brain meant.

***

As a child, I spent hours playing on the cannons at Battlefield Park in Jackson, Mississippi. We loved those cannons, which my brain remembers painted silver like the “statues” who perform on Jackson Square in New Orleans. The silver paint on the cannons probably isn’t an accurate memory, but that’s perfectly appropriate for this blog post.

My sisters and friends and I clambered over the cannons. We straddled their barrels, and—primarily—we jumped from them. (Why did we spend all of our time at that park searching for things to jump from? The cannons, the bleachers, the stone pillars at the entrance to the park? Mother was playing tennis on the courts, and there we were, sniffing out ways to kill ourselves.)

I always thought the cannons were Civil War cannons. After all, Battlefield Park was the site of a Civil War battle in 1863. Plus, the cannons were beside a plaque explaining the Battle of Jackson. But no. Manufacturers didn’t even make those cannons until 1890. Soldiers may—or may not—have used them in the 1898 Spanish-American War. So basically just some rando cannons brought into the battlefield, now removed and donated by the city to a gun museum at Camp Shelby.

Did I mention the Confederacy lost the Battle of Jackson?

To sum up: faux Civil War cannons that never saw poop of battle were plopped down in a public park dedicated to a loss that allowed Vicksburg to fall. That’s Confederate memorials in a nutshell.

***

Which brings us back to the Psalms. I want us as a country to remember the Civil War. I want those coming after me to know that Americans living in my home state valued their economic system of owning human beings over the continuation of the USA. This was a moral choice of long duration. If Congress had made the territories choose between entering the Union or giving up slavery, I’m gonna say they wouldn’t have entered the Union. If you doubt it, read provisions on the enslaved in the Mississippi Constitution of 1817. So, yeah, I want us to remember that my home state’s top priority was retaining the violently-extracted free labor of African Americans over continuation of our country.

I don’t want us to remember the men (and women) who fought to enforce those values.

As the Psalms says, I want to root our collective remembrance of them from the earth.

If I’m talking about your ancestor who fought in the Civil War or your ancestor who accumulated wealth from enslaved labor such that a small Mississippi town bears your name or a half-dozen other scenarios that could piss you off, join the club.

Me, too.

This is what I consider God’s grace: I was led over twenty years ago to learn the truth about my home state. The truth about enslavement and convict leasing, sharecropping and lynching, Jim Crow and Civil Rights denial. So when, in the most recent year of this journey, I learned how entangled my own family has been in this exploitive history, I can tell you that my regret and repentance isn’t based on personal culpability or white guilt or whatever you want to call it. It’s based on over twenty years of believing these things are wrong and not being willing to change that position simply because my own ancestors were the evil-doers.

Taking my cue from the Psalms, from henceforth when I write on this blog or elsewhere about enslavers in my family, I will not use their names. They will be the Enslaving Grifter and the Asshole Doctor, may their souls rest in peace.

***

I’m going to make a suggestion because I want you to have the same opportunity I did. Decide now that enslaving people was doing evil. That anyone involved in the violent effort to maintain slavery was doing evil. That publicly commemorating that effort is the opposite of rooting out the memory of those doing evil. And while you’re at it, you might want to throw in profiting off prisoners and chiseling sharecroppers as doing evil. Or attending a lynching (trigger warning: this link has a horrible photograph). Or standing in a crowd of white folks to yell at Black folks integrating schools. Belonging to clubs that exclude African Americans. Swapping deeds with racially restrictive covenants. Using third strike laws to sentence African Americans to life in prison for stealing a wallet.

If you’re reading along and going, “Damn right,” until you hit a snag because you already know your family is implicated, well—there’s your answer. Please, power through it. Admitting that these things are wrong without exception is the first step toward doing something about it…which is a topic for a future post.

Please join me in refusing to erect statues to those who do evil even if the primary place we’re erecting the statues is in our minds.

Thanks be to God

American racism, confederate statues, Did your ancestor enslave people?, Mississippi racism, remembering the Civil War

Comments (6)

  • Dear Ellen,
    Yes, indeed, this reader can relate to your closing. “Thanks be to God.”
    I also use “Selah” to end a journal page of spiritual awareness I may experience now and then.
    Thanking you for your essays,
    Patricia

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Hey, Patricia. Good to hear from you. That’s so cool you end your journal pages of spiritual awareness with “Selah.” We never know what we share in common. <3

  • I appreciate your commitment to the cause of justice, Ellen. As a New Englander whose ancestors were all still in Europe during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, I appreciate hearing how you grapple with the the history of your home state and your family history and have come to a place of clarity that you can apply even in a personal context.

    Of course, everyone in the country bears responsibility to address the repercussions of all forms of racism and discrimination on any basis. Knowing the history of the various tentacles of racism that have occurred over the centuries is essential in our efforts, regardless of where we are living now. It’s sad that so many people oppose even t education on the full historical record.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      This is a long journey that I am only just beginning. I don’t know where it will lead, but I do think I’m going to start a “subset” of this blog to post about it. I agree about history–it’s the only way we can see the harm done and know the way forward. Thank you as always for giving my posts such a respectful read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stay in Touch with Ellen's Very Southern Voice Newsletter

Follow Ellen Morris Prewitt

Subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,325 other subscribers