Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Mysterious Phone Caller Answers A Burning Question

“Are Southerners embarrassed by the Civil War?” When I posed this question in a recent blog, my friend Terry, a retired South Carolina newspaper editor, replied that the word “embarrassment” wasn’t the word “that describes most Southerners' feelings about the civil war.  I think 'ambivalence' is a better descriptive.”

I thought Terry was right, until I received a mysterious phone call.

A slave market in ancient Rome. New York 
Public Library.  A body of laws and traditions
 regulated auctions 2,000 years ago. 

I was working at home one morning when the phone rang.  An elderly gentleman introduced himself (though I can't recall his name) in a slow and mannerly drawl. He wanted to talk about my opinion piece that a local newspaper had published that day.  

In the article, I argued that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which ended with 620,000 American deaths and the economic ruin of the South, presented a perfect opportunity to discuss the war’s causes. I said that slavery lay at the heart of all the reasons many Southerners currently cite:  states’ rights, economic necessity or Northern aggression. I concluded that we couldn't ignore slavery as a cause of the war, if not the
cause. My mysterious phone caller did not agree.  I can't remember his exact words, but the following reflects the essence of our conversation:

An 1856 wood engraving of a slave
 auction in Richmond, Virginia. 
Library of Congress Prints and
 Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 

“I want to make three points,” the caller said. He apparently had carefully thought through the argument he was unfolding or had made it many times in the past.

“First, slavery didn’t exist only in America,” he said. “Slavery has existed throughout recorded history, even in ancient Mesopotamia. People aren’t as knowledgeable as they should be; they don’t know that.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Slavery's been around since the dawn of man  and slavery exists today. I guess we concern ourselves mostly with slavery in America, since slavery ended here fairly recently. And,” I added, “Our country was founded as the land of the free.”

My clearly educated caller fell silent.  After more chit-chat about history, he said, “Second, slavery wasn’t the cause of the Civil War. We had to protect our constitutionally guaranteed states’ rights. The North tried to do away with our rights, so we had no choice but to fight. We believed in the Constitution; they apparently didn’t.”

I agreed the Founding Fathers made compromises to get the U.S. Constitution signed, so they left the poisonous issue of slavery for later generations to work out, but I wasn’t sure that war was the only answer.

My caller then made his third point, apparently saved as a slam-dunk finale.

“The attributes of some people leave them suited to be slaves,” he said. “They are inferior; they lack intelligence and ability."

"Do you mean African Americans?" I asked incredulously.

"You can see it today," he continued. "They can’t do well in school; they can’t hold good jobs; they can't take care of their families.”

I wanted to hang up, but I've always learned something when I listen, especially when listening was painful or infuriating, so I didn't.  I responded with measured words that some of the smartest, most able people I know are African Americans, including the current President. In my rebuttal, I also pointed out that when the Romans enslaved a Greek, the Romans obviously valued the Greek's skills, education and intelligence by making him tutor children of the rich and powerful. I was trying to make the point that the Greeks were smart and able even if the Romans made them slaves.  

The caller pushed on saying that if you look at how African Americans live today, with their poverty, their violence and their inability to make it in school..."some groups of people are suited to be slaves.” 

I had the sinking feeling he had missed my point about the Romans and the Greeks. I could only respond, as firmly as possible without offending my earnest, genteel caller, that even it he were right – and I emphatically did not think so – that wouldn’t make slavery OK.

After more convoluted conversation, the man ended his call by saying, “Thank you for talking with me. You’ve been very generous with your information and your time.”

I wandered into the kitchen dazed and confused. I told my husband Barry about the strange call.

“But what was his point?” Barry asked. 

“I honestly don’t know,” I answered. “I don’t know if he was lonely and just wanted to talk, or if he was trying to change my mind, or if he was wrestling with his own demons.”

Looking back on the phone call, I’m reminded of the maxim, Everybody’s got to look down on somebody.  I think my gentleman caller had long ago concluded — just as the slave-owning, elite Southerners who clamored for Civil War had — that lesser people inhabit the world.    

My friend Terry might be right that today’s Southerners feel ambivalent about the Civil War, but shouldn't some of us feel downright embarrassed? I now know the answer.   

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