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Why the White South Is Still in Denial About Slavery

On a trip through the South, Civil War culture is presented as "authentic." They just leave out the slavery part.

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“One woman thought all the slave houses (now guest rooms) should be torn down, because it was an insult and exploiting slavery and so forth. And I replied, very nicely, that I think she would be destroying history.” — Mary Hill Caperton, manager of the Quarters, a bed and breakfast in Charlottesville, Va.

The Cabin is only one of dozens of former slave quarters around the country that have been gussied-up into hotel rooms or restaurants. It was exceedingly pleasant and brightly lit, full of cheerful, laughing patrons. Astonishingly tall, wholesome-looking children in middle-school basketball jerseys pointed ketchup-dipped fries at their dad’s brows and made gentle jokes about their hairlines. The Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove” bubbled down from speakers in the rafters.

A man with a wide smile appeared next to our table, seemingly out of nowhere, and introduced himself as the restaurant’s manager. We chatted about the proper pronunciation of “crawfish,” and the differences between the gumbos made on the bayou and in New Orleans, and when the subject turned to the Cabin, I asked him how it felt to run a place that used to house slaves. “It’s history, and that’s all there is to it,” he said. “It’s not something we dwell on, or push out there for people to see. It is a touchy subject. We just want people to have a nice time when they come here, and to enjoy the food and the history. This is a place where everybody feels welcome.”

He had a point. Gabbie and I seemed to be the only ones in the room not smiling, and for a moment the queasiness of chronic self-doubt, the familiar nausea of the self-ostracized, the vegetarian in the steakhouse, made me wonder if it was us. Were we the ones not seeing straight, arching our eyebrows through a life on the wrong side of the looking glass? And then I wondered why I was flattering myself.

Dead-eyed nostalgia, whether practiced by Tea Partyers, advertising directors or me, in my “heritage” running shoes, typing away on a computer built by indentured servants, can be invisible to us. As invisible as the whip — the very old, well-used buggy  whip — hanging on the Cabin’s wall must have been to whoever decided it was a good idea to hang it there.

Back then, black and white lived apart, went to different schools and churches, played on different playgrounds, and went to different restaurants, bars, theaters, and soda fountains. But we shared a country and a culture. We were one nation. We were Americans.” –Pat Buchanan

Don’t get me wrong — I like nostalgia, I  miss nostalgia. The kind that involves remembering, anyway: mostly private, typically accidental, not always rosy. When my great-uncle told stories about flying bomber missions over Germany, he didn’t merely recall events — experiences that he had a complicated affection for — he wondered about them. His eyes grew pained and befuddled; his chest rose and fell with a fullness no amount of time could diminish. He wasn’t running from himself to an imagined past, he was finding himself in his story, sorting it out, trying to see it clearly.

House (now Speaker) John Boehner recently complained that Barack Obama and congressional Democrats “are snuffing out the America that I grew up in.” –Think Progress, July 1, 2010

Of course childhood nostalgia — the kind of remembering you do when remembering is new, when memories are full and dramatic because they’re few, and weightless — is different. Mourning hamsters. Idealizing grandparents. Chronicling summers like they’re centuries. When I had 12 years to look back on, they were eons. When I had 20 I said, “my whole life” and meant it.

 
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