I look forward to reading and reviewing her memoir in the coming weeks. In her guest post today, she gives a little background to her memoir. Enjoy! ~Caroline
Slaveholders in the Family ~ Guest Post by Mariann Regan
I grew up believing that my mother’s ancestors were poor South Carolina farmers.
That was not the whole truth. Ten years ago I discovered that my great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers had in fact owned many slaves before the Civil War.
This discovery shocked me. Right away I began to wonder how owning black slaves had affected my white Scots-Irish ancestors. Had it made them cruel, greedy, and hard? Had they adopted terrible prejudices and passed them down through the generations?
I remembered the song from South Pacific:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear . . .
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Kirven family in 1919—my grandfather, my grandmother, and their seven children. From left to right are Tom Sr. (father), Lawrence, Ansie, Tom Jr., Laura (mother), Maisie (who would become my mother), Donnie, Coit, and Marion. [Used with permission.]
Mary Caroline and Erasmus Goodson Kirven
(great-grandparents), c. 1850. [Used with permission.]
Did my ancestors engage in this deplorable kind of teaching?
Slavery was our country’s “original sin,” I had heard. Most of white society collaborated to uphold this evil institution. Even our Constitution made slavery legal for 80 years or so. The South defended slavery along with its “way of life” by fighting the Civil War. It seemed that my ancestors were among the bad guys of history.
But wait a minute. Who was I to divide history into good guys and bad guys?
I knew that people were never that simple. Teaching literature had burned into my brain the complexities of human nature. No jumping to conclusions. I would have to step aside and consider. If I tried to research the character of my family, back through the days of slavery, I would have to cultivate an open and receptive mind.
As time passed, my need grew. I felt driven to investigate my family background, all the while straining to keep myself fair-minded. This was an intimidating project.
Although my parents were deceased, most of my cousins were living—eight hundred miles away, in South Carolina. I wrote them from my home in Connecticut, asking their advice about family research.
They were excited. They loved researching the family, and they were glad finally to hear from me. Apparently I was their “long-lost cousin.” We had had virtually no contact in over forty years. Over the phone, their voices sounded intensely familiar. There was no turning back now.
My cousins and I set up some initial visits, at their South Carolina homes. They were generous and welcoming—personifications of Southern hospitality. I was immersed in the aura of my childhood. It was “home,” yet I was also seeing it from a distance formed by analysis and heavy thought.
It turned out that I was in for a seven-year odyssey of labyrinthine study and intricate interactions with family members. I would visit uncounted relatives in dozens of different houses, over a period of seven years.
My written sources were voluminous and solid. There were two genealogists within the family as well as five professional genealogical reports. One cousin and I kept digging into the riches of www.ancestry.com. Mountains of family correspondence stretched back through the Civil War. There were wills, private journals, military records, land acquisitions, newspaper articles, church minutes, family Bibles, and tombstone inscriptions in local libraries and historical societies.
Too much! It was wonderful and terrible at the same time.
My spoken-word sources seemed more fragile and needed more care. I listened hard to many relatives, without arguing or judging. I wanted to be trustworthy. Fundamentally, I do indeed feel compassion and respect for all human beings caught in history, whatever “side” they land on. I was trying to understand what my ancestors thought and felt, what they believed, and how they saw themselves.
For instance, I talked for many hours with Eckard Lee Kirven, my 94-year-old first cousin once removed. He carried a universe of family anecdotes in his head, for many generations back. I taped our words and listened again. Numerous other relatives responded to my prompting for long and serious conversations, sometimes far into the night, often in “deep background” or “graveyard talk.” These talks were by turns exhilarating and wrenching. I kept all confidences.
I warned my relatives that I would be asking about difficult Southern topics like slavery, the Civil War, mulatto children, Jim Crow, civil rights, segregation, and beating children to “discipline” them. They nodded. They were all right with that.
Was I all right with that? Maybe not as much as I tried to be.
Eckard Lee Kirven as a young man (first cousin once removed), born in 1920. [Used with permission.]
I knew that family stories could reveal attitudes and worldviews, and I realized that some might be fully ornamented with fiction. But whether truth or fiction, anecdotes like these were hard for me to take in:
Stories like these, whether fact or invention, gave me pause and at times took my breath away.
In response to the trials of my research, I decided to write a family memoir. I needed to build a perspective. I wanted not only to react but also to understand.
The song from South Pacific says that people “hate all the people [their] relatives hate.” I’d put it a slightly different way—that terrible things can happen when people are brought to the point of hating themselves.
My book develops some forceful thoughts about how deeply it affected my ancestors to live their lives as slaveholders.
I believe that the book’s ideas apply to some big questions. How are self-evident wrongs perpetuated for so long in history? What causes festering divisions between parties or violent outbreaks between countries? What makes people cling to their own self-defined virtues and shun others as if they were morally toxic?
Given that all babies are born innocent . . . where does human evil come from?
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