I’ve spent the weeks since George Floyd’s murder finishing a chapter on the background story of my mother’s Christian County, Kentucky family. Finding out that Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, was born just miles from my family’s farm was unexpected; reading about last week’s removal of the statue erected in the Kentucky state capital to commemorate him added a touch of frisson to my research into my own family’s past.
I had just turned two when my mother died in 1951 at age thirty-one, crashing her car into the back of a parked dump truck, whether by accident or design I will never know. The memoir I am writing began as a quest to learn more about her and her family, but what I was really in search of was an understanding of my own sense of having grown up as an outlier, a hybrid, belonging neither here nor there.
My mother lost her first husband in 1943 to a mining accident, leaving her with a four-year-old son to support during World War II. She found her way out of her predicament and out of her backwater hometown by marrying my father, a Yankee Army doctor stationed at Fort Knox.
They couldn’t have been more different in temperament, or in background. She was a beautiful, fiery daughter of the hillbilly South, he the scion of ten generations of staid Pennsylvania Quakers. She had an eighth grade education, he graduated from Quaker boarding school, Princeton University and Columbia Medical School. It was a tempestuous marriage; who knows if it would have lasted had she lived.
I was four years old when my father remarried. My stepmother was a divorcee with three children of her own. From then on, I lived an upper-middle class life in my father’s hometown of Somerville, New Jersey, one of five and eventually six children, but the only one to have had Juanita Barnett Vaughn and Robert Comly Wilson III as my parents.
My happiest childhood memories are of time spent with my elderly Quaker relatives. I stayed at least one night a week with my grandparents and one night a week with my great aunt until I went away to Quaker boarding school at age fourteen. By contrast, I only visited my Kentucky grandparents twice, once at age ten and once at thirteen.
Finding out within the past month about my maternal grandfather’s violent, alcohol-fueled, bigoted hillbilly extended family and my maternal grandmother’s slaveholding ancestors has forced me to think hard about how to claim my southern heritage while at the same time living true to the values of my Quaker forebears.
I’ve become inured to but never accepting of the memes surrounding my Pennsylvania ancestry. While my Quaker grandfather still used the archaic pronouns “thee and thou” in conversation with me, he did not resemble the black-hatted gentleman on the cereal box. What an irony it is that the Quaker Oats Company, having traded for a century on the stereotype of peaceable, abolitionist Quakers, has today been forced by public opinion to admit that its Aunt Jemima syrup is perpetuating a harmful racial stereotype!
I’ve also had to dispute the characterization of my family’s experiences in southwestern Kentucky as those neither hillbilly — “that’s just the hollows of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia” — nor truly Southern — “oh, but Kentucky was a border state.” Wrong on both counts.
Research into my mother’s family has revealed three lynchings (two of blacks and one of a white man for horse stealing), two murders (one intentional and one accidental) not to mention an attempted patricide. The honor culture of these Scots-Irish hillbillies persisted well into the twentieth century if not the twenty-first.
As for not being part of the “real South,” the southern half of Christian County where my grandparents farmed had a higher percentage of slaves per household in 1860 than five Confederate states. Fairview Kentucky, the home of the Jefferson Davis State Historical Site, contains a 351 foot high obelisk in his honor modeled after the Washington monument. It was constructed between 1917 and 1924, a period during which similar Confederate monuments in other places were funded by organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy.
The statue of Davis in the state capitol that was just “relocated” to Fairview was commissioned in 1935, 75 years after the Civil War’s end. Proving that Kentucky is home to both the bootlegging hillbilly culture of my grandfather and the planter class typified by Jefferson Davis to which my grandfather aspired, some interesting items were found in the base of the statue last week: a bottle of Kentucky bourbon and a newspaper dated October 20th, 1936, the day the statue was dedicated.
It feels appropriate to see old Jeff Davis in bondage, considering that he owned over one hundred slaves himself and was president of a country that had as its explicit purpose the perpetuation of slavery and the subjugation of an “inferior race.” Confederate monuments were meant to reinforce the white supremacy that men like Jefferson Davis espoused and that Jim Crow enforced.
All of this leads me to say to those who say “but my heritage” or “it’s not about racism” or “I don’t like political correctness” or “it’s about pride in the southern way of life,” you can love where you came from and honor the people who made you, but also acknowledge that that isn’t where you wish to live out the rest of your days, that those aren’t the values you hold now, as I am doing myself.
If the five years of the Confederate States of America are more important to you than nearly two hundred and fifty years system of chattel slavery and a century of oppression during the Jim Crow era, then you need to acknowledge your white privilege at the least, and if you are truly willing to be honest, your bigotry.
I experienced emotions ranging from outrage to disbelief to just plain “you can’t make this sh*t up” when finding out about my family’s past. After much self-examination I have decided that I am not required to feel guilt, or shame. I didn’t live then. What I do with the information now that I have it is what will define me.
And what I am choosing to do is to say: those beliefs, behaviors, circumstances belong to another era, one of which I am not a part. But, this moment, this moment is one in which I live and have responsibility. And that responsibility is to acknowledge that in 2020 I have privilege because of the color of my skin and the resources that were provided to me and continue to accrue to me and my family because of our whiteness. Yes, my ancestors worked hard. But they also had access to advantages that black Americans did not and still do not have.
I can’t just rest on my Quaker laurels, either. Yes, my family toiled through generations for equality for all races, for both sexes (gender fluidity wasn’t a recognized category then), for all religions. But that doesn’t give me a pass on examining my own unconscious biases. Just as I don’t take responsibility for my Southern ancestors’ craziness, I can’t coast on the righteousness of my paternal heritage either.
I need to tell the truth about my family’s past and to live my truth in the present, just as our whole nation needs to do. I am a hybrid, and so is the United States of America. I do not belong entirely to either of my parents’ tribes, or to the sheltered, privileged world of my upbringing in post- World War Two white America.
I am no longer the outlier I felt growing up. I have created my own home and my own family with intentionality rather than blind adherence to tradition. I have rejected aspects of all three of the cultures that shaped me. I take responsibility for who I am now.
A wise fellow blogger wrote that sometimes “you need to step outside of your culture to see the shackles it has put on your thinking.” It’s time to move past brandishing symbols and then pretending that they don’t have subtexts. It may be a cliche, but the truth about our collective and individual pasts can set us free.
As a nation we need to find not just symbols of unity, but the strength to actually begin the work of creating a just and equal society. I am personally approaching this task with humility, aware that my privilege will continually tempt me to retreat from what is an epic struggle, one that many of my fellow Americans cannot so easily escape.