To Bridge Southern Divide, All Stories Should Be Told

Published on: 04/17/05
Atlanta Journal Constitution

Debra Denard came across the picture while picking through her grandmother’s trunk.

The man in the faded, black-and-white photograph had a snow-white beard, wore a hat and sat on a horse.

"I thought, ‘Who in the world is this?’ " says Denard, of Lawrenceville. "I have since dug and dug and dug and learned a lot more about him. It’s what led me to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy."

I came across this daughter of the Confederacy when I saw an ad about a celebration on April 26 to salute Confederate Memorial Day. A number was listed for more information. I dialed. Denard answered.

She, like me, is from the South.

It’s a regional distinction that bonds us in a way only native Southerners can understand.

Sure we like our tea sweet, our chicken fried and our veggies overcooked. And we dig Al Green and George Jones with equal ease and appreciation. And we read Mark Twain and understand Huck and Jim on a level that other folks simply don’t get.

But being Southern means much more than that. It’s a feeling. A knowing.

Funny thing about Southern folk, though. We can rap incessantly about the things that make us unique. But we tend to tip-toe around an issue that figures prominently in our history, that shapes what we are now and what we’ll be in the future.

We can’t talk about race.

We guard what we say because we don’t want to offend or be misconstrued. We bebop around the topic as if all is well, but truth be told, our relationships need tending to.

There’re plenty of unresolved issues.

Some blacks think whites should apologize for slavery. Others have reparations on their mind.

On the other hand, some whites are tired of the guilt trip. They didn’t own slaves, so what should they apologize and help pay for?

Denard doesn’t understand the short shrift Confederate soldiers get in history class.

That photograph she came across was Thomas Jefferson Carlisle — her great-gre at-grandfather. It was taken at a reunion of Confederate veterans. He was a soldier who fought with the 37th Alabama unit. At the end of the war, he surrendered in Greensboro, N.C. In 1902, Carlisle got his compatriots to write about their war experiences for The Enterprise Weekly, a newspaper he ran in Coffee County, Ala.

Denard says it’s her responsibility to tell Carlisle’s story. He and other Confederate soldiers are long gone. They can’t talk about battles or offer perspectives on a period in which the country stood divided.

So people like Denard become their storytellers. I know it seems odd — me, a black man, giving props to a white woman who unabashedly cherishes her Southern ancestry — an ancestry that fought under a Rebel flag.

But she’s trying to educate the community, and our home is made up of blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians. It’s important to educate the people. You may find it hard to appreciate certain aspects of history, but you still need to know it.

So I praise Denard for the work she does. It’s the Southern thing to do.