We were told of the gentility and charm of the Southern belles. We learned that the war was fought not to protect the institution of slavery but the sanctity of states’ rights. Finally, we were assured that the faithful slaves, the “mammies,” “aunties” and “uncles,” loved their white owners, were loved in return and did not welcome emancipation.
That this myth persists and perhaps has grown as the country polarizes, often along racial lines, means that whole segments of the American population can no longer communicate. Once myth replaces history there is no way to have a rational discussion rooted in verifiable fact. Myth allows people to deny who they are and the crimes they committed and continue to commit. It is only by confronting the past that we can end the perpetuation of these crimes in other forms.
“Gone With the Wind,” the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, has sold over 30 million copies worldwide and, according to one survey, is the second favorite book among Americans, after the Bible. The 1939 film version of the book is the highest-grossing movie ever, in inflation-adjusted dollars. The book and film are unapologetic celebrations of historical myth, historical erasure and white supremacy.
The Lost Cause romance and veneration of Confederate military leaders have a powerful hold on white imaginations, especially among those for whom economic and political marginalization is becoming more pronounced. The myth of the Confederacy resembles the retreat into a fictional past I saw in Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War, an ethnic conflict that lasted from 1992 to 1995. That retreat gave Yugoslavs—whether Serb, Muslim or Croat—who had been cast aside by economic collapse and a failed political system manufactured identities that were rooted in a mythologized past of glory, moral superiority and nobility. It allowed them to worship their own supposedly unique and innate virtues. These fantasies of an idealized past were accompanied by the demonization of opposing ethnicities, a demonization used by demagogues to fuel the hatred and violence that led to a savage war.
“I learned that a black servant 144 years ago so loved her ‘masters’ that she requested to be buried in their family plot. … And when I learned that her masters willingly allowed such a burial request, I had to conclude that there must have been a greater bond, perhaps a loving bond of slave for master, and master for slave,” Bonner writes in his thin book “Lost in Yesterday,” which is sold in the Road to Tara Museum. “The unique and often misunderstood relationship has been presented throughout fiction and the entertainment media, in my opinion, in a multitude of unfair portrayals.”
Bonner goes on to argue that the slaves in the book and the film—Mammy, Pork, Prissy and Big Sam—all supporters of the Confederacy and loyal to the O’Hara family, represent a true picture of many, maybe most, blacks in the antebellum South. He cites the small headstone at the feet of Philip and Eleanor Fitzgerald in the local cemetery that reads “Grace, Negro servant of the Fitzgeralds” and insists “that Grace was honored as a family member.”
That Grace was given no last name on the stone and was buried, like a pet, at the feet of those who owned her seems to escape Bonner. Did Grace have a family? A mother? A father? Brothers? Sisters? Grandparents? Aunts? Uncles? Cousins? A husband? Children of her own? Or had they been sold by her beloved owners?
We stopped outside the 1839 Stately Oaks plantation house, which originally sat on 404 acres before being moved into the city. It is now part of the Margaret Mitchell Memorial Park. The mansion hosts white re-enactors in period costumes, including Confederate uniforms, the equivalent of re-enactors dressed in SS uniforms giving cheery tours of Auschwitz.
In squalid, overcrowded shacks outside Stately Oaks, children were born, lived and died enslaved. They spent a lifetime engaged in hard labor, misery and poverty. They watched in agony as mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers were sold off, never to be seen again. They lived in constant fear and humiliation. They were beaten, chained, whipped, castrated and sometimes shot or hanged. The male slave masters routinely raped black girls and women, sometimes in front of their families, and often sold their mixed-race children.
The ability to disregard the horror of slavery, to physically erase its reality, and to build in its place a white fantasy of goodness, courage and virtue speaks to the deep sickness within American society. Most Confederate monuments were erected under the leadership of the Daughters of the Confederacy from 1890 to 1920, a time when the terror of lynching by the Ku Klux Klan was at its peak. These statues were designed to romanticize white supremacy and divide blacks into good and bad “negros.” There are no statues to Reconstruction governors and senators or black political leaders, not to mention the leaders of slave revolts such as Nat Turner or Denmark Vesey. The few Confederate generals, such as James Longstreet, who supported black rights after the war are not memorialized, nor are the 186,000 black soldiers—134,111 conscripted from slave states—who served in the Union Army. The historian James Loewen calls the South “a landscape of denial.”
William Faulkner published “Absalom, Absalom,” his searing condemnation of slavery and the Old South the same year Mitchell published “Gone With the Wind.” The hate-filled slave owner and Confederate veteran Thomas Sutpen in Faulkner’s novel, unlike the characters in “Gone With the Wind,” is “demonic evil.” Sutpen, who engages in miscegenation, buys his slaves “with the same care and shrewdness with which he chose the other livestock—the horses and mules and cattle.” Faulkner understood “the past is never dead. It’s not even past,” that it is subject to constant revision by those seeking to justify and hide their crimes. He warned that the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves lead to moral squalor and self-destruction.
Lynching was a popular public spectacle in Georgia that could last for hours and included sadistic torture and mutilation. Children were let out of school and workers were given the day off to witness the events. When Sam Hose, who had thrown his ax at a white man and killed him after the man pulled a gun on him, was lynched on April 23, 1899, near Newman, Ga., 1,000 people attended. Many arrived on a special excursion train from Atlanta. Hose was stripped and chained to a tree. His executioners stacked kerosene-soaked logs around him. They cut off Hose’s ears, fingers and genitals. They flayed his face. Members of the crowd thrust knives into him. The logs were lit.
“The only sounds that came from the victim’s lips, even as his blood sizzled in the fire, were ‘Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus,’ ” writes Leon Litwack in “Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.” “Before Hose’s body had even cooled, his heart and liver were removed and cut into several pieces and his bones were crushed into small particles. The crowd fought over these souvenirs, and the ‘more fortunate possessors’ made some handsome profits on the sales.
In May of 1918, Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, publicly denounced the lynching of her husband, Hazel “Hayes” Turner, who had been murdered the day before. She threatened to take those who lynched him to court. A mob of several hundred in Valdosta, Ga., hunted her down. They tied the pregnant woman’s ankles together and hung her upside down from a tree. They doused her clothes with gasoline and set her on fire. Someone used a hog-butchering knife to rip open her womb. Her baby fell the ground and cried briefly. A member of the mob crushed the infant’s head under the heel of his boot. Hundreds of rounds were shot into her body. The Associated Press reported that Mary Turner had made “unwise remarks” about the lynching of her husband “and the people, in their indignation, took exceptions to her remarks, as well as her attitude.”
In commenting in 1894 on lynchings, the crusading editor and activist Ida B. Wells said, “[O]ur American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hell-fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.”
James Baldwin, in the second half of the 20th century, repeatedly warned white Americans that their relentless refusal to honestly confront their past, and themselves, would lead to grotesque distortions of the sort that decades later we see embodied in Donald Trump. There is a severe cost, he wrote, for a life lived as a lie.
“People pay for what they do, and, still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become,” Baldwin wrote. “And they pay for it very simply by the lives they lead.