By Ariel Emmerson
My mother’s family has deep roots in the South. My grandmother’s people were part of the first wave of Anglo pioneers who came down to North Florida from Appalachia to raise cattle and deeply embrace and hold pride in their Florida cracker heritage. My maternal granddad’s people came from Texas and North Florida. However, Mom was an army brat and grew up on different bases throughout the country, or overseas. Her connection to the South was as a place to come home to, even when she’d never lived there for more than a year or two at a time.
My connection to my “half” southern heritage has always felt tentative. Growing up, my identity was deeply rooted in my Pacific Northwest upbringing. Despite moving back and forth between Washington state and the D.C. area, my middle school and high school years in Bellingham, WA shaped my sense of place and belonging. During these years, it was easy to romanticize my southern heritage, to see the South as a distant and foreign place, and to laugh and gently tease my mother for “turning southern” when she was on the phone with her family. For me, the South, my southern family, and the homestead were distant and almost mystical things.
But there is a memory I have from childhood, elusive and vague, buried beneath a shroud of swamp gas and oppressive north Florida humidity, the kind of tangible thickness that coats your throat and settles wetly into your lungs.
My parents and I were down from Maryland to visit my maternal grandparents on the family farm in Lloyd—a small forgotten town in Jefferson County that never saw its anticipated glory days. One day Granddad drove Mom and me out to walk some land that was once a part of the 600-something acre farm owned and run by his daddy’s people. On that now parceled out land was a small family plot—a cemetery long neglected and mostly forgotten.
We drove from the farm along the straight county highway that cut through swaths of tall pulp pine. At some point, we turned onto a small pot-holed road, and then onto smaller sand-packed red-dirt roads. The land became dense with native Live Oaks trailing Spanish Moss. We pulled up and granddad announced: “There it is.” Giant tree trunks and overgrown brush obscured the area, but beneath the growth there was a square of land marked by what was probably once a neat and sturdy fence. It was like the foliage had come up and grown down to swallow the fence. Then I saw the crumbling headstones. It was a small and modest resting place, with only a handful of graves. We wandered around looking at the dilapidated headstones leaning into each other from years of slowly sinking into the sandy soil, talking about who was who, trying to decipher the names and dates and trace the lineage back—great-great-greats. These were my grandad’s daddy’s people—the ones my granddad didn’t really know much about because his daddy was never comfortable talking about his family too much. One grave only had a first name on it. I can’t remember the name; I want to remember—and I asked granddad: “Who is this?” He glanced at it and said, “Oh, that was probably a slave.”
Even at the age of eight (or was I nine?), I felt an immediate shock, quickly followed by a deep sense of shame and betrayal. In my child innocence I thought: Wait, my family owned slaves? But that’s wrong! I couldn’t believe it. And sometimes the memory is fuzzy enough for me to think that maybe I imagined that revelation all together. I recently spoke to my mom and asked her to recall her own memories of visiting the old family cemetery. But when I mentioned the slave grave, she drew a blank. She said she didn’t remember that, and I panicked that I had made it up somehow, potentially conflating different family tales into an actual (but hazy) memory from almost 30 years ago. She was silent on the phone for a minute, I could practically hear her thinking. Then she said, “Well, maybe I just don’t want to remember that right.”
My granddad’s ancestors owned slaves. My Meme’s (my mom’s mother) ancestors fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. These aspects of my family’s history make my struggle to understand and embrace my southern heritage challenging, to say the least. As a young child, I was confused by the mix of emotions I felt about a part of my culture that was vague and distant because of my geographical disconnect from it, my lived experiences outside of the South, and the discord of knowing this heritage directly connected to the atrocious act of slavery. How could I settle that knowledge down to live alongside the warm and prideful feelings that made coming down to visit the family farm an almost spiritual homecoming?
There were the stories of the glory days of raising hogs, growing cane, making cane syrup, harvesting the vegetable crops, and being as all-around self-sustaining as possible—long days filled with hard work. There were the ghost tales and the walk between houses on the farm late at night when the Spanish moss would tickle the back of your neck and set you off running for fear that the ghosts were about. There was the running outside during a summer storm to wash your hair in the short-lived downpour. There was the canning, and peanut-butter making, and harvesting of the figs, grapes, and pecans. There were the large family reunions with Meme’s people where large pots of shrimp boils were thrown down on a paper-covered table and folks smoked and drank and sang and laughed and talked white-trash shit with unfettered abandon.
But now there was this new information—definitively glanced over and hushed up. It wasn’t talked about because it threatened the sense of pride in my family’s southern heritage that they so strongly clung to. Processing this information is an ongoing experience, one that started when I was a child. I asked uncomfortable questions and prodded my grandparents to share as many family memories as possible, the good and the ugly. I asked about their experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South, their relationships with their black neighbors, how they dealt with and participated in the systemic structure of racism. What did it mean to them? I didn’t always get many answers or thoughts, I was picking and needed to mind my place, but I knew I was right to ask and encourage the conversation.
Something I’ve believed for a long time, even before I could fully express this belief (and I’m still working to do this) is that, as Americans, we have an inherent duty and responsibility to our nation’s past. To me, being patriotic includes facing and actively dealing with the dark, bloody, violent, and morally wrong parts of our history. We cannot bury this past because to do so is to actively deny how that past affects our lives now. Being patriotic means stewardship to and protection of the land, celebrating achievements, and striving to overcome our serious shortcomings. It means ongoing active work, teaching ourselves, and being open to listening to the stories and perspectives of folks. It means taking responsibility for your ancestors’ sins and proactively being a part of making positive change.
Part of my ongoing process of coming to terms with this is actively staying aware. It’s staying current with the news and reading articles from multiple perspectives. For me, it’s why I read slave narratives and studied the Civil War on my own in middle school, why I sought out and read the writings of black activists and authors in high school and college. It’s why I challenge the phobic comment by a stranger in the grocery store. Staying aware influences how I raise my child to be aware of his privilege while learning to be a self-advocate and activist in a society that doesn’t celebrate his differences as an autistic person.
I often wished in the years I lived in Tallahassee as an adult that I could trace my way back to that old family plot and that gravestone. I want to take a better look at it, write down the names and dates, and do the work of tracing the history and discovering the truth. But there’s no way I could remember the way, and when I asked my granddad how to get back there, he couldn’t remember either. My grandparents are gone now, and there is so much more I wished I’d asked them.
There were days when I would drive away from visiting my grandparents on the farm and would wander off the county highway down various lanes in a vague search to go back to that place, only to get miserably lost.
It’s easy to stay lost. That’s part of my process too—finding my way back when I get lost. I don’t have an answer, I will probably keep trying to figure it all out for the rest of my life. But understanding that the process is part of the journey is helpful, and knowing there isn’t just one way to deal with this ugly past helps, too.