It was just about two years ago that my late friend Michael, about whom I’ve written before, and I had the following exchange on Facebook chat. He was very Southern and conservative in his manner, and I am very neither. We were great friends. Now and again, we’d bicker about politics but always got along. After one such exchange, he sent me the picture above, a token of reconciliation.
Michael: That is a colorized photo from the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
A few minutes later, he wrote again, with a question that, I realize, meant a great deal to him and, as it turned out, to me as well.
Michael: You have heard of Gettysburg, but does it haunt you? Were you haunted by it?
Chris: Not especially.
Michael: My point.
Chris: You win some, you lose some.
Michael: And some shape you and your people.
The next day, Michael wrote me again.
Michael: Look at the Germans trying to decide what to do with the Nuremberg stadium. They cannot bulldoze it. They are at a point of doubt. So many fought to make this great. It was wrong. We were on the wrong side. You do not have this guilt. (not Nazi but Confederate)
Chris: It’s an interesting word, “we.” Why not characterize the Confederacy as “they”? The cause they fought for was wrong, although there’s much to admire about them. On the other hand, I can recall talking with a fellow Irish-American (over beers, of course) on Cape Cod about the issue of reparations. “My ancestors never owned any slaves,” he said, noting that his people –like my own–hadn’t arrived in American until the 1920s. My counterargument was that, when our ancestors voluntarily became American citizens, they took on the blessings as well as the burdens of that identity. So, I guess what I’m saying is, it’s our history, yours and mine. We can use it to hold ourselves back or push ourselves forth as we like. As long as we do so in an honest way, we our free to do with it what we like– we’re just not at liberty to ignore it.
Michael: Agreed. I inherited “we”. It was handed down to me from my Great Aunt Lucy through my Mother in things said and left unsaid. It is what I am.
Chris: It’s been a formative inheritance, to be sure. Still, you do not have to accept that burden of guilt as your own.
He didn’t respond to this. We were in touch again, about a week later, on another matter. After that, Michael sort of disappeared. In a couple of months, he would be dead. How I wish he were still with us, so I could still be arguing with and learning from him.