Tag Archives: civil war

Miss Pittman

Miss Jane PittmanI read twenty-five books in 2017, another twenty-five in 2018, and another twenty-five in 2019. I share that with the pride that comes from the rarity of setting a long-term goal and sticking to it. My goal was another twenty-five in 2020 to make it an even hundred in four years, but much to my surprise I am already through twenty in just half a year, so the odds are in my favor.

It isn’t that work has even hinted at letting up. Instead, this sudden reading feast appears to be a combination of no evening events to attend, no sports to follow on television, and a persistent need to escape the present circumstances. I am reading constantly.

Book number twenty was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Years ago, while living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, my friend, Bruno, gave me a copy of A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, one of those novels that crawls into your heart and builds a nest. Last Christmas, while stocking up on used books at McKays with my family, I couldn’t pass up a copy of Gaines’s Miss Pittman. However, it sat in a stack for the first several months of 2020, but as enduring racism claimed global attention alongside the raging pandemic, it seemed like the time to read this particular story.

The stunning plotline of the novel is the reflection of a 100+ year old woman whose life stretched from the 1860s to the 1960s, from birth into slavery through a life of unrelenting white supremacy and into the pain of the Civil Rights era. Alice Walker described it as “grand, robust, a rich and very big novel,” to which I add a humble Amen.

As I read the frustrating, humiliating, yet strong and courageous journey of the novel’s heroine, given the time in which I was reading I thought of decade after decade of so many thinking that the American Civil War ended something that it did not. And one does not even have to try very hard to connect the dots and recognize that the American Civil Rights Movement was not a finish line either.

It is shameful that we had to argue over such an innocuous phrase, Black Lives Matter. I guess that shows how deep-seated racism actually is.

Miss Jane Pittman is technically a fictional character, but of course she was oh so real. It occurred to me that many more Miss Pittmans were born in the 1960s and are now over halfway through another century’s journey. I wish their story was less painful than it is, but I have seen them on the television mourning the loss of their children, too.

I am thankful to Mr. Gaines for introducing me to Miss Pittman and teaching me that even being shown and told that one does not fully matter for over a hundred years is impotent compared to the capacity of the human spirit. May such extraordinary fortitude be rewarded in the lives of real people.

Avoiding a Repeat of History

charleston-picI set my alarm for 5:30am most every morning, but when I did so on Tuesday in Charleston, South Carolina, it was actually 2:30am for the old California-tuned biological clock.  But I got up anyway and met a new friend in the hotel lobby for an early morning run.  We ran four miles through that beautiful city with its gas lamps, stately mansions, cobblestone streets, peaceful waterfront, and general gorgeous-ness before the sun really even thought about making an appearance.  It was great—the run, the conversation, the city, the sights, and the weather.

When we first located the ocean on our run (fyi, those oceans aren’t always as easy to find as you might think), my new friend pointed toward a gleaming set of lights in the distance and said casually, “Oh, there’s Fort Sumter.”

I nearly had to stop running.  Fort Sumter.  Where the American Civil War began, a fact I taught an unknown number of teenaged history students a few decades and careers ago.  I knew Fort Sumter was in Charleston but hadn’t thought about it in the days leading up to this hastily-planned business trip and surely didn’t expect to see it pointed out in casual conversation.

That location, sitting silent in the darkness, is where the citizens of my country chose up sides and literally started killing each other.

Times are a little crazy right now, and I don’t wish to sound overly dramatic, but a professor friend of mine who is an expert on Lincoln has pointed out more than once recently that our current political climate reminds him of the decade leading up to the American Civil War.  Surely such a thing couldn’t happen again?  Could it?

Not if I have anything to do about it.  And I do.  We all do.

While Fort Sumter sat silently in the distance, I considered the contrasting metaphor of our morning run where two American brothers ran side by side in the same direction sharing deep thoughts and good stories.  That was nice.  We did, however, meet people traveling different directions than us, and as we tend to do in the South (and as this Southern boy does wherever I happen to be), we said hello in warm greetings to those traveling in the exact opposite direction.  That was nice, too.

Now don’t get me wrong: There is a time and a place to stand in opposition to others.  And we should.  But there is also a way to treat your brothers and your sisters when you stand in opposition, and when the collective decision concludes that the best way to do so is to pick up weapons and start shooting each other, then something went horribly wrong a long time ago.

Something may have already gone wrong in this country of ours a long time ago.  If so, I suggest that we find a way to reverse course before some random runner a couple of centuries from now is jarred by the sight of the place where we once again chose a violent answer.