Confederates in the Attic

The Holes in the Church Floor

I can't imagine the actual shooting. Sure, we see people shooting each other constantly on one screen or another, but this was a church. The Ministers would have been sitting around, perhaps in the sanctuary, and discussing, what I don't know because I've never attended a bible study session, but it could have been Matthew 5:44…"You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

Maybe when they saw the hyped-up youth in the shirt that displayed symbols of racist regimes, they thought it an opportunity to practice this gospel. I imagine them sitting in the sanctuary and motioning him forward. Come on in, son. I don't know if anyone actually said this, but I imagine it so. The church itself is a sanctuary and a symbol, too, just like the First African Baptist in Savannah, where Preacher Little welcomed a few visitors, including me, to join the congregation and invited us to participate in the Sunday service.

I attended out of curiosity. Having been disappointed by the commercialism that seemed to accompany the performances of the Harlem Gospel Choir -- at least where I saw them, in Quebec City's towering St. Roch Church-- I was looking for authenticity in Savannah. Like Mother Emmanuel, First African Baptist is an historic African-American church. It too has holes in the floor that aided the breathing of runaway slaves who hid out there, a stop on the underground railway. And the music was fine. Those voices! Most impressive, though, was the pastoral spirit I sensed in the preacher. I doubt he knew personally all the members of the congregation, but he spoke to them as if he did, and when he called to the front anyone who knew of someone who needed help, I joined, on behalf of my niece. He looked at me directly and asked her name and the nature of her suffering. I was standing in a crowd of strangers, all African-Americans dressed in their Sunday best, and those nearest hugged me when Preacher Little asked everyone in the church to stand up for Brigid.
Old Slave Market, Charleston

That warmth, that welcome, that genuine concern for others is what got the twenty-one year old killer into the church where the late Reverend Pinckney was the pastor.

What the confederate flag stood for is more complicated than racism, and yet, no doubt incapable of seeing complexity, bigots have reduced its meaning to serve their own cruel purposes. I learned on my trip through the south a couple of years ago that what we call the Civil War is known there as The War of Northern Aggression. The industrial northern states wanted the federation to have more control. The southern states wanted to keep their rights to do what they wanted, including owning slaves. But slavery was also practiced in the north, by men as integral to the country as Thomas Jefferson. As a visitor to the south, I found it odd to see the flag still so prominent, hanging from porches, displayed on bumper stickers, used for advertising, and as a common symbol on tombstones in graceful old cemeteries like Bonaventure in Savannah. The history of the civil war is a major tourist draw. I visited Thomas Ryan's slave market in Charleston and a former indigo plantation outside of town, where slave cemeteries were located well beyond the sight of the main house.

People still re-enact civil war battles, like author Tony Horwitz describes in his book Confederates in the Attic. It's a little like those jousting contests other people stage, their hobby being to re-enact battles and battle styles of the past. A sort of living history, but still history. The past. Relegating the confederate flag to museums instead of flying it prominently over the state capitol building will declare that the nation-dividing battles of the 18th century are indeed long over. Instead of decorating tombstones, the flag itself must be buried so not to to goad the easily confused into thinking that times have not changed. Times have changed, even if not enough.

As Pastor Little taught me in Savannah, I stand up for those nine families who lost those wonderful individuals, and also -- in the spirit of compassion they represented -- for the family of that pathetic young man who gained power he thought was his right only because he could buy a gun.

Confederates, faceless men, draft dodgers...old wars reconsidered

Reading a paper book, and  an ebook, both concerned with the lingering effect of old armed conflicts. Civil wars, if wars can ever be considered civil. Confederates in the Attic is the ebook, and I am reading it in preparation for my southern odyssey in November.  I finished the first few chapters on the train from Toronto back to Quebec City, between glances out the window at sumacs dripping scarlet alongside the tracks, and white birch trunks composing a warp behind the turning maples.
Tony Horwitz writes about his boyhood obsession with the the war between the states, as it was called, his experience as a hardcore reenactor of life as a confederate soldier, and the southern loyalists he met in Salisbury, North Carolina. As the Via train rolled east, after a switch at the Montreal train station, (where I picked up a felafel sandwich from my favorite Libainaise food kiosk) I learned of the commitments people make to keep memories alive. There is even a group called Children of the Confederacy. Horwitz examines the South through a lens ground to a single focus. My aim is to get a general first  impression. Instead of following the trail bloodied by combatants in the 1860's, a subject that never really compelled me, except when I was in school and I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address, I plan to make my first trip to the southern U.S. a bit of a literary pilgrimage. I want to visit Asheville and think of the wordy romanticism of Thomas Wolfe; You Can't Go Home Again waits on my ereader too.

But here, chez moi, it is a novel en français, L'ombre du vent, or The Shadow of the Wind, that absorbs me. Even though I am not yet, nor may ever be, fluent in French, I can read well enough to savour the language, the style of Zafon, the compelling voice of his narrator, who, as a child, is taken by his father to a cemetery for forgotten books. That sequence begins a story haunted both by a man with a face burned so that he has no features, and, more intrinsically, by the Spanish civil war. But a cemetery for forgotten books! How wonderful! All we authors must wish for a kind of Graveyard day (I remember the Bobby Ann Mason story), when people would come visit our neglected books

That has happened to some extent recently with my novel, Centre/Center (Talon, 1992) which, coincidentally, also concerns war, the Vietnam war in this case, and consequent migration to Canada of draft dodgers and war protestors. A few messages from readers who discovered the book (in the kind of cemetery that now exists on-line), and a book club discussion have convinced me that the divisions created by that war also still exist, here in Canada and in the United States. It was a different kind of civil, rather, uncivil war.