When I asked an employee at a hotel in Richmond, Virginia for directions to the Museum of the Confederacy, he gave me a strange look. “Are you sure you want to go there?” I understood the skepticism of this African American man in his smart bellman’s uniform. Black folks generally tend to stay away from memorials to the “Lost Cause.”
“Yes, I’m sure. Can you please tell me how to get there?” I said with appropriate southern politeness.
I was in Richmond attending an “African Americans and the Civil War” conference and researching for my new novel about people rebuilding their lives after the war. I took off for the museum on foot. As I walked, I could feel that tingle I get when I am about to do research. I would get a chance to see some muskets up close, some uniforms. For a historical novelist, a museum is the best opportunity to confirm accurate period details.
I strolled through the door, and it was as if I’d walked into another dimension. My palms began to sweat. My vision blurred. My stomach rolled. I stopped in my tracks, unable to move. What was wrong with me?
I tried to push through it by purchasing my ticket to the museum. “Would you like to tour the Jefferson Davis mansion as well?” the woman asked me. Her voice sounded far away. It was as if she spoke through a tunnel.
“Yes, yes,” I mumbled.
I glanced into the gift shop, but the array of Confederate flags daunted me. I decided to bypass the shop and get to the exhibits as quickly as I could. As I walked, I felt everyone was watching me. I was an African American woman. For a moment, I questioned my sanity for coming into this place. I heard a tour guide explain to someone that his ancestor was General Lee’s scout. I glanced at him, and I felt he turned to glare at me. I looked away. Was it my imagination? Were people really giving me hostile looks? My neck itched. I wondered if it had been a mistake to go to the museum alone. I should have asked someone to come with me, I thought.
When I got outside, I tried to catch my breath. It occurred to me that I might be having a panic attack although I’d never had one before.
Later that night, I reflected on the day: I’d undergone some kind of stress reaction as I’d walked through what I perceived to be a hostile environment. If I could experience that in the twenty-first century, I could only imagine what my characters must have undergone in the 1860s. I’d uncovered a bit of research without even looking for it.
Quite often, we struggle to connect contemporary times with history. Certainly the path between the two is never a straight line. But I believe the recent uprisings in response to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray reflect the stress of living in what is perceived to be a hostile environment, a stress that is not unlike that of African Americans over a hundred years ago. I believe the attack on the prayer group in Charleston, South Carolina sends the message that this country is still a hostile environment for many African Americans.
I grew up in Tennessee, though we owned a farm in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Most of our two hundred acres were leased out, but my dad spent his vacation days happily roaming the land on his tractor. Middle-class income had finally earned him his “forty acres.”
Every year–in Holly Springs and other cities around the state–antebellum mansions opened their doors to history-seeking pilgrims. I often watched young women stroll around in period dresses outside the houses, twirling their parasols as they invited long lines of tourists into homes and churches. I remember the first time I saw a little black porcelain statue, a dark-skinned man holding a tray. “You see that? That’s a blackamoor,” my father told me as we drove past a white-columned house.
I never saw an African American person participating in those pilgrimages down in Mississippi. In fact, I frequently overheard black folks dismiss the pilgrimages as something white folks did.
There are times when it feels like we live in two Americas. Once, my husband was pulled over by a policeman while he was on his way to drop me at the library before heading off to work. Before the policeman could say anything, my husband exclaimed, “Why are you harassing me? I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I’m just trying to go to work.” That is what it is like to live in a hostile environment. One exists in a state of stress that may or may not be attributed to racial paranoia.
The attack on innocent citizens attending Bible study at their church in Charleston certainly constitutes a different situation than contemporary encounters with police. Yet when we understand the history of the church—its destruction by white supremacists in 1822—the connection between historical times and the present becomes startlingly clear.
As I walked through the museum that day, I told myself over and over, “I am an American. I belong here. Anywhere that is a public space in this country belongs to me, too.” I told myself that it is not acceptable to feel there is any place in this country where I am not welcome. Yet that is exactly how many African American men and women feel in their own neighborhoods. I am an American. I am an American, I told myself.