Oregon writer, Rain Trueax, and Oregon painter, Diane Widler Wenzel co-author Rainy Day Thought, where they write about ideas and creativity. Diane posts on Wednesdays and Rain on Saturdays. There may be extra days or changes as situations warrant. Comments are always welcome as it turns an article into a discussion. They must, however, be in English to avoid spam getting in here.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

what we don't know but think we do

by Rain Trueax

Subjects for blogs come from many sources- what I'm doing; what I read; something someone said; from the muse. I don't try to explain it anymore than I do from where my books come. Once in awhile though, something comes along that excites my interest enough to stick with it and then want to share it-- in fiction and here.

That something this time was from a Facebook post that led to a lengthy discussion on racism in America that extended back to the Civil War. Since I had researched that period both in the South and Oregon, I followed along, putting out my opinions-- none of which are germane to this post.  What is relates to validating my belief in a book I wrote a few years back. The following is a bit about my hero's background in the book, Going Home.
Jed was a Southerner, who had come to Oregon in the late 1850s to find his way, independent of his wealthy Southern family. He had bought a large ranch in Eastern Oregon (the only really unlikely but not impossible part) and set up his cattle ranch. Ranching in that area actually began a bit later.
Then came the outbreak of the Civil War. He had to go back. His family was in Georgia, with long roots there. His mother was ill and had written she needed him. An honorable man, he told the woman, with whom he'd fallen in love, that he was going but didn't try to bind her to him, as he doubted he'd return given how brutal he expected the war to be. He would not be fighting for slavery but for his country, as he saw it, his brothers, and his mother.
His ancestors had come to Georgia after the mighty clans had been forced from Scotland by England. Of the Clan Buchan, they had first gone to France while the patriarch stayed behind to fight with his clan in what was a lost cause but it was about honor. He had sent his family with the wealth he could gather, in the hope if he survived, they'd immigrate to America for a new start. He did and they did.
When they arrived in Georgia, having gone through what they had, the slave system was reprehensible to them. Furthermore, the patriarch believed freed men worked better than slaves. As soon as it was feasible, he freed the blacks who had come with their plantation and offered them a living wage. Those who stayed became part of the family business.
Years and generations passed. My hero was born. His father was less than honorable and impregnated one of the workers. She died after giving birth to a son. Now comes the kind of thing that also happens,  as good people are everywhere-- just not everyone. Jed's mother took in the child and raised him as one of her sons. When Jed had gone north to Oregon, his three brothers, including this young man stayed behind to run the plantation, which now ran purebred cattle and horses. As the war opened, two brothers joined the Confederacy and their half brother stayed with his mother to run the plantation.
My book opens after the war, when Jed returns to Oregon to see if his ranch and that woman are still there. He returns with... never mind, that's not what this piece is about. What made me feel rewarded is looking again at the Civil War to see how my character's arc would have been-- not for all southerners but for some. Also the idea of freed slaves, who remained, wasn't unheard of even in Georgia.

The writer of that article for PBS, Henry Louis Gates Jr., came from a family of onetime slaves, freed long before the Civil War. In it, he wrote, 
"In that raging year of Lincoln’s election and Southern secession, there were a total of 488,070 free blacks living in the United States, about 10 percent of the entire black population. Of those, 226,152 lived in the North and 261,918 in the South, in 15 states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas) plus the District of Columbia. Let me break that down further: A few months before the Confederacy was born, there were 35,766 more free black people living in the slave-owning South than in the North, and removing D.C. from the equation wouldn’t have shifted the result. And they stayed there during the Civil War."
Many today do not know that 2/3 of Southerners did not own a slave. Slavery was more prevalent in the deep South, like Mississippi, where 1/2 of the families owned a slave. The border states went down to 14%. It averaged out to about 1/3, not an unimportant part of the economy but not everybody.

The reason for the war wasn't that the North was about to outlaw slavery in the South. Lincoln did not want to break up the union over that-- though, from all I've read, he personally detested slavery. The issue was the expansion west and would the new states be slave owning or would it be outlawed. Doubtless, some in the South feared, they'd be next, but it wasn't yet on the table. 

There are many who believe slavery would have eventually been ended in the South, but that's hard to say as those states, over this issue, would not have agreed to be in the United States initially. It was a stumbling block in terms of signing the Declaration of Independence. They demanded it say nothing about slavery.

Today, some in the United States have demanded removal of monuments to any of the Southern leaders at the time of the Civil War. This whole issue, along with one racist's use of the Confederate flag, erupted in the summer before I had my book due to be launched. I was concerned for obvious reasons. It though had to be what it was.

Staying true to the history, my book showed the ugly side of Oregon's laws (which had early on involved exclusion) and behavior when my hero quickly learned that Oregon had its own ugly side-- Oregon laws.

Nobody should defend what happened in the South after the Civil War with Jim Crow laws-- and worse. They, however, weren't the only ones doing such things. Racism is a factor in human history-- an ugly part that we mostly would like to pretend belongs to someone else. It seems unlikely that removing historic monuments, often with little to do with the actual issue, will do much to change that. Looking at people from the past and judging them by today's standards is not particularly helpful. Humans tend to be complex and the same person who can do something wonderful can also do something reprehensible. The thing is history is rarely as tidy as history books sometimes make it look.

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