I’m descended from Southerners only on my father’s side of the family -- though that side includes some high-profile Confederate skeletons (Gen. George Pickett, most famously.) I don’t remember my father professing affection for the Deep South way of life – he left it for a career in the military. The U.S. Army was the culture I grew up in. Col. Banks didn't care if my sister and I knew all the words to “Dixie” (though we did) but we had better be able to sing “The Artillery Song” upon command. So, although the Army posts where we lived were mostly in the South, we were never explicitly indoctrinated in the creed of the Lost Cause, with its fierce nostalgia for the antebellum “way of life.” Yet looking back, I am shocked at how much of it we breathed in anyway. Valued heirlooms, dyed-in-the-wool Southern aunts, and, of course, stories.
A foot-tall stack of paper — The Pile — sat waiting for me in my office closet for many years. These documents are the family archives and they came down to me along with my grandmother’s silver. For the longest time I was allergic to these papers. They scared me, really and past they tied me to didn’t feel like mine. When you reinvent yourself every three years, as Army kids can and must do, forbears lack importance. Your status is defined by your daddy’s rank; no one knows or cares who your people are.
So The Pile remained untouched over the years for a reason -- or for many reasons. But after 2016, I could no longer ignore it. I began to poke at the archive tentatively, pulling out a few pages to examine.
Right away I extracted:
A 1963 newspaper story about an event that took place in 1791, headlined “Col. Alston Shot Dead in Bed in Georgia.”
An advertising circular announcing “Your only invitation to own a numbered, authentic and authorized exact replica of the Great Seal of the Confederacy in sterling silver,” including an invitation to become a charter member of The Society of the Confederacy.
A hand-written document, its pages held together with rusty paper clips detailing the disposition of Pickett family portraits: “Clarice to Lizzie Banks and Eliza the following portraits: I William Raiford Pickett; II Francis Dickson Pickett; III Eliza Goddard Whitman.”
A pair of newspaper feature stories about historic houses owned by ancestors that have been turned into museums, one in Montgomery, Alabama; another a Revolutionary War era plantation in Moore County, North Carolina.
Three pages in tiny print titled “More about Banks lineage,” from which I learned for the first time that my father was the fourth Richard Griffin Banks, and that his great-grandfather was a Confederate surgeon. Looking up that Dr. Banks in census records, I learned that in 1840 his Virginia household had included 7 slaves.
There are many kinds of not knowing. There is knowing and then forgetting. There is knowing but failing to imagine. And then there is just looking away. These were all ways I did not know the stories that make up my paternal family history, populated with slaveholders and Confederate generals. The stories have been there all along, waiting for me to be willing to know them.