dear grandpa massa: an open letter to my white ancestor for confederate memorial day
April 24, 2018
By Michael W. Twitty/Afroculinaria*, AFROPUNK Contributor
To: Captain Richard Henry Bellamy—
From: Your Descendant, Mr. Michael W. Twitty, a published author
Date: 4/23/2018, Confederate Memorial Day
Subject: Times Have Changed
You are my third great grandfather. You are white. Because of you and several others I am Viking, I am Celt, I am a melting pot of western, northern, southern and eastern Europe. But I am still Black, your society made those rules, not mine, but it’s okay because I’m proud to be Black no matter how you intended it to work against my favor. And despite you, I am Asante, Serer, Fula, Mandinka, Yoruba, Igbo, Kongo and Malagasy.
You and your father William held in bondage my great great great grandmother Arrye and her sons—one of her sons married your daughter a girl child born to a teenage girl you took advantage of from the nearby Chadwick plantation.
You were a deadbeat dad; what’s worse is that there were thousands like you that led to millions like me. Thanks to the miracle of DNA research, oral history has been confirmed sans Maury–you are the father.
You fathered two Black children out of wedlock on the floors of plantation kitchens—one in Alabama and one in Texas. Two Black families can trace themselves back to you.
My cousin Alan from Texas. His great grandfather and my great great great grandfather is Richard Henry Bellamy.
You are permanently canonized in our memory as a thirty-something in a butternut grey suit, ready to serve as a Captain up from a private in the rebel army of the Confederate States of America. I remember seeing your sword in Alabama as a kid, under a glass case. I know more about you than any other ancestor I have because you were a freeborn white male whose parents and grandparents could say the same. I know you went to school at the University of Georgia and your dorm building still stands; I have seen the eastern counties of North Carolina where you were born and visited my fifth great-grandfather’s plantation (your grandfather) a place where I know so much about what he ate and how he lived, but could never have sat down to a meal with him or talked to him about anything because he himself held in bondage almost fifty human beings. His wealth and your father’s wealth built on the backs of my other ancestors meant you got to go to school, got to become a lawyer, part of the Texas legislature, got to become a prestigious Mason, and got to retire without worry in the countryside of Russell County, Alabama. You are privilege—the original privilege right down to the land your relatives stole from the Muskogee, or the people you called the Creek Indians before helping Andrew Jackson banish them to Oklahoma.
It’s not that I can’t relate to you because you are white. Heaven knows I live in a society that sets all defaults on “white” so good luck with that. I can’t relate to you because I don’t think you would understand why I cannot celebrate Confederate Memorial Day as a descendant of several Confederate veterans. Let’s count the ways:
1. Despite the fact you are part of my life origin story, you violated those girls and you saw nothing wrong with that. I don’t care if it was a “different time,” if a Black man had taken advantage of a teenage white girl, your society said he was worthy of immediate public death. Instead you left us with generations of aesthetic ambivalence, phenotypic exile, and the recurring theme of “Who am I?” We have this movement going on called “Me Too,” and if you and your fellow rapacious slaveholders had been around you’d be the biggest culprits named.
2. You fought to preserve white supremacy. You were not fighting merely for Alabama or the honor of the Confederacy or “states rights” you were fighting to make sure I never had the ability to read a single word, vote, or write this blog post about you. (Don’t be vain.) By the way my romantic partner is a white man so times have changed. I won’t send you into a second death by telling you who the “guy” is in the relationship….I will spare you that, this time. By fighting for white supremacy you were working against all Judeo-Christian values you claimed to ascribe to, or the values of the Constitution or Declaration of Independence. White supremacy you might be happy to know is still causing the descendants of your formerly enslaved workers, including me, much consternation and while the Confederacy lost the war, we have still not defeated white supremacy over 150 years later. I do not want another 150 years of cold civil war. I know we are better than this ongoing open wound. But as long as it’s there it will be used against Southerners in an attempt to keep all of us separated, divided and constantly, chronically sick. The Southern white man and woman are the most culturally African of any of America’s white folks and by blood….by blood, they are bound until the end of time to the Black man and woman and the story of slavery and resistance to slavery.
3. The best thing I can do to honor your memory is to resist everything you stood for including the movement to idolize people like yourself through statues and the flying of an eastern theater battle flag. Honoring history is one thing, having a personal relationship to a specific history and recalling it is another, but using symbols of history as a means of maintaining and perpetuating discrimination, hatred, unproductive separatism, and values that are not in keeping with the best of America’s ideals are not.
The Southern white man and woman are my cousins, but in this era some of them are weaponized against me in an attempt to rally an entire party to the aid of a president who was not elected by numerical majority. The Southern destiny is the American destiny as it has been in the past. The South’s willingness to stand up to prejudice and oppression and progress guides by a new ethic is part of the source code of American liberation strategy. And yet we have reaffirmed tribal lines, resurrected old idols, serve gods which neither hear nor speak.
The Exodus from Egypt was the signature text of my enslaved Ancestors as they fought their way out of enslavement. For those who know the story the Exodus was followed by a return to old, unhelpful ways. A Golden Calf made from gold unwillingly ripped from the ears of the Hebrew women, boiled and molded into something of an Apis bull. “An idol,” as one weary looking actor in The Ten Commandments says, “for idol worshippers.” In the overly dramatic but incredibly important movie, the initial distribution of idols made of gold, the spoils of Egypt, is led by the former overseers of the Hebrews.
In the old, deep North, statues Blue and Gray were forged and cheaply made. During an age of The Lost Cause legend given poetry by white ladies who felt duly protected by white supremacy, only one narrative was to be. The South was right, the rest were wrong. Slavery was necessary, emancipation a mistake. As the challenge against white supremacy in an America hellbent to make the world safe for Democracy mounted, so did the re-centering of Southern identity around statues of the Civil War rebel. One flag of the Confederate South in perpetual battle, it’s x-shape the sign of nullification, resistance and death, likewise gained currency.
I was taught to believe these were markers of generational white PTSD, and I excused them, until, well, fact checks. The New South reverted to the Old South in order to stop The New Negro. American flags were ripped from the hands of Black soldiers and citizens alike as they faced mobs brandishing one of many Confederate battle flags and clung to the oxidizing idols offered them by racializing muses hellbent on keeping their myth alive. In my own ignorance, I honestly believed my cousins needed this for their own self work.
White Southern trauma is far more embedded in its inability to deal with its wounds and embrace their family of color than it is in the demolishing of any markers of myth–statues or flags. The lying, hateful, ignorant League of the South says that “Southern Cultural Genocide” is at large and Identity Europa and other Richard Spencer inspired groups suggest that this is ultimately a cause celebre for white identity as a whole. Confederate narratives have been forced into the shape of American one, and in the mouths of Richard Spencer, “America is once again a country for white men.”
No. If you are in this country and not multicultural, not intersectional, you simply haven’t tried hard enough to be an American. And maybe, with attitudes like that, you don’t want to.
4. I will meet your relatives and mine with peace and a sincere desire to teach and understand. We Southern people are a dysfunctional family, but we are still a family. It is in no small part because of people like you. We can either have another 150 year cold civil war or we can begin to dialogue and work together against the crippling effects of racism+greed as this country’s original sin.
5. I will continue to teach people about our culinary history as a means of showing them that much like today, your world depended on the know-how and skills and abilities of Africans and African Americans. Your popular music, vernacular architecture, language, dance, attitudes about hospitality, ecstatic worship, spiritual expression, ideas about sex, folk beliefs and diet—especially what you chose to eat from day to day—were shaped by the African journey in the American South. Hey just in case you want to, here’s another surprise….you fought for me to never be able to pick up a book, but low and behold, I wrote one.
Looking at you will never be not haunting.
It is less because your photograph makes you spectral and ore because I have seen your face in our faces. Your eyes were passed down and all the complexity in them.
But what you don’t know is that part of the Ancestors lives on in the bodies of the descendants. Maybe just maybe, now that your eyes are my eyes and my eyes and your eyes you can see why you need to seek redemption and reconciliation and not just memorial and celebration. Now that you know I am your blood, what would you want for me and mine? You have only Black descendants and we number in the hundreds. What, in our troubled world do you see through our eyes? Are you ready to change?
Signed, your great great great grandson
A free man of Color, Author of The Cooking Gene
And the only reason most people will ever know your name.
Happy Confederate Memorial Day?
* Michael W. Twitty is a culinary historian and food writer from the Washington D.C. area. He blogs at Afroculinaria.com. He’s appeared onBizarre Foods America with Andrew Zimmern, Many Rivers to Cross with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, and has lectured to over 300 groups. He has served as a judge for the James Beard Awards and is a fellow with the Southern Foodways Alliance and TED and the first Revolutionary in Residence at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Southern Living named Twitty, one of “Fifty People Changing the South.” HarperCollins released Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, in 2017, tracing his ancestry through from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom, a finalist for The Kirkus Prize and The Art of Eating Prize and a third place winner of Barnes&Noble’s Discover New Writer’s Awards in Nonfiction as well as a James Beard Award Finalist for Food Writing.
Michael W. Twitty’s book ‘The Cooking Gene’ is available HERE.
* This post is in partnership with Afroculinaria
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