Every time I see a new movie about a figure from the past I have to ask why our culture wants to re-examine and relive the past from the perspective of a medieval king, a Roman hero, a cowboy or a 1960s Rock star.
On one hand, I believe some people wish to lose themselves in a romanticized period. On the other, some want to truly understand how real people accomplished the great things they did. I am in the latter camp. I think about my ancestors seeing this country go through the upheavals of the Civil War, Reconstruction and post Reconstruction as their fortunes changed from enslavement to freedom to Jim Crow.
For example, documentation of my family history in The United States begins with the life of Sawney Hazel. He was my maternal 5th great-grandfather. He was born into slavery around 1815 and died about 1894. Sawney grew up as property, saw his children and first wife sold off, bought his freedom, and worked as a laborer and a preacher until he died.
I wish I could have witnessed the moment Union soldiers overtook Charleston. A black man like Sawney would have been conscripted as a laborer, carpenter or shipbuilder for the Confederacy. He would have rejoiced in the streets as did many other black people when the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts (“Colored”) Regiments entered the city as victors. Then when the “Black Code” was abolished, black people gained equality in some public accommodations, could own property, vote and hold political office he must have believed his dreams had come true.
Sawney was likely also disappointed when the Southern backlash occurred. Racist actions evicerated the gains made during Reconstruction. Skilled and unskilled laborers were pushed out of their jobs and their economic stability was destroyed. Voting was encumbered by gerrymandering and the establishment of statewide primaries. When Sawney retired in 1892, blacks were required to prove they had voted for the Democrats (the Conservative party of that time) since 1876. Segregation in public life accelerated and Jim Crow became entrenched.
As we witness the changes in our cultural landscape today, I look back to see the lesson Sawney Hazel would have taught me. Culture Wars have existed in this country for centuries and America’s embrace of has waxed and waned. I grew up during the 60s and 70s when political change and Civil Rights gains provided the same promise for African Americans as Reconstruction did. The conservative movement we are living with now reminds me of the backlash after Reconstruction. I am close to retirement age, but not ready to stop seeing the parallels to the past about life as an African American. My ancestor resolved that that after being freed from slavery, he was not going to sit back and do or say nothing. He risked his own life to teach slaves how to read, after all. I am proud his blood runs in my veins.
Source: Black Charlestonians: A Social History. Bernard E. Powers, Jr. The University of Arkansas Press. Fayetteville. 1994.