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Confronting America’s Original Sin, Celebrating Our Redemption

April 12, 2015

appomattos-court-houseOne hundred fifty years ago last Thursday, April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee faced the hard truth that it was over. He said he would “rather die a thousand deaths” than surrender to Gen. Grant. But it was over, and he knew it: his Northern Virginia Army in tatters; shoeless, starving, less than half its earlier number, beaten beyond recovery. And so the two great soldiers met at Appomattox Courthouse. Lee surrendered, and the U.S. Civil War was all over, as they say, except the shoutin’. Six hundred thousand men dead. Families and farms and livelihoods destroyed. A would-be nation humiliated into submission.

The cemetery at Shiloh battlefield.

The cemetery at Shiloh battlefield.

For four million Americans who had been enslaved by whips, chains and threats of death, something new and wondrous entered their lives: Liberty. They would continue to suffer and struggle and sometimes die to secure the rights due them, but their world was forever changed.

railroad_depot destroyed cwar

The abomination of human slavery is a chapter in our country’s history that we cannot excise. After the war, it took an entire century and the rule of law for black and white people to live and work and sup together in the South. Even now, under our country’s first President of color, one can argue that some are more equal than others in the daily scramble of American life. Revisiting our forefathers’ inhumanity to Man is uncomfortable for 21st century white Americans. We don’t understand it, and it stirs up messy emotions from remorse to mortification. But confront it we must. Ignoring it is cheap grace.

cotton_plantWhen I was a young girl, I remember my father telling me,

Everything you have or ever will have, you owe to cotton.

In the play Many Thousand Gone (final performance tonight at 7:00 p.m.),  conflicted planter Parker Long is confronted with the evil he has done to his fellow human beings, brothers and sisters in his Christian faith.  After his moment of epiphany, he ruefully acknowledges to his wife, Cornelia,

Everything we possess, those Negroes have made it from their sweat.

Image source: 12 Years a Slave.

Image source: 12 Years a Slave.

I didn’t fully understand how incomplete my father’s insight was until I first saw Many Thousand Gone at Abundant Grace Fellowship two years ago. The play, written and directed by the church’s divinely talented Pastor Dwayne Hunt, is the history lesson missing from our textbooks. From the words and songs, prayers and laughter and tears of slaves, we learn what daily life was like in the ante bellum South. It is at once achingly difficult to watch, inspiring and uplifting.  Many Thousand Gone is ultimately a celebration of the human spirit. We see “first hand” the courage and character and faith it took for the enslaved to endure; and yes, not only to endure, but to prevail.

I will never see a cotton field or boll again without a vision of the African Americans whose toil and sweat made it grow, slave's scarred backand with it, the Southland. Slavery is the thorn in America’s side that will ever continue to prick. It is our Holocaust.  It is inextricably woven into the fabric of our history. To ignore slavery,  to avoid a full and complete understanding of how a country founded on equality allowed it to happen, deprives us of seeing Truth. And without Truth and clarity, we cannot begin to learn and heal from our transgressions.

It would have been easy to create a much darker play retelling the story of Southland slavery, one infused with anger and whites-shaming. Instead, Pastor Hunt created Many Thousand Gone to “educate, inspire, and promote reconciliation.” In the end, there is shared joy among slaves and white abolitionists that the blood of 600,000 soldiers  was not shed in vain. White Americans institutionalized slavery and allowed it to stain our new country for 246 years. It is also true, however,  that white people caused slavery to end, both its trading in England and the Americas and the legality of human bondage.

Growing up in Memphis in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I knew only what I was told and what I read about the Old South and the rationale for segregation. My historical knowledge of the Civil War was Technicolored by the romance and tragedy of Gone With the Wind. I didn’t have any black friends until long after Rhodes College (nee Southwestern at Memphis). It was a long time before I understood the truth of ante bellum days – or thought I did.  Until I first saw Many Thousand Gone in 2013, I did not know many facts I lacked. That additional knowledge helped Eddie and me to commit ourselves and our resources to furthering reconciliation in Memphis by any means God revealed to us.

GWTW_3lg

God’s plans for his children are often surprising, taking twists and turns you never see coming.  Eddie and I could not have imagined in February 2013 that two years later we would be playing Parker and Cornelia Long in Many Thousand Gone at Pastor Dwayne Hunt’s request. We are not actors. We are utterly overwhelmed to be in the same company as the extraordinarily gifted performers in Many Thousand Gone. But we have learned to live into the roles of sinners who were changed, roles we live out every day. Playing Parker and Cornelia before  Memphis audiences – confronting our history and honoring those who lived through it – has been a great blessing to us.

This year’s run of Many Thousand Gone ends tonight, Sunday April 12. Come out if you can (purchase tickets online at www.manythousandgone.org). If you can’t make it this year, watch this preview on YouTube of a previous year’s performance. Back in River City will remind you next February when Many Thousand Gone repeats its annual run. Pastor Hunt, members of his talented congregation, the actors he recruits (and Eddie and me, if he will allow us) will keep this faith-infused history lesson of our country’s redemption alive as long as it takes for every American to embrace one another in reconciliation and brotherly love.

If we can make it happen in Memphis,  it can happen everywhere.

lorraine motel protestor

This post has been updated from its original version.

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