My dad once showed me a shoebox full of sepia-colored photographs taken at a family funeral in Hull, Ga., in 1932. His aunt dug it out of a closet and gave it to him when he was around fifty. Each photograph had been snipped in two. Only the bottom halves remained, the tops burned or discarded long ago.
In shot after shot, a small group of women and men posed in front of a new grave mounded high with fresh flowers. You couldn’t tell who the people were. What was left showed them only from the waist down—a row of sensible lace-up shoes and boots, some beneath thick stockings and gathered skirts, some at the end of a pair of trousers.
The photographs were taken at my grandmother Juanita’s funeral. She was just twenty when she died, her son, my dad, only two years old. Her mother had taken scissors to each picture and with angry, jagged cuts done her best to make someone disappear. But who?
It’s always hot in my memories of visiting Dad’s family in Georgia, and there’s the constant hum of bees in the sun-drenched abelias lining the front walk. My great-grandmother’s home was not air conditioned. The windows were draped with sheers to keep out the sun, an electric fan whirred 24-7 in the sitting room and ice-cold bottles of Coke were at the ready in the fridge. Mornings and early evenings, when the outside temperature was at its most tolerable, we’d haul lawn chairs out to the shade under the large oak tree and eat fresh ripe peaches. Before A/C, Southerners put a lot of effort into beating the heat.
And white Southerners (which includes my relatives) also put a lot of effort into revising the parts of the South’s history they didn’t cotton to.
***“Why do they have all these statues of a bunch of losers?” one of my sons asked.
We had just moved to Richmond, Va., and were driving down Monument Avenue with its grandiose statues of Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.
Our boys were eleven and thirteen at the time. I’d felt good hearing this question, so different from what I would have been thinking at their age. It meant we were doing something right.
“Because, at the time, some Richmonders wanted to make people believe that the cause these men fought for was just,” I answered, “even though it wasn’t.”
As a child in North Carolina, I’d sung “Dixie” loud and proud at ball games and in family sing-alongs on road trips. My teachers and textbooks in the predominantly white public schools I attended made sure we learned that the “War Between the States” was about state’s rights not slavery, that Confederate soldiers were nobly defending a genteel way of life, that the enslaved were treated well and happy in their work, and that Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were not racists but men who fought to preserve a way of life in the South that was honorable.
Growing older, continuing my education and living in different parts of the country, I gradually became aware these stories slanted history in a way that was wrong. But the harm these myths caused was something, I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t yet fully understand. Then in the late 1980s my husband and I adopted our boys, two children of black-white parentage with mocha skin and dark curls who had our whole hearts, and I knew I could never allow anyone ever to teach them that the men who enslaved their ancestors and fought for the preservation of slavery were heroes.
What I didn’t realize until later was how much of the South’s history was not just revised but cut out altogether.
***In 2018, on my first trip to the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., I was stopped by a painting of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Cowpens. The 19th century artist William Ranney depicted a uniformed black soldier saving Colonel William Washington (George’s cousin) by shooting a British soldier who was about to cut the officer down with his sword.
I knew a bit about this battle, which took place outside of Gaffney, S.C., just an hour south of where I grew up. It was the turning point in the Americans re-taking South Carolina from the British.
Ranney completed the painting in 1845. Why hadn’t I seen it before?
Probably because the portrayal of an African American playing a heroic role made white people uncomfortable. Perhaps they even chose to question whether it really happened. After all, Colonel Washington didn’t leave any written accounts of his or anyone else’s role in the Battle of Cowpens, and artists can take poetic license when they interpret an event.
Even photographs can’t always be trusted to show the truth.
***Dad remembered that when he was a young boy his grandmother set a photograph of his mother in her coffin on his bedside table. I was a new mom when he told me this and all I could think was: Who would do such a creepy thing as give a child a photograph of his mother dead?
The picture disappeared long ago (perhaps because some sane person had the same reaction I did). In Dad’s memory of it, his mother looked gaunt, like someone who had died of The Wasting Disease, which is what leukemia was sometimes called. Back then it was untreatable and always fatal.
I had no real experience of death as a kid and thought the story of Juanita’s demise romantically tragic, even glamorous: A young woman, pale and fragile, loved by her husband and child, who languishes away like Greta Garbo, the 1930s film star, playing Camille.
It also became part of my story. Into my early twenties, my medical history at the doctor’s office included leukemia as the cause of my maternal grandmother’s death.
“How could people have believed this way?” a fellow traveler who had grown up in the Northeast asked me recently. We were looking at displays in Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute about white resistance to desegregation.
“It’s easy when you’re steeped in it and that’s all you know,” I said.
So much of the history and culture I was exposed to growing up promoted the image of a glorious and noble South. I remember the drama of the sound and light show at the Cyclorama in Atlanta, my heart filling with pride as I listened to the story about the boys in grey who fought and died at the Battle of Atlanta. As a teenager, I loved Gone with the Wind, both the book and movie, never seeing the racist elements of either. I thought To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch embodied all that was right and good in the world, and I could relate completely to Scout’s adoring portrait of her father.
I believed my dad had magic powers when I was little. On Sundays, we often would go for drives out in the country. Every now and then, he’d lift his nose and sniff.
“I smell water up ahead,” he’d say.
“But water doesn’t have any smell!” I’d giggle.
“Oh, but I can smell it,” he’d answer. “We’re getting close!”
And sure enough, we’d soon go by a lake or pond, or cross a river.
When I got older, I realized these were roads he’d driven often and knew the landmarks. This had been just a fun game—for both of us.
***But sometimes it’s not amusing to discover you’ve been tricked.
The panoramic painting at the center of the Cyclorama’s “show” in the 1960s is about 400 feet long, 45 feet high—one of the largest paintings in the world. It was displayed as a memorial to the Lost Cause, and I was shocked when I learned in a 2017 article in The Economist that’s not how it started out.
A team of Milwaukee artists created the piece in the 1880s to celebrate Northern heroism. When it later ended up in Atlanta, someone repainted the uniforms of captured Confederates to make them look like “routed Yankees.” And the fictional character of Rhett Butler, the swaggering hero of Gone with the Wind, was added to the display as a dying Confederate soldier after the movie made its debut in 1939.
If, by taking a little poetic license, a geographic region can re-create and sell as reality a prettier picture of its history on the losing side of a civil war, why shouldn’t a family also re-work its story into a happier, more respectable one?
“Remember me, Hoke Nash?” my dad, visiting his hometown, Athens, Ga., late in life, said to the man he recognized as a childhood friend.
The man just stared at him bewildered.
“Tootsie Yarbrough,” Dad said.
“Oh yeah, Tootsie!” the man exclaimed as he gave Dad a big hug.
“Tootsie Yarbrough?!” my mom asked later.
“Oh, that’s what my grandparents called me when I came to live with them after my parents were gone,” Dad shrugged.
He also was raised to call his grandparents mom and dad and his aunts and uncle his sisters and brother. A new family had been created, an old one vanished.
A photograph taken of “Tootsie” when he was three shows him posed in a wooden armchair shoved into a magnolia. Surrounded by glossy, pointed leaves, he scowls into the camera. Looking at it now, I can’t decide whether my dad is angry, afraid or sad. Maybe a little of each.
When my dad started first grade, the school refused to register him as Tootsie Yarbrough because his birth certificate revealed it wasn’t his legal name. So, he became Hoke Nash again, though he continued to refer to his grandparents as his parents, and aunts and uncle as his sisters and brother.
As a kid, I didn’t question the sibling relationships. His oldest sister-aunt was very short, maybe not even five feet tall, and because she was so small I completely believed her story that she was only sixteen (instead of in her fifties) until I was a teenager myself and got the joke.
And then I was confused as to how these could be his siblings since they were so much older. Dad, whenever I asked him about it, would just grunt and disappear behind his newspaper, but my mom helped me untangle it all.
In Catherine Clinton’s essay “Debutante Rituals in Mardi Gras New Orleans,” she describes how the heavy emphasis on tradition and manners means the debutantes must assume an invisible masque, smiling no matter what.
“’But I realize I end up putting on a masque for them. And becoming something else, something that’s expected of me. Just for show,’” she quotes one debutante as saying.
“In a society where ancestor worship and tribalism reign, what is self, but an assemblage of roles? . . . . So during her debutante season, wearing a masque,” the debutante becomes “the projection of her tribe’s hopes and dreams. . .”
Dad’s grandmother used to scold him if he misbehaved, “I hope you don’t turn out to be a no-good bum like your father.” He wasn’t entirely sure what she meant. He couldn’t remember his father and she never told him anything else about Hoke Sr., so this “goal” of not becoming like his father was a vague one. But based on these admonishments, he wasn’t sure if his grandparents would still love him if he somehow did turn out to be like his father.
Looking at his high school annual, you can see how he responded—by becoming an over achiever. Not only was he valedictorian, but he won almost every superlative voted on by his peers (an exception being Best Dancer). He was the first in his family to go to college and ultimately became a doctor.
One summer when he was in his late teens, my dad was hitchhiking home from his summer job as a camp counselor in the mountains.
“You must be Hoke Nash’s son from Atlanta,” the man who gave him a ride said after my dad introduced himself.
“No,” Dad replied, “my father’s dead.”
The man gave him a puzzled look and fell silent.
For the first time, my dad wondered if what his family had told him about his father was true. But he filed away the thought and the memory of this ride until many decades later.
It’s unsettling when, in one brief moment, what you’ve been taught about the past is called into question.
Until I saw Ranney’s painting of Cowpens, I’d never heard African Americans fought as Patriots in the Revolutionary War. Sure, at some point in my adult life, I learned Crispus Attucks, a former slave killed during the Boston Massacre, was the first American killed in that war, but I thought he was an exception.
Reading the information displayed with Ranney’s painting, I learned the man depicted wasn’t the only African American who fought against the British at Cowpens. The National Park Service can document fifteen, some escaped slaves, some free men.
The NPS also estimates that approximately 5,000 African Americans fought in the Revolutionary War as a whole, most in integrated units. We’ll never know the exact number because race wasn’t recorded on eighteenth century muster rolls. African American participants can be identified only by carefully comparing the names on these rolls with church or census records, or documented eyewitness accounts.
(And the trustworthiness of the latter can vary based on the source.)
On visits, I used to ask my great grandmother and the sister-aunts what Juanita was like.
A bubbly personality. Fun loving.
She’d go to a movie, see a character wearing a dress she liked and then come home and beg mama to make it for her, which mama would do.
“And what was my grandfather like?” I would ask.
Handsome. A good dancer.
“What happened to him?”
He was killed in a car accident not long after Juanita died.
That was about all they ever said. And the older I got, the more the rote nature of the story made it seem a little suspicious.
Then one time, at some point over the years, someone added that they’d heard Hoke Sr. may have remarried before he died.
And that got my mother thinking.
Cross referencing the muster rolls with other sources of information, the NPS was able identify by name all of the African Americans who fought at Cowpens except the one shown in Ranney’s painting. He never filed for a pension and none of Washington’s papers refer to him. They do not know for sure who he was. He could have been Washington’s slave, although he’s portrayed as a bugle boy. Some possibilities for his name are given as Ball, Collins or Collin.
In 1977, my mom, passing time in Atlanta while my dad attended a conference, found a listing in the phone book for a Mrs. Hoke Nash and dialed.
“I’m calling,” she told the woman who answered, “because your name is the same as mine.” She explained what she had heard about Hoke Sr. and asked Mrs. Nash if she was the woman he had married.
Yes, she was. And she also had a different story.
I was in my sixties before I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It hadn’t been required reading in school. After I finished the novel, I understood why. What we were taught in the South about slavery as a benevolent institution would not have held up against Stowe’s depiction of families being separated, of slaves on the run being hunted down, of beatings and rapes. It would have raised the question of how we could live with the horrors our ancestors had inflicted.
Hoke Sr. had not been killed in a car accident as a young man. He had remarried, had three more children and lived and worked in a town only thirty miles from where my dad grew up. He used to secretly come watch my dad play ball in the park just to be able to see him. A heart attack killed him in 1959 when he was fifty. My dad was twenty-nine that year; I was four years old.
And Juanita had not died of leukemia but as the result of a back-alley abortion. Her parents took my father away from Hoke Sr. and threatened him with a lawsuit if he tried to get him back—something he could have not afforded to do in the midst of the Depression. He had lost his car-washing business and was driving a bread truck when he met his second wife.
The story had now shifted from the well-ordered tale on which my dad had been raised to the grotesque—a strange, heartbreaking and disturbing plot involving people we loved and thought we knew.
For the rest of her life, my mom wondered if she’d made a mistake helping to bring this story to light.
My parents found a childhood friend of Juanita’s, Sue, who confirmed Mrs. Nash’s story.
“Money was tight,” she said. “Juanita didn’t think they could afford another child.”
Sue had visited Juanita’s parents several times after the funeral, pleading with them to let Hoke Sr. see his son. No, they were going to tell little Hoke his father was dead, they told her. In their grief, they blamed Hoke Sr. for their daughter’s death. The last time Sue went by their house, they wouldn’t even come to the door.
When my dad learned all of this, his grandparents were no longer living, so he asked his sister-aunts for the truth.
Absolutely not , they snapped. Juanita did not die of an abortion.
“I can remember our family doctor pointing to a book in his office and saying she had the symptoms described in there for leukemia,” one of them said.
Dad obtained Juanita’s death certificate from the Georgia Office of Vital Records. Cause of death: Septicemia. Blood poisoning most likely due to contaminated instruments.
During the 1930s, even though it was illegal, the number of abortions surged, primarily driven by economic reasons. Perhaps the family doctor pointing out that Juanita’s symptoms matched those of leukemia was a way to give the family a story they could use as a cover from the law or to preserve the family’s reputation. Perhaps it was something he had done many times
Why are you digging all this up, dragging the family name through the mud? the sister-aunts responded when confronted with the death certificate.
“I just want to know about my parents,” Dad said. “I want to know who my father was.” It was one of the few times I ever saw him get choked up.
But they were still furious.
After that confrontation, Dad was withdrawn and quieter than usual. Late one night sitting at the kitchen table, he told my mom for the first time about his grandmother’s admonishments about his father, about the man who had picked him up hitchhiking and about how went he went off to medical school thinking “if I fail at this, no one will care about me”—all things he had never shared before.
I had gone back to Tennessee to finish graduate school. One day, a letter arrived in my mail addressed in Dad’s ragged handwriting. This was a first. My mom was the one who wrote the letters. It frightened me, like when the phone rings in the middle of the night and you know it can’t be good news.
Inside, he told me how much he loved me, how proud he was that I had chosen to marry such a good man.
Looking back, I can see he was trying to give me something he had never had—the assurance of a parent’s love. But this was something we didn’t do in our family—share feelings, say “I love you.” I didn’t know how to respond, was afraid to take the risk.
One Christmas when I was little, I gave him a small plaque with a saying on it about how wonderful fathers are. I can’t remember what the saying was, but I was convinced he would love it and envisioned him hanging it on his office wall. Instead, he smirked when he saw it and made a sarcastic comment about how it didn’t apply to him. I was devastated. Clearly, I had crossed some kind of boundary I didn’t understand.
Dad left the plaque on the kitchen counter, where it stayed until my mom either tossed it or tucked it away in a drawer or closet.
So, I set his letter aside. Maybe, I thought, when I’m home next, he’ll bring it up and we can talk about it then, when I can see his reaction and better gauge what I can say without making him uncomfortable. But he never mentioned the letter. We both pretended nothing had happened. It is one of my biggest regrets.
For a long time, I hated the sister-aunts for hurting him, for lying to all of us for so many years.
Now, I think they had lived the lie for so long they were afraid of what might happen to them, what it would say about them and who their family was if it were stripped away.
According to the societal rules of the Old South, a Southern woman is expected to show grace under pressure, to never display unpleasant emotions such as anger or fear. She should maintain a cheerful demeanor no matter how trying the circumstances. Her reputation and that of her family depend on it.
The youngest sister-aunt was only nine years old, a child, when my dad was born and would have been only eleven when her oldest sister died. At one point after the truth came out, she opened up a bit and told Dad that Juanita had had another abortion before the one that killed her. The first abortion had been performed at home by her mother. The sister-aunt remembered being told to wait out on the front porch during the procedure. And then they all went out for orange sherbet.
She hadn’t felt the same about orange sherbet since, she said.
Once, between jobs in Chicago, I took a creative writing class in short fiction. I started my piece with a scene of a mother and daughter sorting through a box of photographs taken at a funeral. Each of the pictures was cut in half with only the bottom half remaining. The two women were trying to figure out why.
The writing teacher thought the idea for the scene was a stroke of creative genius.
“Who takes pictures at a funeral?!” he exclaimed after reading my opening paragraphs out loud to the class. He later pulled me aside and told me he saw such promise in the story that he would be willing to work with me on polishing it even after the class ended.
I was too ashamed to tell him the opening scene was based on something that had really happened. My extended family was freakish enough to actually snap pictures at a funeral and then later cut them in half. Plus, what would my dad think if he knew I had written about this?
I shoved the writing deep into my desk drawer and didn’t take the teacher up on his offer.
Dad never again broached the subject of his parents with the sister-aunts in order to maintain a relationship with them. He met all of his half-siblings, who had not known of his existence but were welcoming to him. He especially enjoyed getting to know a half-sister who lived nearby.
But the wound was still there.
On a visit home, during the time my husband and I were completing the home study with the agency through which we adopted our boys, we talked about how the process was going.
“And Dad,” I eagerly shared, “the social worker says what happened with you and your family means we’ll have a better understanding than most about why our kids might want to search for their birth parents.”
He grimaced and looked away.
The sister-aunts, my dad and my mom are all now deceased.
Abortion, at least for now, is legal, and women who want to terminate a pregnancy no longer have to risk unsafe conditions.
The new National Museum of African American History and Culture tells about the many achievements and contributions of people who have been kept out of textbooks and museum displays because of the color of their skin.
The Confederate statues still stand on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, but debate has started about whether they should be removed. It is contentious. The old myths of a glorious South die hard. Change likely will come, but not quickly.
Our oldest decided to start a search for his birth family when he was twenty-two. We were nervous, not knowing what he might find, but gave our support.
Through the adoption agency, he discovered his birth mother had died the year he turned five and that the agency did not have enough information about his birth father to locate him. However, they were able to determine that his birth mother’s mother was still alive and they were willing to act as a go-between in reaching out to her.
This made my husband and me very anxious. Did she know her daughter had placed a child up for adoption? Did she know he was biracial? If not, how would she react? We didn’t want him hurt.
But he wanted to take the risk.
It wasn’t long before our son emailed saying his birth grandmother had reached back and they hoped to meet soon. Most exciting—she had shared photos of his birth mother, which he attached. They had the same eyes! He had found his other family.
“This in no way changes how I feel about the two of you,” he wrote.
I thought of that long-ago letter from my dad and, my heart full, put all of our love and blessings into our response and pressed SEND.