Saturday, November 1, 2014

Letter from a Confederate General's Great-Great-Granddaughter

November 1, 2014

Dear Colleagues,

I write to recommend that the faculty of Washington and Lee University vote to suspend classes for Martin Luther King Day. 

I tell you this based on my experiences as a member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of the Greater Monterey Bay Area in California; but I also recommend suspension of classes in my other, less-visible identity as a direct descendent (on my mother’s side) of Confederate General RichardMontgomery Gano, a slave-owner.  Gano is my Great-Great Grandfather.

My Confederate inheritance is neither as visible as my Native American identity, nor is it something that I have given much thought to – until coming to W&L ten years ago. 

I want to try to tell you what it is like to negotiate these two identities as part of my argument for suspending classes for MLK Day.

Last week, I attended a lecture by hip-hop scholar James Braxton Patterson.  During the Q&A, a question from a W&L student asked (and I'm paraphrasing), "Why does hip-hop work to exclude me?" 

I was embarrassed that one of our students had asked something revealing so much ignorance and privilege.  The student was a young white male, articulate and well-educated, and yet he had no idea of the depth of either his privilege or his ignorance.  It was a painful moment for me, as an educator and as a Native woman.

In fact, it was the kind of micro-aggression that I, and other people of color (as well as those not obviously 'marked' as 'different' - Jews, glbtq, white women) face on a daily basis in the larger world, and often on an hourly basis at Washington and Lee, where privilege often prevents students from realizing their full intellectual abilities.  James Patterson, to his credit, gave the student a fully informed response about the work of artists in the world, who they are and are not responsible to, and only at the end gave the most obvious reply:  welcome to my world.  How does it feel to be excluded?

I’m not ashamed to tell you that I sat in a back row and punched my fist into the air.  It felt so good to have somebody say that.  Out loud.  In public.

Let me add here that I could give you dozens of other scenarios and personal experiences over my last ten years as a professor here: the time that I was stopped by a staff member from entering a Dean's luncheon because "this is only for professors," or the time one of my creative writing students submitted a story about Confederates marching through a field full of enslaved Africans, who cheered the return of "their" men; or the several students over the years who have asked me to explain how they might prove "some Indian blood" and get scholarships for grad school.

None of these incidents came out of intentional mean-spiritedness; but they were all part of a pervasive, uninformed cultural world view that is deeply exhausting for those of us whose lives are directly affected.  Now in my eleventh year at W&L, I find myself worn down by such incidents, large and small.

Last week’s hip hop lecture, the debate over MLK Day, reminded me that somehow, I have lived fifty-three years without making the connection between having a Confederate General for a Great-Great Grandfather, and wondering whether or not this ancestor owned human beings.  I knew that General Gano was considered a Confederate hero; I knew that he had famously collaborated with General (and Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation 1862-1866) Stand Watie at what is considered to be the greatest Confederate victory in Indian Territory, which took place at Cabin Creek during mid-September 1864, when Stand Watie and  General Richard Montgomery Gano led a raid that captured a Federal wagon train and netted approximately $1 million dollars worth of wagons, mules, commissary supplies, and other needed items (Native involvement in the Civil War was all about trying to hang onto land and sovereignty - it didn't work).  Talk about complexities piled on top of complexities!

Ignorance – it’s so easy to ignore, isn’t it? General Gano crossed my mind like a great big gray elephant in the sky, and for the first time, it hit me: he was from a wealthy Southern family.  The Ganos must have been slave owners.  Why had I never thought to look? 

Within five minutes of entering the search terms “General Gano Confederate slaves” into Google, I uncovered mention of my Great-Great Grandfather in The Federal Writers’ Project archive. His name came up in the interview of Hattie Mason, a Black woman who was born a slave.  Hattie and three of her siblings were “given” to Richard M. Gano’s wife Martha as a wedding gift; Hattie and her siblings traveled with the Ganos from Kentucky to Texas as slaves in that household.

In 1936, the year after my mother was born, Hattie Mason told a woman from The Federal Writers’ Project,

 Let me tell you, I am ashamed of the relief I feel at reading this brief narrative, which seems to put my Great-Great-Grandfather into the position of a “good master.”  (Wait.  Did I just write that?)  Of course, earlier in the narrative, Hattie also tells the interviewer that when her brother married the slave of a neighboring farmer, that brother was sold to the neighbor.  Hattie may not have seen slaves “sold at auction,” but she definitely knew the pain of having family members sold away like livestock.

Look, I just did it: the classic “passive voice” that creates historical ignorance with one hand and historical trauma with the other. 

Revision:  Hattie may not have seen slaves “sold at auction,” but she definitely knew the pain of seeing my great-great-grandfather sell away a member of her family like livestock.

What do I do with this information?  How does it change how I think about myself as a woman of color?  Should I be ashamed of my Gano ancestry, which comes to me through my beloved grandmother?  Should I hide it, never speak of it, emphasize instead the Native Ancestors from whom I have always drawn such strength?  Even my “bad Indian” Ancestors  -- thieves, alcoholics, murderers -- have been examples of resistance and survival to me.  But what do I do with a slave-owning Confederate General?! 

(Not incidentally, a little more research on my part reveals that Harriet Mason, aka "Aunt Hattie," was also interviewed by Sue Higgins around the same time, and gave a more realistic account of her childhood as a slave, adding that upon being moved to Lexington at seven years old by her "old missis" - away from her mother - Harriet tried to run away to get back to her mother.  She says, "Mas'r Gano told me if I didn't come the sheriff would git me.  I never liked to go to Lexington since."  Harriet Mason also told Sue Higgins that at one point, her missis had her brother Sam "whoop" Harriet, and noted, "Every time he hit me, I hit him.  I wasn't feared then.  I didn't know better."  She does not go into detail about how she finally did "know better," but it is clear that she was taught not to resist when she continues, "I used to say I wished I'd died when I was little."  Why would Harriet get two such different accounts of her experience as a slave with my Great-great Grandfather Gano's family?  Personally, I can think of many reasons, ranging from the personality of the interviewer, the timing, her sense of security, and a lifetime of self-censorship surrounding anything one told a white person.)

This week, I have realized that this new information allows me to feel compassion for the ways that American culture and education have failed us all. 

This week, I had to imagine another kind of life for myself, a life in which my father’s Native American legacy was absent or did not become part of my identity – a life in which my Great-Great Grandfather’s role as a Confederate General and as slave-owner might have been held up to me by my family and my culture as a model of courage, loyalty and empowerment.  If General Richard Montgomery Gano had not moved from Texas to Illinois, and if his son Daniel, my Great-grandfather, had not moved to Nebraska, and if Doris Gano, my grandmother, had not moved to California, where my mother was born and where she met my Native American father, I might very well have been a child raised in ignorance, unaware (and not needing to become aware) of inequality, injustice, and the ugly foundations of this country.

Instead, history happened.  History put me in a body that could not pass as white, and the mysterious thing we call identity resonated with genocide rather than Confederate generals.  It’s really scary when you start to think of genocide as a lucky thing to inherit.  I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.  But my position as a minority woman really does give me insights and experiences that most mainstream, straight white people do not have – at least, about race.  And for that bloody gift, I am grateful.

In California, fourth graders still make cute little mission dioramas with “Mission Indians” adoring the Padres and working the fields, while “restored” Missions play a huge part in Southern California’s tourism economy; this, despite the fact that we know the Missionization of California Indians killed 90% of the pre-contact population and laid the groundwork for ongoing poverty, suicides, sexual violence and illiteracy that plague California Indians today.  Students in California are failed by their educational systems from preschool all the way through grad school when it comes to understanding that California’s history and wealth is built on the backs of dead Indians.

Sound familiar?  In Lexington, we are still arguing over the legacies of slavery, using euphemisms like “antebellum” and “state’s rights” while encouraging tourism that perpetuates a mythology much like that of my home state.  Children here are failed by their educational systems from preschool all the way through grad school when it comes to understanding that Virginia’s history and wealth is built on the backs of slaves, and that historical trauma is perpetuated by a multitude of intentional and unintentional forms of racism.

So for me, honoring MLK Day with the cancellation of classes as we do for many other honorable causes is a no-brainer.  Sometimes it's as simple as being able to say: my university honors the struggle for civil rights and equality for people of color the same way it honors its white heroes.  Would that help when I struggle to attract students to literature classes featuring predominantly non-white authors?  or when I enter a faculty meeting and scan the room for another person of color?  or when I counsel a glbtq student being teased because of "dressing like a boy"?

Actually, yes.  Yes it would.  It wouldn't bring about world peace or cure cancer, but it would sure make it easier for me to walk around a little less burdened by the history of this place; it would make it easier for me to recruit job candidates and answer their questions about the atmosphere and culture of Lexington and W&L; it would feel like my colleagues care about my well-being and the well-being of a university entering the twenty-first century with an agenda for reality.

It would make it more possible for me and other non-mainstream scholars to come, to stay, to educate, to recruit, and to continue making W&L an outstanding institution.

But it would also do something important that we often overlook in these discussions:  it would allow us to educate our students, all of our students, with clarity of intent and purpose, about the realities of life in this country for all people.  It would help create better citizens, stronger scholars, and more aware human beings by removing ugliness from hidden corners and from beneath invisibility cloaks.  A legal, officially recognized holiday for a Black man who fought against the legacies of slavery is a way of accepting the responsibilities which being a citizen of the United States requires, and of teaching those responsibilities to our mostly privileged students.

Putting MLK Day on W&L’s calendar puts our struggle against inequality on the map, on the academic agenda. It acknowledges our awareness, officially recognizes our efforts, in the same way that other historic efforts are recognized. 

Put aside discussion of the logistics for now.  We juggle logistics every day; it’s what we get paid to do.  We’ve got a university full of smart people who can find a way, make a way.

What matters is this:  What is the right thing to do?


Deborah Miranda

Dr. Deborah A. Miranda, John Lucian Smith Professor of English
204 W. Washington St.
Washington and Lee University
Lexington, VA 24450

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully and reasonably presented. How could anyone say no to this?


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