As soon as Lincoln was assassinated countless Yanks swore bloody revenge on the whole of the rebellious South. In one area, all homes were to be draped in black, a landscape in mourning. Rebels who didn’t comply were forced, like Mrs. Stuart whose husband and son had both been killed in the war. Mrs. Stuart, you see, didn’t want to mourn Lincoln; she felt she’d mourned enough and largely because of him. Occupying soldiers from the North felt differently. They stormed her home, found the black veil she’d used to mourn her husband and son, and forced her to hang it from the front porch. She complied, but only after they agreed to watch her from across the street. She came out a few minutes later in her mourning dress, mounted a chair to hang the veil, and hung it indeed ~ around her own neck. She swung there, an unforgettable sign of mourning if ever there was one.
Some of you may laugh, shrug it off, or feel she reaped what she sowed. There are some out there who might phrase it more colorfully and say her ass from Europe…her ass deserve it as in racially charged online horrors. Anyone who feels this way is the problem. Anyone who feels this way is the reason racism persists. Anyone who feels that one lynching deserves another should be forced to dig the graves, cut down the swollen bodies, and clean up the rancid mess, every last drop. Let them scrub as they listen to a lengthy lecture about the real cause of the war ~ money. That’s right, it wasn’t about black and white but about green.
Let me tell you another story about a front porch and a lynching. An old woman, bent and gray, sat on the porch in the master’s rocking chair every night, only the war had come and gone and he wasn’t the master anymore. He came back from time to time to check on the crops and the old house, but it had fallen to ruin and it didn’t seem to matter. He lived in the city now, Savannah maybe. She wasn’t sure; that didn’t matter either. Nothing did after they killed her boy.
It was all supposed to change when the Yanks came. They called it freedom, but what did that mean? The freedom to starve? She stayed where she was with her daughters and a few others. Together, they worked the land, tried to take care of what was left of the house but only the rodents and birds nesting in its once elegant parlors appreciated her efforts. Still, it felt like her house now, even the scorch marks and bullet holes, so she swept and scrubbed like she’d always done. All the white folks were gone, coming back occasionally to collect their monthly dues and remind her it wasn’t hers after all. Still, they grew enough food and kept a solid roof over their heads. That was more than a lot of free folk could say.
She and her daughters even had new dresses; they’d hid some of the master’s valuables when the Yanks came and never told him about the silver in the back yard. No, they sold it and spent the money on necessities, knowing God would understand. The Yanks took everything else to pay for the war, of course. They said it was a war for her, to win her freedom, but she didn’t believe that anymore. Her boy went North to go to school and he told her the war was about something called politics and the Union, said the North just needed the South for money and the dead President had got on the wrong side of the banks. She didn’t know what that meant, but she trusted her boy; he could read.
Her other boy was dead, but she thought about him every night on that front porch. It was around that same time of night when they rode through on stomping horses, the one in front carrying a coiled rope. He did it, they said. He was the nigger who raped the white girl. What white girl? There ain’t no white girls ‘round here. Followed by, Don’t lie to me, boy. And that was all the trial he got. She found him the next day, dangling in the woods behind the house. He was dead and her other boy was gone, though he did visit once or twice. There were no jobs here for a more or less educated black man, so he had to leave. She missed him, but she was proud of him. He wrote to her often, forgetting perhaps that she couldn’t read. Still, she kept all his letters in a trunk at the foot of her sunken bed, every single one of them.
Rocking on that front porch, she remembered her boys. She remembered the war; it still didn’t seem real, and neither did freedom though she had a piece of paper that said she was free. She couldn’t read it, of course, but it was important and so she kept inside the trunk with her boy’s letters. No, it didn’t seem real even as she sat in the master’s chair night after night. Maybe it would feel real if she left the old house, but where would she go? What would she eat? There was too much possibility, good and bad. Was that freedom? She was content to stay where there was a roof and a meal, knowing she could walk away if she chose to do so. That was freedom enough.
The rocker kept groaning and her mind kept wandering. Her daughter was pregnant; was it the master’s? Probably. He kept less of the dues when she was ‘nice’ to him. Maybe the baby would have his blue eyes. She hoped so; her son had those eyes, but it was hard to tell the way they bulged over that rope. She knew those men could see his cloudy blue eyes, begging for mercy before they shoved a rope over his head. They knew he was the master’s son and they didn’t care. Maybe that’s why he grabbed the white girl, if there was one. Maybe he wanted to avenge his mother and sister by taking one of theirs, if that’s what happened.
If so, he was foolish, even cruel. Why add fuel to a fire that was already dwindling away? She hoped folks would stop being so cruel to each other; it was only a decade or so since the war, after all. There was hope. She didn’t know Mrs. Stuart and the countless others who’d given up all hope ten years ago. Instead, she rocked on the front porch until the old chair moved slower and slower then creaked to a stop. This was her last night on the front porch; they found her the next morning still in her favorite chair, cold. They used the wood from the chair and the front porch to make her coffin. She would have wanted it that way.
I like to think Mrs. Stuart and the old woman are on a porch somewhere together, shaking their heads at our continued stupidity. If you knew they were watching, what would you do? Would you act differently towards one another? Their memory alone should suffice; their stories enough to warrant at least decency. So many stories, so many perspectives and yet somehow, with time and a politically advantageous narrative, our memories become simplified, watered-down, dumbed-down into villains and victims, white and black, axis and allies. Nothing is ever so simple.
*Excerpted from The Forgetting by Rachel Summers. Release date September 22, 2017. The story of Mrs. Stuart is factual, the rest is fiction based on primary source material.