My first day at my new, Lynchburg, Virginia high school, a classmate confronted me: “You’re a Yankee, aren’t you?”
In a baby-blue shirtwaist, a white cardigan with pearl buttons draped across my shoulders, fourteen-year-old me nodded.
“I hate Yankees,” she snarled—and recited horrific facts and figures regarding Sherman’s march to the sea.
“But I wasn’t even alive, then,” I sputtered indignantly. “That was the Civil War!”
“Civil?” she pounced. “There was nothing civil about it!”
Nearly sixty years later, what might I now say to that woman?
“I’m sorry, ” I’d begin, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book underpinning my careful words. “What Sherman did was unspeakable—well, no, that’s the wrong word. Because you and I, we need to talk about that bloody, horrible war. You and I need to talk about how that war was about maintaining a “peculiar institution.” Let’s talk about slavery, you and I. And I need to talk about the unspeakable injustice my Pilgrim ancestors did to the people whose land they stole. We both need to acknowledge our shared history of oppression. We need to own that our forefathers were the oppressors! So, to begin, Carole Fielder*, let me say this: I am truly sorry for what Sherman did.”
And I would mean every word.
*Voted Most Likely to Succeed by the Class of 1962