Thinking about the Old South (Arna Bontemps)

Thinking about the Old South (Arna Bontemps) November 2, 2018


Americans need the truth and for many the truth begins with killing a lie: the antebellum South is a lost paradise. Instead, like Plato’s Atlantis, the antebellum South is a tyranny “sunk . . . until every drop of blood drawn with the lash (was)  paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Multiples of Lincoln’s four score and seven years have passed since that South existed and still we ponder the antebellum South. Grant racked Lee, but the rebel won the peace. US Grant busted the Klan, but Woodrow Wilson watched Birth of a Nation, a film that praised the KKK, in the White House after Grant was dead.

Twisted minds like that of Thomas Dixon created a lie, an ignoble lie, of a lost cause that was noble and a Senator like Bilbo was writing books defending racism and opposition to interracial marriage after World War II. In my lifetime African-Americans had to fight  for the right to vote and be treated with dignity.

Gone with the Wind view of the antebellum South still resonates with far too many people. That novel told one truth: a few people built an enviable life before the War. The defeat of the South destroyed an ability to live as that privileged group had lived. At the end of this paean to privilege for some whites, the heroine shows resolve that this world will not be allowed to utterly die:

She felt vaguely comforted, strengthened by the picture, and some of her hurt and frantic regret was pushed from the top of her mind. She stood for a moment remembering small things, the avenue of dark cedars leading to Tara, the banks of cape jessamine bushes, vivid green against the white walls, the fluttering white curtains. And Mammy would be there. Suddenly she wanted Mammy desperately, as she had wanted her when she was a little girl, wanted the broad bosom on which to lay her head, the gnarled black hand on her hair. Mammy, the last link with the old days. With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face, she raised her chin. She could get Rhett back. She knew she could. There had never been a man she couldn’t get, once she set her mind upon him. “I’ll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”

God help us, some Americans still view the antebellum world as a loss. Whatever some lost, and nothing is so bad that there is not graciousness in some corner, the gains were greater. This effete, enervating slave based lifestyle allowed some gracious living, but what does it profit a man to make the perfect mint julep at the cost of his soul?

There are still those who dream that tomorrow, somehow, plantation culture will return and “things” will return to their “natural order. This is a damnable lie, a local heresy that denies the genius of our African fathers and mothers in the Church.

When the old South fell, for every accidental good that was lost, great intentional goods were gained. We started doing well by doing good instead of presuming on God’s grace.

His Truth

If you want the truth, ask the poets of the liberated. Ask the Americans who never held a whip. Ask a God-breathed poet such as Arna Botemps: a man who did everything, novels, poetry, children’s books, academic work. He had a poet’s soul, saw the superficial beauty built on blood, and with the advantage of a Christian education, knew the divine retribution that wiped out the antebellum South.

God judged surely and with a true judgment. Hear the voice of a prophet:

Southern Mansion

Poplars are standing there still as death

And ghosts of dead Men

Meet their ladies walking

Two by two beneath the shade

And standing on the marble steps.

There is a sound of music echoing

Through the open door

And in the field there is

Another sound tinkling in the cotton

Chains of bondsmen  dragging on the ground .

The years go back with an iron clank,

A hand is on the gate,

A dry leaf trembles on the wall.

Ghosts are walking.

They have broken roses down,

And poplars stand there still as death.


We need truth, God’s truth. Slavery was a peculiarity, an institution known to be immoral by the global Christian majority. Race based slavery denied a Christian heartland in Aksum. The lie of the lovely antebellum South, a warped and ugly place, denies the truth of the chains, whips, and oppression of slavery.

Antebellum: John Reynolds of Virginia was plowing his field.

Bellum: John Reynolds of Lincoln’s new state of West Virginia left his plow in the field and signed up to fight for Lincoln and liberty too.

Postbellum: John Reynolds lived in a state where Booker T. Washington could thrive as his equal.

This is the truth we need. What truth? This glorious truth:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.







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