Above is a link to my tattoo removal. Below is an article about intergenerational trauma and race reconciliation. At the bottom is an apology.
Dear Ancestors, Earth, and her Inhabitants,
I’m sorry y’all were conscripted into a rich man’s war. I was taught to give you honor for yall’s heroic efforts in defending the South from the aggression of the North. Is that what they told y’all too? Is that how y’all made it through those nights where y’alls comrades died of exposure? I know y’all told y’alls-selve’s a story.
Grandpa Swann, I’m sorry you died from exposure in Alabama in 1864. Is that how little the Confederate government thought of you? How awful. They caused your 4-year-old son to grow up without his father. This makes me so angry because it is part of the disfunction of our family! It makes me so angry that your grandfather disowned your father and then the patriarchy of the Confederacy caused your son to not have his father. This is the real crime in war. Grandpa Swann, sometimes I think about what it must have been like to die in your own home state from exposure to the elements amongst a group of men who shared a similar fate. How bad were these conditions? Grandpa Swann, it wasn’t just your son. It was your Grandson! He didn’t have a father either. Because he didn’t have a father, he left my great grandmother and MY grandfather grew up destitute, without shoes, and his mother signed for him to join the Navy in World War 2 so he could be exposed to the same trauma as you. I call this man my “Grandaddy”. Grandpa Swann, I want to update you on the family. My grandaddy, your great grandson, guess what? He made it through his war alive! He left the military after his conscription, became a schoolteacher just like you were before you died for the Confederacy. He became the first man in our direct line to raise his children and be there for them until his death of old age. He didn’t glorify war. I miss him.
Grandpa Leadbetter, I’m sorry you lost your 4 brothers at the hands of the conscripted Union soldiers at the Battle of Lookout Mountain, TN. I have walked the ground they died upon in the early morning fog, watching a park ranger come towards me like a ghost of the past. I went up there real early one morning, Grandpa. It is a park now. It was closed, but I knew the park ranger and he let me in. I paid homage to my uncles who died. I paid homage to you. I even stopped and took a mental photo of the yard that you stood in, that I know of from your letters home. It was passed down to me, orally, that your father could hear the cannon fire and wrung his hands at the sky and yelling, “MY BOYS ARE DYING. My boys are dying!” And they did die. It must have been so awful. Grandpa Leadbetter, I know you tried to do the right thing. The family sold their slaves right before the war and used the money to send you and your dead brothers to college. How did that work out for our family? You were religious people, preachers, and teachers, but you sold the slaves because you did not agree with slavery? If you didn’t agree with slavery, then why didn’t you just free the slaves? You thought it was good enough that you sold entire families instead of splitting them up because of your, what?? CHRISTIAN MORALS? NO! That is wrong. You didn’t just do that to the slaves, you did it to us. My dad beat me with a leather strap, just like your dad beat slaves! Do you know how bad that messed me up? The worst part of it is that this behavior was passed down by YOUR grandson who beat my dad for the simple act of crying. He was a teacher and a preacher, well respected in the community! My dad copied him! What did you teach your kids, Grandpa? You were named after a famous preacher, Richard Baxter. Is this what religion is? Our family paid for it, too. Four men dead after going to college, funded by the selling of slaves. What good was that education? It’s a crying shame. That was in the 1860’s, now it is the year 2021, and I carry your scars. I guess it costs to learn.
Grandpa Buchanan, it must have been awful to grow up dirt poor and living a subsistence lifestyle, only to be plucked off of your piece of land and into the conscripted Confederate Army. I don’t know as much about you, but I know you valued justice. After all, you became a town marshal after the war. It must have been painful to walk around town with your cane after being run over and having your leg crushed by an artillery wagon. Grandpa Buchanan, I don’t know much about you, but I am curious. I wonder how different you might have been from my other grandpas. Your great grandson was a farmer, mill worker, Sunday school teacher, and single father for a time. He was a man of character, though we do not share the same religion, I am still inspired by the stories of his devotion to the Bible. You will be proud to know that he raised a house full of children against all odds. My hair line would look just like his if I still had my hair, but the effects of stress and aging are creeping upon me. He raised a daughter, my Maw Maw. She opened a hair salon and employed men and people of color during a time when that was still unusual. She spoke highly of Grandaddy Buchanan. No one is perfect. I wonder how a man like you reconciled with what went down from 1861 to 1865. I bet you felt powerless. I wonder if becoming a marshal after the war helped you to feel empowered again? I wonder how you used your new power. It worries me to see so many combat veterans joining the police force today. I wonder what you would say about that.
Grandpa Joiner, you are famous in my family for something that could be quite embarrassing. I have heard my mother laugh about it, but it must have been awful. I have walked from the South to the North through a path in the woods. I can only imagine what it must have been like on your march with dysentery. After getting conscripted and falling ill, the opposing army attacked while you were crapping your guts out. They captured you and took you to Rock Island, Illinois, where you were a POW. I can’t think of a worst fate than getting conscripted, falling ill, becoming a POW, and then having to walk a thousand miles to your home and fields that were probably burned in Shermans March to the Sea. I once walked 100 miles on a broken foot for love. But I can only imagine what you went through. My body is going numb typing this.
Grandpa Kelley, you were the rich man, and it was your war, but you didn’t fight it. I don’t want to disrespect my elders, but I have more than one elder and not all of them agree. My 4th great grandpa on my dad’s side was an abolitionist who went down in infamy in the family. What makes you the hero? You didn’t even fight! You joined the militia like the other cowards. Oh, you thought you were respectable? No. I represent this family now and I say you were not respectable. I can’t respect a man who owned 12 slaves, helped to finance the Confederate army, and joined as an officer in the militia so you could stay and guard your own property. I am trying to be less judgmental, but you were wrong! You were mean! You know how I know you were mean?? Because my Paw Paw, a warrior, wrote about his direct line of ancestors. His dad, your grandson, used to take him and his siblings to the woodshed, strip them naked, and beat them with a stick. That was some shit that you passed down! Dude, you married your cousin. Your grandson, he married his third cousin, another one of your relatives! I’m still paying for that shit cause my sister molested me when I was a kid! F___ YOU! OK. I’m sorry. That was disrespectful, but for a long time I felt this deep rage and never knew why. Now, white people, collectively, are getting a bad name because of people who performed the same actions as you. I don’t know why you did what you did. The why matters. Was it because of what England did to you and the Scots-Irish? Was it because of the trauma that your grandparents faced in fleeing Europe? Did they just perpetuate that same model? There are no excuses, but we need to know why so we can save humanity. Grandpa Kelley, you left descendants who are very tough and resilient, but we all bear your scars. I don’t know what to do with you. You are my family. I ask for your forgiveness when we take down statues. Despite the outrage that I just yelled at you, I don’t want to disrespect you. I want my family to be whole. What you did was wrong, and I am putting a stop to the cycle. I accept that you were no more or less human than me and I have made awful mistakes, but I am the one putting an end to it. I am no coward. Grandpa Kelley, I am helping people in Africa. Would you have enslaved them? My chosen family is Black and Latina. We have to reconcile Grandpa. Like it or not, the family history was passed down to me. I am the one who writes the family narrative now. I wont spit on you, but you have been dethroned. The new hero of the family was a drunk who spoke the truth. His name was George Reynolds, a Unionist in the state of Alabama. OK, yes you were sober and hard-working Grandpa Kelley, but your morals were backwards and Grandpa Reynolds – I think he was just drinking America’s pain away. Also, Grandpa Kelley, another one of your backwards ways is hating drunks when you were a moonshiner. You hated your own son for being a drunk, but why was he a drunk? Because you produced the stuff. Grandpa, I have a moonshine still tattooed on my arm and a rebel flag. They were both in honor of you. One is getting laser removed (the flag), the other is staying as a reminder of my roots.
Dear Grandpa Brandenburg, you were my Paw Paw’s favorite grandpa. He was impressed by the Yankee pocket watch you carried throughout your life. I was told that you got it off of a Yankee soldier. I can only imagine how. It must have been terrifying being a 15-year-old at the infamous Andersonville Prison. You wanted to be a man of honour and join your neighbors in the fight, but your family did not want you to go. A compromise was struck, and you became a prison guard with the other young boys and old men, not considered fit enough to fight. Atrocities happened there, just the same as in the northern prisons. I have been there, you know? Actually, I closely identify with you. Your name is Brandenburg. My name is Brandon. I was also a teenage guard for the military in Georgia. I was in the US Naval Sea Cadet Corps and worked for the U.S. Navy Police. After our country was attacked when I was 14 years old, I was locked and loaded with a shotgun at the Main Gate of the Naval Air Station in Atlanta. There were machine gun bunkers on each side of me. You know Grandpa, sometimes I wonder if I have relived your trauma.
To my grandpas with no story for me to share: The reason that I don’t know your story, is because our family developed a culture of war. Were you the peaceful ones? Are you the only ones actually resting in peace? What were my great great great grandmas like? I wonder what my great great-great-great grandma Rattlin-gourd, a Cherokee, was like? I was once told by a white supremacist that these white people who are proud of their small percentage of indigenous blood are misguided for honoring 1% of their DNA, but I think quality is better than quantity and I am not putting one race or ethnicity over the other. I am talking about systems. Why would I honor the 99% that perpetuated a broken system over the 1% that honored our ecology? I hope this letter helps to heal the systemic fragmentation within the family of humans. From now on, the history of war and trauma only matters to heal from it and prevent it. The heroes are the ones who create peace and justice.
To my adopted Great Grandma “Big Mom”: Big Mom, I didn’t get to know you that well before you died. I remember meeting you when I was letting go of racism. It was difficult for me to help lift you from the chair to the bed, in your old age and frailty. It felt strange being so close to an elderly Black woman. I remember your skin, hair, wrinkles, and voice. You didn’t say much to me because you were past the point of talking much. Your granddaughter became my mother. She taught me how to care for family. You taught me a language beyond words. Your pain was so great that everyone could see and hear it. Your love was so great that it melted the blockages in my soul. It must have been painful to not be allowed to be raised by your White father for fear of him being lynched. What great insight he had to stay alive and take care of you financially through a lawyer, until you ended up being a Black woman who inherited land in the 1930’s South. I suppose he could have also moved away from the South with you, but what happened happened. I’m just glad you got Something. I know you grew up with a lot of rain, but now your family is a rainbow in the sky. Everyone who comes in contact marvels at their beauty of heart and soul. Thank you.
To everyone alive today reading this letter: We often attribute honor to war in the guise of honoring our ancestors. To truly honor our ancestors, we must aspire to be more in character, not in material.
To the boys and girls that I grew up with in the Deep South. If the South is to rise, it will be because of her commitment to peace, justice, fairness, love, and reconciliation.
To the people who still stigmatize the South: I am writing this letter in New England. I often hear you say things about race relations in the South, but where are your citizens of different races and ethnicities? Maybe you don’t have as much conflict because your system more effectively holds minorities down to the point that you don’t have many to have conflict with?
To the United States of America: I don’t want your civil war or this polarized climate.
To the world: Please forgive me for, at one time, perpetuating hate. I recently wrote a letter of apology to the ladies of the reconciliation cooperative in Shingiro, asking for their forgiveness for being a former extremist. I will attach this letter below and ask all people everywhere for forgiveness and reconciliation to the human race. Thank you.
Dear Damien and the Ladies of the Reconciliation Cooperative in Shingiro,
You have inspired me to be more forgiving and to seek more forgiveness. I have been on a long journey to discover humanity. I was born into a family that was keeping the American Civil War alive in my culture, heart, and mind. There was a video made of me when I was only 4 or 5 years old. We were at a battle reenactment. My dad was dressed as a Confederate soldier, and I was yelling and cheering for him to shoot the Yankees. They were all people of the same country, killing each other over economics and slavery. I was taught to be on the side of slavery over 100 years after it ended here. It was confusing because my family also said slavery was wrong. They told me that everyone was the same. We never used vulgar words in the home I grew up in, but I was not allowed to have friends who were not white or Christian. I even went to a private school that was designed to segregate.
As a young teenager, I convinced my parents to let me go to a regular public school where I was in the minority as a white person. I went to school with mostly Black and Hispanic people. I was often bullied for being white. It is true that I did not play football as well as my peers, but for that I was harassed for the color of my skin. An adult told me a racist joke to say to them when I was being bullied. I made a racist statement and was pushed. I hit the other kid. After football practice, I was jumped on by 2 boys, with 50 others in a circle around me. I was covered in blood from head to toe and had to have my lip sewn back on my face.
My father, who taught me to hate, didn’t even notice that I was drenched in blood or that my lip was hanging below my chin. He took me to church where the pastor called my mom to take me to the hospital for stitches. She scolded me for making my dad look bad.
I was labeled racist from then on. I joined the army to escape home and carried my prejudice with me. When I became scared from the amount of Black and Hispanic people, along with the Interpersonal violence between soldiers, I joined a racist organization called the Ku Klux Klan.
I got out of the army during the housing crisis of America in 2008. I was homeless but began collecting food for other homeless people in my camp. Eventually, I became a preacher, but continued to be racist. One day, I met a Black man who became my brother. His mother became my mother. They gave me compassion when I didn’t deserve it. They showed me love when no one else would. They treated me better than the family I was born to, who abused me and taught me to hate. They showed me the love of God that I did not find in church. Even the churches I went to had hidden racism. My only religion now is love.
It took me a few years to let go of my racist ways. They were there for me through the journey. Now I have a Black mother and brother, and my wife was born in Venezuela. I have made my apologies and my peace here in the United States. Now I ask for forgiveness from you. I’m sorry that I used to not like the fact that you existed. I’m sorry that I ignored your suffering as human beings. I am asking to reconcile to you and the world by letting the world know about your Reconciliation Cooperative. Let’s join hands beyond nationality and show the world that we are just humans who need to forgive and love.
Also, in the spirit of reconciliation, a group has sponsored me to have a racist tattoo removed from my arm.
I also want to thank you. I am studying peace and conflict in university, but I could not find a way to forgive my parents until I witnessed your example through the story Damien has shared with me.
I am a 34-year-old former soldier and former extremist. I am also a current university student and hope to gain support for you through my studies combined with my partnership with Damien.
Will you forgive me and accept my cooperation?
(Note: In the article above where I wrote to my ancestors, those are my actual ancestors, but to shorten it to a 15 minute read or less, I combined some of their stories.)