What it means to be free

Memorial Day musings

Recently I watched PBS documentary Death and the Civil War, based on Drew Gilpin Faust’s book The Republic of Suffering. I learned at last why there are so many confederate cemeteries throughout the South. National cemeteries did not honor confederate dead, so survivors, particularly women, formed organizations to bury and honor their dead. After World War I, localized memorials became an inclusive, national holiday, Memorial Day. Somehow, despite lingering divisions caused by civil strife, our nation can come together to honor all war dead.

Last month our book club read the novel Freeman, by Leonard Pitts. It seems to me that in this novel Pitts explores the ways in which a culture can build community, even in the face of brutality, hatred, and death. This well researched book is not all about war, but rather its aftermath. Pitts focuses on the effect of sudden emancipation on individuals and communities. He presents us with the many different ways that former slaves, former slave owners, and northern abolitionists understood – and misunderstood – the concept of freedom.

The cost of freedom

Sam Freeman is looking for his wife, Tilda, after 15 years of separation. Sam escapes slavery and survives service in the Union army. As soon as the war is over, he sets out to find Tilda, whom he had left behind, walking thousands of miles through a dangerous Southern landscape. The odds are against him. Tilda has been sold to a brutal owner who cannot comprehend the loss of his property to emancipation. After having been terrorized for many years, Tilda is unable to leave her former master, and she reluctantly follows him west to become the slave of a militia intent on rekindling the war.

Another character in the book, Prudence Cafferty Kent, is a headstrong abolitionist who celebrates union victory by travelling from Boston to Mississippi to establish a school for former slaves, with disastrous results. She is left with a profound sense of guilt that gives her purpose, just as Sam’s guilt at abandoning Tilda to escape slavery gives him the will to continue the search for Tilda despite tremendous odds against finding her.

For both white and black members of Southern communities, freedom was a difficult concept to grasp. In an NPR interview Pitts comments: “Freedom was not just this automatic thing that came because somebody came and read a notice that said you all are free now.” Former slaves often had little idea of where to go when they were set free. White Southerners viewed slaves as property, and they did not part with their investment lightly. White and black Northerners grossly underestimated these slave owners’ desperation to preserve their former way of life.

Freedom to behave imprudently

In our discussion, most readers felt that Sam and Prudence both jumped the gun by setting south so soon after the war ended. Prudence in particular seemed naive and rash, and her actions during the course of the book caused great harm and even death in the African American community she tried to help. There is a lot of discussion of guilt in this book. Both Prudence and Sam take on mantles of shame for their rash actions, and both have to learn that they do not bear the burden of guilt for slavery, or for the death and destruction caused by whites who could not bear to see their way of life change.

This very powerful novel portrays a reality about the aftermath of Civil War that I hadn’t really considered carefully until now. For many years, so many people roamed the American landscape seeking to reunite with their families. I had to ask myself what I would endure to be reunited with my family – would I have had the fortitude to face the danger that Sam and others faced as they sought to mend ties long broken?

Freedom in a war-torn world

Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize winning Miami Herald columnist, but I think he is a novelist at heart. I’m impressed with his exploration of the themes of guilt, responsibility, and endurance, and with his development of characters that readers really care about – even if those characters, like us, are sometimes reckless and unwise.

We have read several novels set during the Civil War, including the provocative The Known World by Edward P. Jones, a book that explores the idea of slaves owning slaves, and Widow of the South, Robert Hicks’ narrative of the true story of a confederate widow in Franklin, Tennessee. Freeman offers up yet another perspective on the meaning of freedom in a war-torn world.

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