Is America Wearing the Same Old Historical Rags?

I have been remiss in blog writing. I can hardly find the time to write, edit, and wrap my mind and heart around the times we’re living in. I have so much to say, but how to say it slant? There are many blogs, articles, editorials, and posts vying for attention and the ones with the biggest names get the read. Why should I bother to write a blog? It’s like the wildflower garden I planted a few years ago. When I pick flowers for my house, I tend to pick the boldest and biggest flowers and inadvertently trample those wee Violas and Forget-Me-Not flowers to get to the ones “in my face.” I love them and they all have a place in my vase. So perhaps I should write a blog, especially because I’m excited about my new novel, the fourth in my Irish Dresser Series, that is being released in early June (the time for so many flowers). The Irish Milliner continues the story of Norah McCabe and the setting is New York City during the Civil War.

in The Irish Milliner, Norah McCabe befriends Elizabeth Jennings, a real life woman who refused to get off a streetcar, was pushed off, took the company to court, and won. There’s a lot about race, xenophobia, and the disunited states. I didn’t plan on writing this novel, as I thought I was finished with Norah’s story in the previous novel. And as I’m readying for its release,  I can’t help but ask whether our American history is wearing the same old historical rags?

America has been wracked with racial and xenophobic amnesia that was hidden beneath our belief in equality and justice for all. But these days, hate has floated blatantly to the surface of our everyday lives, as shocking as the plastic that has gathered in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean. Since the election, it’s as if the band-aid over the wound of racial injustice in American history and in the present time has been ripped off and the gaping, ugly injury is there for all to see. Not only racial injustice, but misogyny and xenophobia. During this election, many stared into the gaping, raging monster’s mouth and were sucked in and swallowed by ignorant and damning rhetoric. Finally, there is someone to say what they were really feeling for so long, perhaps for over two hundred years.

Joseph J. Ellis writes in his Pulitzer Prize book, Founding Brothers,

Jefferson’s initial draft of the Declaration of Independence had included language that described the slave trade as the perverse plot of an evil English monarch designed to contaminate innocent colonists. Though the passage was deleted by the Continental Congress in the final draft, it nevertheless captured the nearly rhapsodic sense that the American Revolution was both a triumphant and transformative moment in world history, when all laws and human relationships dependent on coercion would be swept away forever.

The passionate conviction that the Revolution was like a mighty wave fated to sweep slavery off the American landscape actually created false optimism and fostered a misguided sense of inevitability that rendered human action or agency superfluous.

Why didn’t these founding brothers get rid of slavery for once and for all right then? Well, read this author’s book, for it will explain how it went down in an insightful manner. Yes, we know. The states were divided  from their having or not having slaves and the Deep South wanted the freedom to import Africans to stock their plantations. I say now, but don’t know if I really mean it, why didn’t the North let the South go its own way and we would have been freed from this race problem and there would have been real freedom and justice for all, just an all that was much smaller. But that oversimplifies it and I’m not an expert or historian, but in light of the research I’ve done to tell Norah McCabe’s story set during the Civil War, and in light of the racial pus that is oozing in our country today, maybe I do wish those southern states would have not have continued as part of the United States.

Yet we know human nature is the same in the north, south, west, east, and all over the world. What is the answer? We have made great strides and we have overcome. Blacks vote. Women vote.The North and South are one. But don’t you want more? I do! But to have more, we have to tangle with our own ancestral heritage, our insides, our diverse souls. We have to cast out the demons in ourselves, get the plank out of our eyes, and wrestle with our own motives and arrogance. For as the Buddhist monk, Phap Dung, said recently,

Trump is not an alien who came from another planet. We produced Trump, so we are co-responsible. Our culture, our society, made him. We love to pick somebody and make them the object. But it’s deeper than that. We have to see him inside of us.

Ouch!

Norah McCabe in The Irish Milliner saw a bit of the great Irish liberator, Daniel O’Connell, in Abraham Lincoln. She was hopeful. She was hated because she was Irish, but her African friend, Elizabeth Jennings, was hated even more. Norah and Elizabeth both lived through the Draft Riots, Norah made hats for the escaping slaves, nursed the dying soldiers in Gettysburg, and loved two men, one a shanty Irish and one a lace curtain Irish. Norah read what Daniel O’Connel said about America just before the Civil War erupted,

The black spot of slavery rests upon your star spangled banner, and no matter what glory you may acquire beneath it, the hideous damning stain of slavery remains upon you, and a just Providence will sooner or later, avenge itself for your crime.

Might it be that a just Providence is avenging itself for our crimes, or perhaps has been trying to do so since the Civil War?

The setting in my novel includes when Abraham Lincoln is assassinated and Andrew Johnson becomes president for four years and is eventually impeached. Johnson grants amnesty to former Confederate rebels and allows them to elect new governments which exact new laws that are measures designed to control and repress the freed slaves. Johnson opposed the civil and voting rights for ex-slaves and vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Freedman’s Bureau bill aimed at protecting blacks. Southern states passed the “Black Codes” and barred interracial marriage, with death as punishment. There is violent opposition to the Reconstruction Act and whites go on a rampage killing 5,000 African Americans. Eventually, the 13th and 14th Amendments are passed granting citizenship to African-Americans. But…four grueling years. Johnson was no president the country needed. It was a solemn time for America.

In The Irish Milliner after Abraham Lincoln is assassinated, Norah says goodbye to her best friend, Elizabeth Jennings. Here is the excerpt:

Norah leaves Elizabeth and Charles’ house later that evening, knowing well she won’t see the people gathered there ever again. She and Elizabeth embrace one another like a last goodbye. Although it seems the wrong time to tell her friend that she is moving out of the city, she must. There is no use hiding anything from anyone, for whatever reason. She is not only leaving behind a city besought with struggle and violence, she is leaving behind the differences between Elizabeth and herself. They have become friends in an impossible environment, one that was infertile to growth between an Irish woman and a Negro woman. How many times has Norah said to Elizabeth on their walks in the city together, “Look at those flowers growing alone in such a miserable place. That’s like you and me, Elizabeth!” Right now, Elizabeth has to be with her people and help them in this complex time, for although freedom has come, it won’t be as real as they dreamed. They can’t help but look into Norah’s face and see the oppressor. At least for now, Norah thinks, and well she can understand.

And today, it’s a solemn time for America because we’re still wearing the old historical rags. But I’m  hopeful. I went on the Women’s March and the love, hope, and peace was not warm and fuzzy, it was palpable and real. This is no time for violent resistance or violent opposition. This is no time for cruelty and hate. It is a time for hope, tearing off the historical rags, being naked before ourselves, and healing.

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About cynthianeale

My fourth novel in The Irish Dresser Series, The Irish Milliner, is being released by Fireship Press on June 2, 2017. The third book in the series is 'Norah, The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th Century New York,' (Fireship Press)) and two young adult historical fiction novels, 'The Irish Dresser' and 'Hope in New York City.' I have also written plays, essays, and short stories. I am a native of the Finger Lakes region in New York and now reside in New Hampshire. What do I especially enjoy? Reading, writing, Irish set dancing, waltzing, walking, learning about nature, some traveling, Irish sean nos dancing, art classes and painting, baking fanciful desserts, kayaking, growing flowers, creating events for food, dance, and fund raising, laughing until it hurts, and dreaming about possibilities.
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