“Confederates in my Closet”–A Conversation with Writer & Journalist Ann Banks

A Desi Woman Podcast
"Confederates in my Closet"--A Conversation with Writer & Journalist Ann Banks
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Transcript:

Soniya Gokhale (00:05):

Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a Desi woman? She is a dynamic, fearless and strong woman. She is your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us, who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya GokHale and I am a Desi woman.

 

Soniya Gokhale (00:40):

Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and today we are so excited to be joined by writer Anne Banks. Anne Banks is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Nation, the Smithsonian, and the History News Network, to name a few. Anne has also edited an anthology of oral histories from the Federal Writers’ Project, First-person America. Anne co-produced a radio series for National Public Radio. Anne received a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. And she’s also a published author of eight children’s books. Anne is the author of Confederates in My Closet. An anthology, which captures Anne’s poignant and sometimes painful journey through her family’s legacy as slave holders and owners of two cotton plantations in Alabama, by sharing familial archives, relics and stories. Anne welcome to the show.

 

Ann Banks (01:55):

Thank you, Soniya. Thank you for having me.

 

Soniya Gokhale (01:57):

Anne we are so excited to have you here. And I want to start by citing a portion of your website, which offers some insights about how you launched the project Confederates in My Closet. You state, quote, “For many white Americans, the murder of George Floyd was the moment when they could no longer look away from the pervasive racism all around them. It stirred widespread protests and has led to everything from the toppling of bronze Confederate generals, to the stripping of Confederate names from American military bases. These blows against the continuing veneration of the Confederacy encouraged me to hope that such actions were only the beginning. That optimism was severely jolted on January 6th, when writers brandished the Confederate battle flag, the most potent of racist symbol in the halls of the US Capitol building, they had just trashed. Defeated, delusional, these marauders summoned thoughts of their predecessors, the true believers after the Civil War for whom it was an article of faith that the South would rise again,” end quote.

 

Soniya Gokhale (03:12):

So my first question for you is, if you could speak to me about the Capitol riots on January 6th and the effects that those riots and what you saw had on you seeing the brandishing of the Confederate flag in the halls of our US Capitol building. Something which has never historically occurred before in this country, by the way.

 

Ann Banks (03:35):

Well, seeing that Confederate flag, the photo that’s been shared most widely is of a man waving the Confederate battle flag, right in front of a very large oil portrait of a very famous abolitionist, whose name slips my mind at the moment. But the ironies are really horrific and it confirmed in me seeing all those Confederate flags and Confederate symbols. And it confirmed in me that those images still have a potency for the white supremacists in this country who were involved in the insurrection. And that’s why I feel it’s important, in some ways what I’m writing about, a lot of it happened a long time ago. It’s history, definitely. But I think it’s today’s history as well. So seeing that inspired me to write the op-ed piece that I just published in USA Today, I actually think it’s in the print edition today.

 

Ann Banks (04:32):

Connecting my own family history, greater grandfather had two plantations near Montgomery, and he was also an apologist for slavery. So he wrote articles about how the South never could have been cultivated without the labor of African-Americans or Africans as he called them then. And so it made me really see that the whole question of reparations, it just kind of brought it right to the fore. And to me it connected very much to the need to examine this history directly.

 

Soniya Gokhale (05:08):

Absolutely. And let’s move to that piece, which has been so well received in USA Today. And I will have the link to that article in the podcast notes. And the title of the article is, I Couldn’t Unlearn the Name of My Great-great Grandfather’s Enslaved Person And I Didn’t Want To. And you go on to state that America was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. The debt keeps compounding and can never be repaid. As you stated, your great-great-grandfather AJ Pickett owned two cotton plantations in Alabama, and he was a historian and apologists for slavery. And I just want you to tell me more about this and how it correlates to how you launched Confederates in My Closet.

 

Soniya Gokhale (05:59):

And I just want to offer this anecdote, which is sort of in the article and you indicate you opened your silverware drawer and noticed a familiar silver serving spoon that had been handed down in her family. And for the first time it occurred to you to investigate the name on the handle LP Walker. So if, you could just tell me more about some of the family history about your great-great grandfather and some of these heirlooms, what you stumbled upon.

 

Ann Banks (06:29):

Well, the spoon, I didn’t exactly stumble upon it. It was right there in my silverware drawer all along. As I’ve learned so much in doing this project, there’s knowing things and knowing them. And so just one minute, you’ll see something that’s been there all along. This was a spoon that … A silver serving spoon that is engraved LP Walker to Eliza. And I never even looked that up. But when I did, after I’d started working on my website, Confederates in My Closet. I learned that LP Walker was the first secretary of war of the Confederacy and had a number of other roles in the Confederacy after that, and was married to an ancestral cousin of mine named Eliza.

 

Ann Banks (07:13):

So when I did that, when I looked him up and I figured out who he was, and he was, I want to say, of course, because he’s in my family, a slaveholder in Alabama. That spoon was undoubtedly polished by slaves that ended up in my possession. And that kind of really set me back because it’s so specific and concrete. My great-great grandfather wrote a number of articles and also a book, History of Alabama, but he talked about enslavement. He called it mild domestic slavery, and that was amazing to read that, but a spoon really is something. And so it hit me in a different way to kind of engage with the spoon.

 

Soniya Gokhale (07:58):

Wonderful. Thank you for that response. And what I thought was really interesting is that it took you awhile to muster the wherewithal or the interest in going through the items that you knew were in your familial archive. And in fact, you indicate that for decades, you harbored in the back of your office closet an archive that you’d inherited from your father’s Alabama kin. Roles bequeathing family oil portraits, yellowed newspaper clippings about antebellum homes turned museums, and just an incredible archive of history. And you nicknamed this trove, the pile, and kept it in quarantine. And you even indicated, if this bits and pieces told a story, you weren’t quite ready to hear it. I want learn more about you, about this reticence, because it’s such an interesting narrative that you offer. And I haven’t heard this perspective. We know that there were Caucasian slave holders in this country, and obviously their families still exist here today, but this is such a deeply personal viewpoint that you offer. And you had a struggle to even confront this, so tell me about that a bit.

 

Ann Banks (09:21):

Well, I think it started actually after Donald Trump was elected president and I saw as many people did, with total horror, this kind of resurgence of a kind of white supremacy. That I guess, we now have to realize was hiding all along, but we just were looking away. So that was what inspired me to go and start to dig into the pile. Another thing is that I felt in general that genealogy, I didn’t see it as a path towards social justice. I saw it the opposite, the way that I felt like some members of my family use genealogy and tried to push it off on me was kind of as ancestor pride. Look who were descended from, and I didn’t really want any part of that. I wanted to have a life that started with me, yet many young people do. But when I really realized, as I say in the piece, there’s knowing and knowing, and then you can know something and it just doesn’t hit you. And I think right now I’m seeing even more, I mean, that process is not over. The more I learn, the more I think, the more I kind of research. It still packs a wallop an even deeper one.

 

Ann Banks (10:33):

And one thing I was really happy about in the response to the article is that people wrote and said, “This is sort of like the beginning of a truth and reconciliation commission.” Which we’ve never had in this country about slavery. And I felt like my mission is to try to use my family history to examine and undermine the loss cause thinking, which is what you saw in such force at the Capitol that day. The South really won the plaque propaganda war. I wrote about that quite a bit in my website, Confederates in My Closet. I mean, it was just quite astonishing how much they did that. And that was partly because of some of my ancestors, the widow of General George Pickett, who devoted the rest of her quite long life to doing things with the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Like censoring textbooks, putting up monuments, all of those sorts of things, which have contributed to the sense of kind of grievance around hope, what they call heritage in the South that you see still existing today.

 

Soniya Gokhale (11:40):

I think that is a great point because you state this on the blog and I think a lot of people would agree. I’m from the North though, I have to add, and I’m an Indian American woman born and raised in this country. But you indicate for a long while, I believe that the Civil War was over. And obviously there’s a lot of history buffs in this country and globally. And so there’s a huge fan base around the Civil War, from hobbyists to try to reenact favorite battles, to history buffs who debate the fine points of military strategy. But you encountered members of these fervent and possess subcultures on the internet and they’re occurring in real time. And as you stated, we did see them during the Capitol riots and seen a resurgence with President Donald Trump and his populous movement. And so I guess I want to know, for you, what you think in your opinion. What is triggering this resurgence in white supremacy and interest in Confederacy?

 

Ann Banks (12:47):

I think in some ways it never went away. It’s just that people like me were looking somewhere else. I think certainly people have pointed to the election of Barack Obama as a triggering event for the sense of white grievance, which is really so misplaced. Because as many people have pointed out, the majority of people who were in this interaction were not the kind of white underclass, barely getting by. They were professors, they were doctors, lawyers. I don’t know, if they were professors, I’d be surprised, but probably. Anyway, they were definitely middle-class people. And it’s so shocking that they could have that kind of protest and hold those beliefs. But I think white supremacy never went away and the more you kind of study the history, you see, I mean of lynching, of all the different laws that have been passed, everything. Slavery just continued along an unbroken line from the end of the Civil War to now mass incarceration and red lining and many other methods of discrimination and terror.

 

Soniya Gokhale (13:57):

In the USA Today article, you mentioned about a young boy, a child really, a two year old, who was a victim of something called the Reverse Underground Railroad. And I heard about this, as I researched for this podcast, but I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about the story of Milton and his kidnapping that you came to fund out in researching through family archives.

 

Ann Banks (14:23):

Well, I learned that as kidnapping actually from Karen. My friend, Karen Orozco Gutierrez. What happened was when I started researching this question of my great-grandfather’s slaves that he held in his plantation. I went to a website called AfriGeneas, which is basically for African-Americans, who were trying to connect their family tree and try to understand, try to find people who can maybe give them some information. Because for many decades, slaves were not even listed with last names. So it’s very, very hard to do this kind of genealogical research. So I went on AfriGeneas and there was listed there, someone had posted an inventory of my greater-grandfather’s slaves and their ages and first names. And there was a note, this woman, Karen. Karen Gutierrez, who said she was looking for information, any information about an Alabama slaveholder named AJ Pickett. And so I wrote to her and said, “That’s my great-great grandfather.” And she wrote back and said, “I’m so happy to hear from you. I’ve been looking for you for years.”

 

Ann Banks (15:32):

And for many black descendants of enslaved people, they are trying to be in touch with descendants of enslavers because they feel like they might have information that can help them trace what happened to their ancestors. So Karen and I corresponded for a while, and she said, “Is there anything in your archives that would help me identify?” And she told me about … What happened about Milton is, he and his family were free people of color in Iowa. And what happened was that after the law was passed against importing slaves, there was a great business of kidnapping them and somehow taking them down the river down South because they couldn’t import more slaves. So his whole family was kidnapped. He was two years old and they were taken down the river probably by boat and ended up on the Pickett plantation.

 

Ann Banks (16:28):

And this, Karen knew from oral history because her great-grandfather Milton had survived the Civil War. He’d been very young and he had escaped and in fact joined the Union Army and then went back to Iowa. And so there was oral history from him, what he told his children and they told their children. And what he had told them was, that he had been enslaved on a plantation by someone named Pickett in Alabama. So Karen had figured out that this was no doubt, AJ Pickett, that the dates were right, but she wanted to confirm this. She wanted to find some documentary evidence, that would be so meaningful to her to know that. So after corresponding for awhile, we decided to go to Montgomery together and look in the archives, which we did. And an amazing story, it was kind of a needle in the haystack. She had never seen Milton’s name in any of the accounting of AJ Pickett’s slaves. So that had been a dead end for her.

 

Ann Banks (17:31):

So we went down there and what ended up happening was that it turned out that he and his family had been put into trust by AJ Pickett in favor of his wife. And this was not at all an unusual thing. There were 11 slaves in this particular bunk, probably including Milton’s family, parent, but we don’t know that. That’s just speculation. So we went to the archives and we were looking at bills of sale, and they have a record of any bill of sale that involved AJ Pickett. So there were mules, they’re were farm equipment. There was this, there was that, and they were Negroes. So they were just listed in these transactions. So Karen was able to find the trust document, which showed that Milton was put into trust with a judge named Graham, which is why his name had not turned up in the inventories because he was technically owned by this judge named Graham. And so then Karen was able to establish a fixed point for him, which was hugely meaningful to her.

 

Soniya Gokhale (18:40):

And this actually is an amazing story, that is part of your article for Smithsonian Magazine. And I will have that link in the podcast notes as well, but what an amazing story where you and Karen Orozco Gutierrez travel to Alabama together. And as the article states, one is descended from an enslaver, the other, from people he enslaved. Together, you traveled to the deep South to learn about your family’s path, what a powerful journey. And one I certainly have never heard before. So if, you could just tell me a bit more about that. You certainly did enlighten us about this amazing story regarding Milton, but any other discoveries from that trip?

 

Ann Banks (19:32):

Well, Karen and I went out to where the plantations had been, they’re torn down now. And there was this kind of craft historical marker about AJ Pickett and we took a picture of ourselves standing in front of it. The discovery of Milton in that archive was incredible payoff. And then right at the last morning, we actually went to this huge cemetery where AJ Pickett was buried. And that was an amazing … There were some amazing emotional experiences, I think for us. Karen, who is Roman Catholic elected to say a Hail Mary in front of AJ Pickett’s gravestone, which was incredibly moving and amazing to me. We both had to take a chance to do it. As I said, I was kind of like going on a week long blind date, but I could see that it would be meaningful to Karen to go down there. And later she had said to me that she thought she’d have a better chance or a better reception or whatever at the archives if she was there with a descendant of … A white, obviously descendant of AJ Pickett. And at first I thought, “Well, I don’t know that, that’s really the case.” But now looking back on it, I certainly know why that was what she thought and that it may well have been the case. We have no way of knowing, but it was an amazing trip for both of us.

 

Soniya Gokhale (20:53):

I can only imagine. And this brings us to the question of reparations. I will be having a feature podcast with an organization known as Reparations For Slavery. And what’s interesting, is a conversation that organization started with a dialogue that’s very similar to yours. Descendants of slave owners actually researching their family history and becoming huge advocates for reparations. And I think this is a conversation that I hear often, it’s certainly in the mainstream media, as it pertains to political issues. And we know. Vice President Kamala Harris and others are huge advocates for this, but I think it’s so compelling to hear it from descendants of former slave owners. And just want to see, if that came up at all, I know it has as you’ve just divulged to us at the beginning of the conversation, but any other thoughts on that?

 

Ann Banks (21:54):

Well, I just watched … Actually, the House just had hearings, it’s called HR 40, which is this bill, which originally the bill … It’s been introduced for 30 sessions of Congress. And originally it was just to start a commission to study reparations. And I think they finally changed it to study and proposed solutions. And I don’t know whether it will get passed, this Congress or not, but the time does seem … It seems to me that this is a moment where people are more willing to face some of this history. That’s what I’m finding in the responses to my piece, actually. People are saying, “Well, this could be a model for like a truth and reconciliation commission.” Which we’ve never had here. And I think would be a very meaningful thing to do. It’s hard to know. I think this is definitely a moment, where people are open to thinking about this in a different way. Obviously not all people, but more than there were.

 

Ann Banks (22:52):

It’s interesting to me also, there’s a commission now, which Biden has signed off on, to change the names of army bases that are named for Confederate generals of which there are 10. And I lived in one of them. My dad was in the army and one of them is named for George Pickett, who was my ancestor cousin. And so a magazine found descendants of all of these 10 generals and asked them what they thought. And it was very interesting, all but one of them thought, “Yes, change the names.” And the descendant of Pickett was kind of my favorite because he owned a scuba diving business and he said, “Well, you could put them in an historical park or you could just sink them in the ocean and they could become a coral reef.” And I thought, “That would be great.” Because I’m a big underwater person.

 

Ann Banks (23:45):

So I don’t know, if the resistance to this is necessarily coming from descendants. I mean, maybe some is, but I think a lot of it is just coming from people who are hanging on to the Confederacy as a palliative for what they think they’re losing.

 

Soniya Gokhale (24:02):

That is such an excellent point because even when you were discussing the archives that you and Karen encountered. Just to see a bill of sale and see humans being sold at these archives, it would have an absolutely profound effect upon this country. And I really do hope this is being incorporated into history classes. I know that there’s a lot of talk about the 1619 Project, but to your point, that’s such a great point. It’s interesting, they added that byline on your article, but I would agree with you. And what I would like to do … First of all, thank you so much for joining us today. And I do want to say that we really would like to welcome you back to walk us through this family legacy and your series of essays, which are just so striking because they do take us through the archives, right from your family.

 

Soniya Gokhale (24:55):

And I will be having all of the links in my podcast notes to Confederates in My Closet. As well, you’re on the History News Network. And we just want to thank you, because this has really been enlightening and that stated, we have a lot of global listeners, but this is a global issue, a global topic. And thank you so much Anne Banks, for joining us today.

 

Ann Banks (25:18):

Well, you’re welcome. I have one quick point I wanted to make though, before we left, which is that, I had another issue with the headline of the article. Which is that, the preferred term now is not to describe people as slave because that makes their entire being, that, that’s their identity, but to use the term enslaved person. So I requested a change in the headline and they did that and I think that at times, just people do, and I just now used the term slave. But I just wanted to mention, the better term to use now is enslaved because that describes a condition, not a complete identity.

 

Soniya Gokhale (25:59):

No question. And the semantics are so deeply important. So thank you so much for pointing that out. And we can’t wait to have you back again. Writer Anne Banks, thank you so much.

 

Ann Banks (26:12):

Thank you, Soniya. I enjoyed it.

 

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