The Great Lie

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by Andy Hall

The Great Lie

by Tim Lewis

The first part of the Great Lie
Is to deny
That slavery was savage, barbaric—
Instead, bleating and placating
With soft metaphor and subtle explication
That so many owners were good and kind,
And most slaves redeemably well-treated,
Never whipped, never maimed,
Never shipped into coffle lines,
Iron masks or necklaces of horns,
But lofted with warmed clothes, adorned quarters,
And a living comfortable and soft


The second part of the Great Lie
Is to deny
The evil of the system, comparing it
To northern industry, wage labor,
Whining that New England factories
Had slaves engaged for sorry pay
In conditions just as forced, or worse,
And to ignore the curse of servitude,
Of rapes and killings, broken families,
Branded hands and faces, clipped ears,
And the right for us to choose
Our lives and fears.

The third part of the Great Lie
Is to imply
That most enjoyed their bondage,
Paternal-dwelt, indentured,
Childlike, unprepared,
Household servants cared for well,
Enjoying beds and meals and comfort,
Too simple or unstressed to venture
Into a savage, killing world
Where their lack of skills and laziness
Would squeeze them into destitution,
Rather than soft plantation ease.

The fourth part of the Great Lie
Is to deny
That the war concerned slavery at all,
To quote Lincoln, extend excuses
That states' rights, homestead
Protection were the real concerns
For Davis and his plantation friends,
And to ignore why so many poor
Refused to fight, fled, deserted,
Or were enthused by the Union side
—Half of white Virginia seceding from
The enslaved creed of the state.

The fifth part of the Great Lie
Is to deny
Slave wisdom, endeavor and capacity,
As competent as whites,
As brave, hardworking and as fit
—Or that they carved their freedom
Desperate with each flighted hour,
Stating that most plantations snoozed
Unperturbed by war dispute
—Loyal in repute, trusted, free—
A whitewash that bruises today,
In unabashed denial of equality.

The sixth and final part of the Great Lie
Is to deny
Even the existence of wartime slaves,
Their flight and engraved resistance,
Their willingness to ambush,
Burn barns and houses, poison,
Refuse to work, sabotage, go slow about,
Flow freedom into their own firm hands,
Fight for Union forces and to scout,
Despite the frenzy-butchered slaughter,
Of Confederate soldiers' assault
On a race's quiet-ennobled valor.

Let us no more apologize or lie,
Let us no more glissade nor simplify,
Let us no more squirm nor ignore,
But let us straight and truthful say,
With courage in our humbled hearts,
That we were terribly, terribly wrong,
And slip upon our bended knees
To beg forgiveness for inhumanities,
Seek ways to give in recompense,
Build memorials to their memory,
And take their peaceful, offered hands
In final joint identity.

I do,
I bow my head
And beg forgiveness
On behalf of all
Who have defended slavery

And defend it still. . . .


Tim Lewis is the author of eleven volumes of creative works, ranging from poetry to photography to history. An Englishman, born in South Africa, he now lives in the Charlottesville, Virginia area. This poem, "The Great Lie," appears in his recent collection, The Virginiad: 400 Years of Virginia History in Poetry. Thanks to Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory for bringing this poem to my attention. © Copyright 2008 by Tim Lewis, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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