One friend of mine gets upset when people say that the American Civil War was “not about slavery,” but the other day a bookstore customer made the not-over-slavery claim, and another of my friends said that her very good friend, a black Southern professor, agrees with this view. Slavery or something else? What else? Preservation of the Union vs. two separate countries—but why did the South want to secede in the first? States’ rights, not slavery? But wasn’t it the right of states to allow slavery that was the key issue? “I’ve read that the causes were economic,” someone else remarks, and that reminds me of David R. Montgomery’s claim in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations that growing crops with slave labor had already become unprofitable by the time of the Civil War because cotton had worn out the land, and so the only way owners of large numbers of slaves could continue to make money was by selling slaves, and that the only way to insure a continued market for slaves was to have new states in the West open to slavery. So, economic? Yes, but that involves slavery, too. I don’t see how economics or states’ rights or self-determination issues leading up to the Civil War can ever be separated from slavery at that time in American history.
Of course, I am a Northerner. And no historian....
I see clearly that from the personal point of view, whether it’s a private foot soldier or a general with an Academy background, the Civil War could well have been “not about slavery.” Individuals’ reasons for fighting, their personal values and ideals, are often very different from what emerges in the larger, impersonal picture history presents. How many soldiers ever go to war to secure a market, whether for slaves or silk or spices or oil or whatever? They go for love of king or love of country, out of a sense duty and gratitude for freedom, for honor and glory, for adventure, for family honor, to defend or free themselves or others—all manner of different reasons.
When the Civil War question comes up, I often want to object, “The war was over a century and a half ago! Why do we have to keep fighting it?” Yet I understand, too, that human beings have a hard time agreeing to disagree and that the truth of a nation’s history is something important to every citizen. Who are we as a country? Our history is a big part of how we answer that question.
This is a circuitous route to take to get to Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The time of the novel is the 1960s; its sections move back and forth between the early and the late Sixties. In the early Sixties, Biafran independence is a dream for certain of the characters, notably Odenigbo and his university colleagues. Odenigbo’s houseboy, Ugwu, can read and write, but his education takes leaps and bounds once he joins Master’s household. Beautiful Olanna comes from a privileged background and is much more concerned with her love affair than with politics, while her twin sister (not identical) Kainene is the practical one, absorbed in the family business, securing contracts and making money. Kainene is an irreverent cynic with little patience for Olanna’s romantic acquiescence. And finally there is Richard, a foreign white man who comes to call himself Biafran. Is he? Can he be?
Roughly two-thirds of the novel takes place with these characters living their day-to-day pre-war lives. They love each other, argue with each other, have affairs and hurt each other. There are problems with parents and in-laws and disagreements between friends. Ordinary life, in other words. For a while you might think the author is taking an easy way of presenting Sixties life in Nsukka and Port Harcourt, even while you marvel at her surprising, lovely turns of phrase. But then comes war, and with it comes fear, rumor and food shortages, horrible deaths, evacuation, repeated moves that bring ever-worsening conditions, refugee camps, starvation, and because you have had time to come to know the people involved, the violence and famine are no longer abstract concepts or news stories from far away but personal tragedies. The author has led you to the truth of war.
Who is telling the story? Which story or stories will be told? Why was this war fought? What is the official story today, and how does it differ from that of Adichie’s novel?
Asked why she chose the Nigeria-Biafra war for the subject of her novel, the author responds:
I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, because my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp, because the brutal bequests of colonialism make me angry, because the thought of the egos and indifference of men leading to the unnecessary deaths of men and women and children enrages me, because I don’t ever want to forget.
What is it that should be remembered—from any war? There could be so many answers, but here is a passage from Adichie’s novel that says a great deal about personal experience:
...The bombing was louder and closer. The ground pulsed. She felt nothing. She was floating away from inside herself. Another explosion came and the earth vibrated, and one of the naked children crawling after crickets giggled. Then the explosions stopped and the people around her began to move. If she had died, if Odenigbo and Baby and Ugwu had died, the bunker would still smell like a freshly tilled farm and the sun would still rise and the crickets would still hop around. The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with a frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die. Until Biafra won, the vandals would no longer dictate the terms of her life.
The individuals in this story take many different journeys, some parallel but each one unique, as in life. The ending left me shaken. And then, immediately following Half of a Yellow Sun, I read a book of nonfiction by a Norwegian Journalist, Åsne Seierstad’s A Hundred and One Days, a report on her time in Baghdad leading up to the arrival of American troops in 2003. What was happening on the ground before the Americans arrived? Did the population support Saddam Hussein? Once again, there are no easy answers and no one attitude shared by everyone Seierstad meets. Like the Adichie novel, most of the “action” comes late in the book, and one thing is clear: the cost of freedom was very high for the people who call this place home.
Northport had an unusual Veterans Day program this year. Retired Congregational minister Grafton “Mac” Thomas had the idea and wrote the script and was joined by three other local men. The four together made a presentation on peace for students and the general public. I only heard about it afterwards. Wish I’d been there. Northport is full of surprises.