Recently, the Suwannee Democrat published an article of mine entitled “Inmate Life in 1914.” In it, I directly quoted from a 1954 article which itself quoted from the original 1914 article. I have been contacted by some who found offense with the way the article was written and portrayed. First off, I wish to express my appreciation to all those who took the time to not only read the article, but also to comment upon it. In an immediate attempt to clear up the issue, I responded directly to those who personally contacted me and posted a blanket statement on Facebook.
As a historian and seventh-generation lifelong resident of Suwannee County, I have always taken the approach that we must study and learn from the past, whether good, bad or indifferent. Whether in my many historical presentations, articles, or books, I try to show a fair view of the past. I don’t sugar-coat what has happened, but merely try to report it as I see it. Sometimes, it means discussing things that many believe would be better left unsaid. As I have often repeated (and I quoted again in the article following the “Inmate Life” one, ironically), “those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” As Marcus Garvey pointed out, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” Maya Angelou added, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Too often, people wish to forget the past instead of learning from the mistakes others have made, or worse yet, try to change the past to suit their own purposes. We must learn from the past in order not to make the same blunders.
The article in question is one of those topics that many people wish to forget. My use of the word “humorous,” especially, seemed to have upset many people. It is one of those times when a writer puts on paper his thoughts on a matter without fully consulting alternative meanings that could be taken as offensive. In fact, the primary definition of “humorous” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “full of or characterized by that quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous.” “Ludicrous,” defined by the same dictionary, is “amusing or laughable through obvious absurdity, incongruity, exaggeration, or eccentricity,” or “meriting derisive laughter or scorn as absurdly inept, false, or foolish.” “Incongruous” is defined as “not harmonious: incompatible; not conforming: disagreeing; inconsistent with itself; or lacking propriety: unsuitable.” I was not seeking to make light of the plight of African-Americans in 1914, but rather to point out the foolishness and scorn found in the racism, hypocrisy, etc., of many of the people of that day that many have moved past, but some others (of whatever race, creed, etc.) continue to hold. This was how I used the word “humorous” in my article, although in hindsight I should have chosen another word which adequately conveyed my feelings on the matter without the alternative definition that many seemed to have taken from it. For that, I humbly apologize.
My own sentiments in my article concerning the 1914 original were that “some ideas and words that were once thought of as normal are now condemned.” I then went on to warn that the original article was racist, among other issues. At the end of my article, I again pointed out, “will people 100 years from now look upon us with similar thoughts?”; the point being, would people see us as so racist and unlearned as the original writer of the 1914 article is to us? I would hope not; I would hope we have matured beyond such outdated and harmful ideas.
One gentleman wrote to me expressing his concerns with the article, commenting that the article “reeks of ignorance, racism, and hypocrisy”; this observation of his was spot-on. He also commented that it was “an insult to Christianity and to what Christians SHOULD stand for — sincerity,” which was also very true. I share all those sentiments, which is why I published the article in the first place. We need to learn from the past and not fall back into this quagmire of racism, no matter what color or creed, ever again. To paraphrase what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 15:4, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction,” and part of the book of Hebrews is to remind Christians of the unbelief and mistakes of the Israelites of old. Learning about the mistakes of those who lived in the Old Testament is just as true as much as it is for those who lived one hundred years ago in Suwannee County. As a preacher of the gospel, I often use the mistakes of Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and many other Biblical characters to spur us on to better spiritual lives. I try to approach history, and my historical articles, in the same way.
Although far from perfect, I believe Live Oak and Suwannee County has matured in many ways, including race relations. No longer can the newspapers, or other media outlets, write with such disdain upon those of other races as we see in the 1914 article. Unfortunately, due to the need to shorten my articles to fit within the newspaper, sometimes my full sentiments do not adequately carry over. It seems that this was one of those times, and for that, I also apologize.
As the father of a biracial child, I have personally seen racism directed at my family and I from various ethnic groups, and it leaves me unsettled. I will continue to talk and write about the evils of racism, in whatever form they arise. By reminding my readers of the racist ideas found in the 1914 article and the like, I hope they can see how far we have come and also how we need to continue working toward a racism-free society, whether it be against African-Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics, Asians, or any other of the numerous peoples that inhabit our country. The article was meant to convey how much Suwannee County has changed in 100 years regarding racism and how we still need to mature in that aspect; if that was not made clear by the rest of my comments throughout the article, I beg forgiveness.
I thank those again who took the time to write to me and expressed their concerns or support. I am appreciative that we live in a society where we can freely express our opinions and thoughts in a civilized manner without real fear of retribution. I am also proud to live in a society that for the most part is not afraid to objectively review the past in order to learn from it.
If I can be of any further service to anyone, please let me know. As with all my articles, my email address is provided.
Eric Musgrove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.