I’m in Knoxville, TN this week. Why is a story unto itself. I’m on the board of directors for a non-profit insurance co-op, my insurance as it happens. After the full-day meeting — during which I astounded myself by not experiencing an urge to gouge out my own eyes and by not calming myself down by working out math problems while people talked — I went to the East Tennessee Historical Society.
Actually, let me amend that — I did do calculus throughout the meeting, based on the data the CPA and the Chief Medical Officer gave us. I like numbers. I understand them more than I understand human behavior. But I’m more desperate to understand people than I am to work out differential equations. Hence, my degrees in American Studies and History. I should’ve combined my passions.
I’m not yet able to speak as a scholar about what I saw today. I need to visit the museum at least once more, to spend more time reading the labels. Yet, the place left me deeply unsettled.
For the most part, I’ve loved the city. In my free moments, I’ve been taking runs and stopping for pictures like the one below.
Back to the museum.
The main exhibit covered history and culture in East TN. It discussed slavery and Indian Removal in vague terms.
I raised my eyebrows at this sign. What’s an “Indian uprising?” Sarah Hawkins died violently in 1780 — her death, undoubtedly, was part of the Revolution. I won’t deny her hardship: she had ten children between her marriage at fifteen and her death at thirty-four. But her family moved west of the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763. Willingly or not (given her status as a woman), she was a participant in an invasion. Yet this is a standard American whitewash. We regularly use words like “uprising” and “attack” to obscure the military role of American Indians in the Revolution and other wars.
Next I found the exhibit about slavery, in which the museum alerts us that while statewide, 36,844 families owned slaves, in East Tennessee only 5,349 families did so.
Oh, well then, you’re excused. Go stand with Rhode Island and New York.
The rest of the main exhibit explored East Tennessee’s history of music and mining. Fun stuff.
Remember my pretty pictures?
I’m still stalling on the nausea.
In another room, the last room, in an exhibit about the Civil War, I came upon a Klan robe.
I have seen and touched awful artifacts. Slave chains. Pieces of slave ships. Terrifying 19th-century gynecological instruments. Gibbets. Bones. Preserved organs. I’ve seen real Klan robes before. Nothing has ever affected me like seeing this particular one.
I began to shake. Terror, fear, nausea.
This robe came very early in the exhibit. I darted past it and stood behind another case, trying to get my composure. I knew I couldn’t take in the rest of the room. But I had to pass the robe to leave. I told myself to get it together. Never mind artifacts, I’ve seen worse things in life. So I walked back around the corner and confronted the robe.
The hood had red splatters above the eyes. I obviously didn’t do a blood stain analysis, but I’m pretty certain the red splatters above the eye holes were blood. Fortunately, it had been hours since lunch.
I have no idea where my emotional response to that robe came from. I’ve never felt it before and I never want to feel it again. I still feel the evil around me.
Quick, someone throw me some big benign numbers to divide.