Unloose My Heart: A Personal Reckoning with the Twisted Roots of My Southern Family Tree
“Marcia Herman-Giddens’ Unloose My Heart is an eloquent personal testimony of a life, both well examined and well lived.”
Why—amid pervasive and unquestioned evil—do sparks of humanity and resistance suddenly and unexpectedly flare?
And why, when looking around, as others see nothing amiss, does a still, small voice say: “Wait, this is wrong.”
Marcia Herman-Giddens provides some answers in her eloquent memoir, Unloose My Heart: A Personal Reckoning with the Twisted Roots of My Southern Family Tree.
Herman-Giddens’ family moved from a New York City suburb to Birmingham in 1946, when she was six.
By any standard or definition, Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1940s and 1950s was a place of evil—a smug, sooty, industrial city, built on the labor of former slaves, transformed into convict laborers, along with exploited white workers.
Corrupt and violent, during this same period, it was beginning to earn the sobriquet “Bombingham,” for the dynamiting of Black homes and churches and synagogues, with impunity.
“Happy families are all alike,” Leo Tolstoy writes in the often-quoted opening sentence of Anna Karenina. “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
In Birmingham, Herman-Giddens’ family life was unhappy in familiar, if not distinctive ways: for one thing, her mother didn’t love her father.
The author’s father was from the Pennsylvania Dutch country, from a Mennonite and Brethren family. Her mother was descended from plantation-owning, Southern blue bloods, their dissipated fortunes long behind them.
So the unhappy family dynamic played out against a background of culture clash of Herman-Giddens’ parents’ backgrounds, along predictable fault lines of racial attitudes, politics, class, and geography.
Herman-Giddens’ mother was a sour, unquestioning racist, and a casual anti-Semite, clinging to her aristocratic Southern heritage. Young Marcia suffered physical and emotional abuse at her hands, likely a function of a mother on the edge of mental instability.
“I had grown up in a scabrous apartheid world,” she recalls, although at first she didn’t realize it.
But even as a child, Herman-Giddens sensed that something about her world beyond her home was also wrong. Her mother’s notion of white supremacy “never sat right with me,” she writes.
While searching with her father for their beloved African American maid who had temporarily gone missing, she recalled visiting the woman’s poor neighborhood. Behind closed and cracked doors, she writes, “I learned in Jim Crow Birmingham there was Black fear, and it swam in the streams of white fear. I was ten years old.”
By the time she was in high school Herman-Giddens was spending less time with her own parents than with a more cosmopolitan and congenial couple—European emigres, a dentist and his wife who gave German lessons—refugees from the Nazis. She was also sneaking into her boyfriend’s bedroom, where they read books by German philosophers.
In the early 1960s, Birmingham put the civil rights movement in the national spotlight, with the brutal suppression of young African American demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses. The worst was the 1963 bombing at the 16th Avenue Baptist Church that killed four young girls. Incredibly, such violence was officially sanctioned.
At the time, most of Birmingham’s white citizens were at worst active, unquestioning white supremacists; at best, they were silently complicit, even as the violence against civil rights activists escalated.
But Herman-Giddens gravitated to a tiny, righteous remnant, most huddled at the University of Alabama Medical School and the Unitarian Church. These courageous liberals and a handful of Communists joined in supporting Black Christians in the nascent civil rights movement.
To her credit, Herman-Giddens is candid in her recollection of that tumultuous time, and of her allies.
Although the local white civil rights supporters were courageous and on the side of the angels, and the right side of history, many also had complicated and problematic personal lives.
Given her economic vulnerability, it would be difficult to overestimate the risk of Herman-Giddens’ personal involvement in the civil rights movement.
At the time, she was a young, working mother of two with no college degree, trying to help maintain her family’s precarious hold on the middle class. Notwithstanding, she still became an active foot soldier in the movement, along with the cadre of sympathetic whites, culminating in a support march they held in Selma, the day before the infamous 1965 “Bloody Sunday.”
A year later, Herman-Giddens and her family left Birmingham for North Carolina to make a new life.
There she earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Duke University and the University of North Carolina, and a Doctor of Public Health in Maternal and Child Health at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.
In the decades that followed, she had a successful career as a medical practitioner, focusing first on infectious diseases and then child abuse homicides. Eventually, she became an adjunct professor at UNC’s School of Public Health.
But more than a half century after leaving Birmingham, approaching her 80th birthday, Herman-Giddens felt an irresistible pull to examine her family's heritage through genealogy.
Until then, she writes, she had “allowed my personal ghosts to remain unexamined.”
The reason for examining her ancestors, even at her advanced age, was that it was “the only way I know to try to understand who they were, how their lives were woven into their long history as enslavers, why my mother and her family had the attitudes they did, and how this might be playing out in myself.”
She made a road trip in Mississippi in early, 2017, she recalls, because “I needed to enter my own history, my ancestors’ history, Birmingham’s history: find out what I didn’t know, what I had forgotten, see how it all wove together, and how I had navigated my growing up.”
What she found, in obsessive document searches and site visits from North Carolina to Texas, was not completely surprising.
Among the first things she discovered, as others have in similar accounts, is that she has African American cousins, whom she seeks out, and who welcome her. She expresses to them the requisite amount of guilt, by extension, for slavery and the sexual violence of her forbears that created them.
And then there was cotton.
“My ancestors and thousands of other white folk peopled this landscape, becoming ever richer, many becoming more debased and crueler in their efforts to maintain dominion over their human chattel.”
Subjugating and chasing down runaway slaves “may offer a glimpse into the ongoing presence of fear that rules the South to this day.”
There were some surprises.
In her occasionally Byzantine research, she learned that one of her ancestors may have been the model for plantation owner Simon Legree, the brutal slave owner in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
At times, Herman-Giddens’ accounts of the minutiae of her genealogical research may cause the eyes of all but the similarly obsessed to glaze over. So they may be excused if they skim or skip these sections. Similarly, the confusing thicket of names and relationships of Herman-Giddens’ ancestors.
Of course, this literary ground has been plowed before, echoing Edward Ball’s pioneering, 1998 nonfiction book Slaves in the Family, as well as a fictional device in William Styron’s 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, and numerous others that have followed.
At the conclusion of Unloose My Heart, there may be a bit too much familiar, white, liberal, political sermonizing about race for some readers. But under the circumstances, Herman-Giddens has earned the right to do a little preaching. Marcia Herman-Giddens’ Unloose My Heart is an eloquent personal testimony of a life, both well examined and well lived.
Notwithstanding her time away from Alabama, she writes, “I am a white girl of Jim Crow Birmingham and, yes, echoes of bombings still whisper in the deep crannies of my mind.”
There seems to be something curious going on in the publishing world, apart from the deluge of baby boomer memoirs.
In the past 18 months, three Alabama white women, all over 50, have written memoirs or nonfiction accounts of life in that state during the era when the civil rights movement began to crack the wall of racial segregation and white supremacy.
First came Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham's Civil Rights Days, by TK Thorne; then R. Barbara Gitenstein’s Experience Is the Angled Road: Memoir of an Academic.
Marcia Herman-Giddens’ Unloose My Heart is a welcome addition to this shelf.