What Can We Steal From Jeremy Collins’s “When We Were Young and Confederate”?

Title of Work and its Form: “When We Were Young and Confederate,” creative nonfiction
Author: Jeremy Collins
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in Issue 9 of Chautauqua, a beautiful literary journal published by the Chautauqua Institution.  Order the journal here.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Candor

This piece is a fascinating kind of confession.  Over the course of thirteen parts, Mr. Collins chronicles his history with the Confederate flag and with racial issues.  Many years ago, Mr. Collins’s great-great-grandfather fought for the South in the Civil War.  The gentleman grew up in Georgia and, like everyone else around him, marveled at the athletic achievements of Herschel Walker.  (We’re reminded that Walker, an African-American, sometimes got to look into the stands to see fans wearing rebel uniforms and to hear bands playing “Dixie.”)  Mr. Collins recounts some of the twentieth-century history of race relations.  Ronald Reagan, like many politicians of the time, both respected African-Americans as friends and employed dog-whistle phrases to court the racist vote.  Mr. Collins points out that history doesn’t always remain in the past; racist ideology continues to motivate some Americans to be unpleasant to others in ways both large and small.

I think what I admire most about this piece is Mr. Collins’s honesty.  The author looks within himself to try and contextualize the anger and hatred that leads people to walk into a church and to shoot several people with a shotgun.  Was Mr. Collins ever that angry?  Of course not.  He does, however, confess to unpleasant feelings inspired by hatred and fear.  Even though the “n-word” wasn’t used in the Collins home, the author admits to thinking it on several occasions.  When a black peer steals his Air Jordans.  When he loses his spot on the basketball team because the African-American players were a little bit faster.

It took a lot of guts for Mr. Collins to confess that the adolescent version of himself felt some racist anger.   The admission was the right decision for a few reasons:

  1. We’ve all had unpleasant thoughts at times, even if we won’t admit it.
  2. Most of us mature during adolescence; aren’t we less likely to have unpleasant thoughts once we reach adulthood?
  3. Mr. Collins told us the truth.  Reaching a new level of understanding between people requires all of us to be honest with ourselves and others.

It’s an eternal dilemma: what makes our stories so special?  Why should anyone care about one life or one experience?  Mr. Collins answers these questions.  Sure, he was just one Caucasian young man growing up in Georgia who was once featured on the local news whooping a rebel yell to the sky.  A young man who once “roared as [Rush] Limbaugh poked holes in blacks, immigrants and women.”  Millions of people have argued in defense of the Southern Confederate heritage and against affirmative action.  Many thousands, I’ll wager, have gotten in Jesse Jackson’s face.  What does Mr. Collins do to make his essay more than just a bunch of anecdotes strung together?

Mr. Collins recognizes that he is telling a story that is much larger than a personal anecdote.  The title of the essay-”When We Were Young and Confederate”-explicitly refers to others.  Although the author discusses these BIG ISSUES in the context of his own understanding of the world, he delves into history and politics in order to try and explain why he and others act and think the way they do.

What Should We Steal?

  • Reveal the unpleasantness that marked your past self.  No one is proud of every single thing they’ve ever said or done.  Allow your reader to relate to you as the flawed and beautiful human being you are.
  • Contextualize your personal story in the larger human experience.  Our lives only represent one data point; how does your life shed light upon the deeper meaning of humanity?