Telling the whole story


Our visitors, Anya Semeniuk, Irina Breza, and Yarina Denisiuk took a moment to shoot a selfie upon their arrival at the Savannah airport.

A Google search brought to my attention a Michael Pulley column in the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, "Savannah should tell the whole story." None of us ever tells the whole story, of course; we edit and select. But I was reminded of conversations that I had recently with a group of Ukrainian journalists who spent a week visiting us at the Savannah Morning News as part of an IREX exchange program.

When visitors show up, we try to show our best side. On this occasion our truck, whose back seat is often occupied by our fur-shedding Belgian Malinois, was vacuumed carefully and wiped down like Jason Bourne had been there.

But when it came to showing Savannah, I didn't flinch at showing our mess.

In fact, I made a special effort to include Franklin Square (which Pulley mentions), where we talked about the black Haitian Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue. We also talked about how slavery had been forbidden when Savannah was founded, how commercial pressures led to its spread from the Carolinas, how slaves suffered in the rice plantations whose outlines are still visible today if you look at our coastline on Google Earth. Earlier we visited the African-American family memorial on River Street, whose inscription reads:

"We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy." -- Maya Angelou

We also talked about how those slaves brought African agricultural and engineering technology that enabled the entire rice economy to flourish in the antebellum South. 

I think it's important that we be frank and honest about our history -- with ourselves and with our visitors.

Last summer I visited Ukraine and learned a bit of Ukrainian history, including heroic tales of first responders at the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster and the genocidal horrors of the Holodomor. I visited the eternal flame at the unknown soldier memorial in Chernihiv, commemorating the Soviet struggle to stop the Nazi advance. And I learned how some Ukrainian partisans sided with the Nazis against the Stalinist Russians.

We need to know our messy histories not to perpetuate old grudges, but to mutually understand their origins so that we can move on.

I have lived in Savannah for several years now, and visited many times before that, but I have only begun to scratch its surface. But I keep on scratching.

Likewise, I hope to visit Ukraine again in October, this time to the trans-Carpathian region. I've been to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, Beijing and Bangkok. Every visit is an opportunity to learn, and after every visit I find myself diving deeper into language, history and literature that further illuminates what I've just seen. "Crime and Punishment" is even more powerful if you've walked down Nevsky Prospekt, just as "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is more powerful when you've spent time in Hannibal. We may not be able to tell the whole story, but in understanding more dimensions we may better understand ourselves.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” -- Mark Twain