A deeply personal memoir that unearths a family history of racism, slaveholding, and trauma as well as love and sparks of delight
Marcia Herman’s family moved to Birmingham in 1946, when she was five years old, and settled in the steel-making city dense with smog and a rigid apartheid system. Marcia, a shy only child, struggled to fit in and understand this world, shadowed as it was by her mother’s proud antebellum heritage. In 1966, weary of Alabama’s toxic culture, Marcia and her young family left Birmingham and built a life in North Carolina.
Later in life, Herman-Giddens resumed a search to find out what she did not know about her family history. Unloose My Heart interweaves the story of her youth and coming of age in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement together with this quest to understand exactly who and what her maternal ancestors were and her obligations as a white woman within a broader sense of American family.
More than a memoir set against the backdrop of Jim Crow and the civil rights struggle, this is the work of a woman of conscience writing in the twenty-first century. Haunted by the past, Unloose My Heart is a journey of exploration and discovery, full of angst, sorrow, and yearning. Unearthing her forebears’ centuries-long embrace of plantation slavery, Herman-Giddens dug deeply to parse the arrogance and cruelty necessary to be a slaveholder and the trauma and fear that ripple out in its wake. All this forced her to scrutinize the impact of this legacy in her life, as well as her debt to the enslaved people who suffered and were exploited at her ancestors’ hands. But she also discovers lost connections, new cousins and friends, unexpected joys, and, eventually, a measure of peace in the process. With heartbreak, moments of grace, and an enduring sense of love, Unloose My Heart shines a light in the darkness and provides a model for a heartfelt reckoning with American history.
Marcia Edwina Herman-Giddens is adjunct professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and consultant on tick-borne infections. Before retiring, she was a pediatric practitioner, child advocate, family health consultant, and a teacher. She is best known professionally for her studies on child abuse homicides, which led to new laws, and landmark studies documenting the earlier age of onset of puberty in American children. This is her first work of narrative nonfiction.
"A vividly detailed contribution to civil rights history." —Kirkus Reviews
“Marcia Edwina Herman-Giddens has written a powerful and moving memoir of her life growing up in segregated Birmingham. Her honest and candid story engages both the reader’s attention and sympathy. Her book will take its place among other such memoirs as a distinguished addition to the autobiographical literature looking at the city’s critical experience during the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of its white citizens.” —Charles B. Dew, author of The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade
“Unloose My Heart is a sweeping account by Marcia Edwina Herman-Giddens, a white woman who wrestles with her slave-owning ancestors, her years as a child and young mother in Birmingham, her visits with Black relatives, and her response to the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. Herman-Giddens recalls the horrific bombing of Black homes and churches in Birmingham—nicknamed ‘Bombingham’—from the first bombing of an African American home in 1947 when she was in the first grade to when she herself heard ‘the Klan’s dynamite detonating’ with four bombings in one week in 1962 and when the Klan murdered four young girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. A gripping tale of self-discovery that is both painful and inspiring.” —William R. Ferris, author of I AM A MAN: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1960–1970
"Marcia Edwina Herman-Giddens’ memoir, Unloose My Heart: A Personal Reckoning with the Twisted Roots of My Southern Family Tree, is both a moving and sobering account of her coming of age during the civil rights movement and investigating her family history during the pandemic. Her research is thorough, and she writes of the wrongdoing her family perpetuated with a keen eye, not shying away from the generational horrors that are part of her family tree." —Katharine Armbrester reviewer for Southern Review of Books
“Unloose My Heart is a remarkable achievement of personal and historical journalism, a gripping account of how one young woman came to understand her family’s debts in a segregated world and the steps she took to settle them.” —Jim Willse, former editor of The New York Daily News and reporter for The Southern Courier in the 1960s