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Unloose My Heart: A Personal Reckoning with the Twisted Roots of My Southern Family Tree

Unloose My Heart: A Personal Reckoning with the Twisted Roots of My Southern Family Tree

By Marcia Edwina Herman-GiddensPublisher: University of Alabama PressISBN: 978-0-8173-2145-1Genre: Non-Fiction Price: $34.05 Print and E-book

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.

Born in Washington, DC, Herman-Giddens moved to Birmingham, Alabama with her parents in 1947. As Marcia grew up, she was profoundly affected by her exposure to the wrongs of Jim Crow, the ongoing atrocities, and pervasive injustice. Later, as a young mother, she and her then-husband participated in Birmingham’s Civil Rights Movement.  Herman-Giddens attended St John's College in Annapolis, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina, receiving her DrPH there in 1994. Dr. Herman-Giddens spent her career years in North Carolina, in the areas of medicine, public health, research, scientific writing, and advocacy, primarily involving children. Her scientific papers have been published in numerous medical journals and books.  She is one of the last of her generation who as a child and young adult lived through the racial horrors in Birmingham. This and other experiences described in the book gave her the determination and courage to join the Civil Rights Movement.


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 place among such other memoirs as a distinguished edition 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 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 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

Unloose My Heart is an irreplaceable narrative that goes well beyond personal experience and the examination of the author’s maternal ancestors’ slaveholding. Woven into the book are many themes: coming of age, Southernness, the complexity and endurance of family relationships, class struggles, convention and rebellion, service to fellowman, empowerment of women, self-awareness, and civil rights activities in Jim Crow Birmingham. Its overarching subject, the evils of racism, which is sadly and rightfully dark, is brightened by the author’s sweet spirit, honesty, and hope for a better future.

Laurie Gentry, Journalist