One of my dear friends called me last summer to tell me his son was visiting Tennessee. He was wondering if I might be able to connect with him. I was out of town that week and unable. But while we were discussing it he told me where his son was going to be: Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park. I was actually taken aback and laughed, nervously. “I didn’t realize we named a state park after that guy,” I said.
My friend, who happens to be a black man, asked, “Why? Who is he?”
“Well,” I stumbled, “um …he was a confederate general who started the KKK. And I honestly have no good reason to give you as to why my state wanted to memorialize him.”
My friend was stunned silent on the other end of the phone. And his first response back to me was, “is my son safe?”
Do you understand why he would say that? I do.
I know, as a southerner, that nothing was going to happen to his son. I know that probably none of the kids camping at that park had any idea who Nathan Bedford Forrest was and they didn’t care. I know that toward the end of his life, Forrest denounced racism and he’s a complicated historical figure, etc, etc. I get it. I know the Klan is a small, fringe group that nobody in the south wants to have anything to do with. And in all my 50 years of living and working in the south I have never knowingly met or had any contact with the Klan. But THAT’S not how someone of color sees it. They instantly fear for themselves and wonder if they have all the information. They wonder if they can truly trust what they’re hearing. And even when they know in their head that their white friends are not all racists, a state park named after the first leader of the KKK can strike momentary fear in their hearts and, at the very least, leave them confused.
If you don’t understand that, you don’t know enough people of different races.
In the south, we are raised with a concealed romance toward the confederacy. It’s called “our heritage.” And we desperately want it to be devoid of anything evil. These ubiquitous symbols; the confederate flag, the statues of confederate leaders, the references to “Dixie,” are melted into family, faith, honesty, legacy, fearlessness, toughness, humor in the face of rough times, tradition, not letting anyone tell you what to do while honoring those who came before you. I love these things about the south. And in that sense, I am a proud southerner.
But these noble qualities all somehow mingle into the southern ethos of the confederacy. And we in the south are raised in this convoluted air. At Cracker Barrel we see little books that extol the virtues of southern speech. And yeah …it might have a nod to the confederate flag on it. But it’s harmless. We write country songs about the south and how “country” we are and how proud we are of it all. But it’s all harmless. We loved the Dukes of Hazard. Harmless boys who just like to get rowdy. We all have a great sense of humor, drive trucks, shoot guns and love our grandma. And it all morphs into this harmless, cultural potpourri of pinto beans and muskets – Sunday School and Slouch hats – football and silent cannons.
Nobody wants to believe their ancestors were wrong. The weight of some guilt is simply too much to bear. So, many of my southern brothers and sisters will often defend the south and white people and slave owners and Robert E Lee and the confederacy and statues and on and on. “The Civil war wasn’t fought over slavery” is my least favorite of all the arguments. And yet it’s actually true. The war was essentially over states’ rights. I’m a federalist and believe strongly in the tenth amendment. So I’m all in on states’ rights. The problem is the “rights” those states wanted to retain, included the right to operate slave labor. And that gets us back to the moral argument.
At some point, in the south, we’re going to have to realize that our forbears were not on the right side of the nation’s greatest internal conflict. We are going to have to accept our ancestors’ sins and admit them. And then we’re going to have to move forward without ever trying to defend them in any way.
If I heard a Muslim say he didn’t support Jihad, but he understood things about it I just didn’t get, I would shut him down and simply say, “Sorry dude. You lost me at ‘yeah, but …”
When I hear Black Panther apologists bending over backwards, trying to explain to me the “historical context” of why someone calls for my death as a white person, I don’t really hear them. Once your “fight or flight” button gets pushed, it’s awfully hard to calmly sit through a history lesson.
I understand the need to keep our history front and center. I even understand the rolling of one’s eyes at people who want to take down monuments.
But when white people take instances like Charlottesville Virginia, and use them as occasions to say, “yeah but …” we reinforce everything people of other races think of us. And we erode trust. And that keeps us from moving forward as a nation.
People in the northern part of the country don’t know what it’s like (thankfully) to be raised in a place where epic battles were fought and hundreds of thousands of men died unthinkable deaths. They don’t see the historical markers and the scars of bloodshed and horror and hear the ghosts of the distant past all around them …ALL THE TIME. In the south, most of us drive past a major battle field on our way to work every morning. And that creates generation after generation trying to reconcile ourselves and balance who we are as people. But you can’t do that by becoming the very thing everyone already thinks you are.
I know that most of the people in the south are not racists. I know that most of us have made peace with the past and have it in its proper context. But I wonder about Confederate monuments. They’ve always bothered me. And, as a history buff, I never understood why we erected them in the first place.
Having said that, I know that Nathan Bedford Forrest can’t touch my friend’s son from the grave. And his name on that park isn’t actually hurting anyone. And I also understand the budgetary and cultural significance of uprooting every monument and engraving we don’t like. I mean there are two slave owners on Mount Rushmore for God’s sake. This could get out of hand pretty quickly. But maybe some of these things actually should come down. And maybe we should stop trying to “southsplain” away ugly truths. And maybe when Nazis march in the streets, we should just call it what it is and stop saying, “yeah but …”
We bought some Confederate money, in a Civil War memorabilia shop, when I was a kid. I asked the clerk if I could spend it. “No son, this money isn’t spendable anymore,” he said. “It’s just for show.”
“Why?” I asked.
He replied, “Because there’s nobody around to recognize it as legal currency anymore.”
As far as I’m concerned …enough said.