Yeah, but …

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.

R

12 thoughts on “Yeah, but …

  1. Regie…I have been a fan of your song writing from long ago (I am a huge Southern Gospel and CCM music fan), and now, I so enjoy your blogs!!!! Just wanted to encourage you to keep writing them. We love reading them!!!

    Kelli Moore
    Roaring Spring, PA.

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. I think most people in the south, north, east and west are racist. I tend not to remember the wickedness of my own heart on a daily, hourly basis and my heart always leans towards thinking I’m just a tiny bit better than you or you or you or you. You could be red, yellow, black or white. Color or beliefs don’t matter when I’m not right sized.

    I do that because the last thing on my mind is that we’re all created in God’s image and that my Savior was a brown skinned, middle eastern, Jew, who bled for me. I would probably think I’m better than him at some point if I didn’t know what he did for me and that he is all I’ve got in this world. I could definitely be alone in my view, tho. Wouldn’t be the first time!

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  3. I believe healing will come if we pray specific prayers, with specific people in specific places. If White Americans go with Black Americans to the places where slaves were historically sold and repent/forgive it will release from God the grace needed to heal America of the present racial wounds.

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  4. I’m a New Yorker & my “what the hell is going on??” eyes have just been opened to how ignorant I really am when it comes to having a clue as to what it means to be a “southerner” and/or in fear of. Very strong piece with lots of perspective. Always a pleasure to read your stuff.

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  5. I agree with what you said. Of course, I have a “however”. There are monuments to the Vikings, Henry VIII, Napoleon…. in Europe. These are all horribly flawed people but they affected history, albeit in bad ways in some cases and some not. They don’t seem to be looked upon deferentially, like a statue of Jesus; just historical fact. Probably the best thing to do it is to have a plaques by these statues stating facts…the good, the bad and the ugly. That being said, I think a statue of Hitler would be disgusting. And to name a park after the aforementioned KKK member, or even Robert Byrd? That being said, I think a statue of Hitler would be wildly disgusting. I know there is a bust of him that sold for 17.2 million. How we reconcile these things? I don’t know. I do know that we can’t change history. Maybe we just have to treat these people realistically and historically, rather than as heroes or saints. Gosh, they have statues of Jesse James? Not exactly salt of the earth. I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t think hauling the statues down and kicking them is the answer. I don’t know what is.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes. Oklahoma was Indian Territory then. Y’all had kicked us out of our homeland by then. My ancestors were trying to survive in a new place where there were no settlers. No one wanted to live here so they gave it to us. I am Cherokee and my tribe’s land once was very extensive here. When they moved the Osage here as well, we had to give them a place to settle so we gave them the land they’re on now. Guess they had the last laugh.

    We were told by President Madison to emulate the white man as much as possible so we could learn to be more like them. We did. At first, I’m sure the only slaves we had were those who ran away from their white masters and wound up on our land. We didn’t bother them too much but I am also sure if the slaves wanted to grow food for themselves, they had to have land on which to do it. I am also sure we probably worked them. We guarded our boundaries jealously so if the slave owners wanted their property back, they had to fight Cherokees to get them back. Most didn’t.

    I don’t know if we were more or less compassionate people toward the runaway slaves or not. Life was hard then. Life as a free man was hard and Indians had slaves amongst themselves. Slaves were taken whenever there was a battle against another tribe. A slave could, however, move up in stature in the community by proving his worth and become a member of the tribe. That’s our only saving grace, I guess. I have no idea how this was done so I can’t tell you if a person could die as a result of attempting to become a tribal member or not. At any rate, that’s how we wound up with quite a few runaway slaves on our rolls. It’s interesting to note that few of them tried to escape the Cherokee nation.

    At the time of the Civil War, we were taking money from the North as reparation for the loss of our homelands. Y’all came to us and told us if we agreed to fight for them against the North, they would give us back some of our lands and quite a bit more. This sparked another big ruckus within the tribe. Some wanted nothing better than to stick it to the North. They had removed us from our land. They were not paying us the reparations. (That wasn’t really their fault because the South had cut Indian Territory off from the North.) More than a few decided to fight. The other tribes followed suit. So when the Civil War ended, the North decided to punish us for what a few had done and Indian Territory was opened up to white settlers. Actually the railroads had wanted the land for quite some time so this was the perfect opportunity to open it up and show the Indians who was really in charge here. They must have had a difficult problem in a way. They could have rounded up those who were responsible, tried them and sentenced them for their misdeeds and left the tribes to their own devices as they promised to do. That would cost a lot of money though. Much better to punish them all, open their lands to the railroads and settlers who were moving west to start over and solve two problems with one fell swoop.

    That’s history and if American Indians had been able to band together to fight the white men and kick them out altogether, my life could be very different right now. Who knows what it could have been but I’m glad for my life as it is. I have moved on but many Indians have not. Many still don’t trust whites. Many are still getting kicked around by the BIA. That’s another story altogether. Blacks aren’t the only race the white man has tried to eradicate. The only good Indian is a dead Indian was a phrase coined by whites. We weren’t even property to them, just annoying and at one time, feared. During the early history, we were even allies since we fought the White’s battles against the French. Lust for land made us expendable and annoying. All I’m saying is, after all this bad history, Indians still fight in wars this country is in. We still salute the flag and love this land. Black Americans have had a brutal, horrible history here and all are sorry for this horrible time in our history. Theirs is not the only bad story. That being said, I still believe this is the best country anyone could have the great fortune in which to be born.

    Sent from Trish’s iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  7. History is what it is, and it should never be re-written. Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. And I agree with the other commentator that we need to acknowledge the good, bad and ugly. The problem that I have is that no one that is alive today participated in this “ugly” of the past. Yes, we are all descendants from that time, but were not active participants. There might be a few people today who are just evil, but that does not represent our society as a whole. The right answer today is to show true love and compassion for one another, not make excuses for the past, nor try to eradicate it. Our civil war was certainly because of a moral dilemma, but is war (it’s own moral dilemma) the right way to right a wrong? I wasn’t there, and the past is what it is. I just pray that moving forward, we don’t find ourselves considering another civil war to solve another “moral dilemma”…

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