I came across an article that was tracing the history of the Southern “lost cause” mythology. Having grown up in the shadow of Stone Mountain, the granite monolith which was the stone canvas for a tribute to Southern ancestors, the myth was literally a part of my landscape growing up.
There was a sentence in the article that prompted my memory, recalling Monticello, where I once took a private tour of Jefferson’s home during a break at a Pew Board meeting in Charlottesville. I was accompanied by the legendary civil rights crusader from, of all places, Mississippi, former Governor William Winter.
The sentence was uttered by a tour guide as he noted a present that Thomas Jefferson, a sainted figure in my pantheon of American patriots, gave to his children. The “present” was none other than human beings, who were slaves in his estate. The words shook me to my core. Imagine….giving a gift of another human being. Pause. Ponder.
It begged a deeper question. How could good, God-fearing people who claimed to follow Jesus Christ, in a myriad of expressions in the Southland, including the peculiar take of Jefferson, justify the slavery that they employed in the early days of this country? How does that work? What mental gymnastics must one perform to self-justify such an action?
Looking back from this historical vantage point, I have heard friends of mine express a rationalization that slavery “it wasn’t all that bad”. Others have claimed it was “good for them” as they were uncivilized heathens that were incapable of living on their own. Therefore, according to this person, it was our Christian duty to keep them safe and bounded in the safety of slavery.
I must admit that it was difficult to not break into laughter as I heard this reasoning offered, straight-faced, as if it was SO obvious, as to be silly to ponder anything otherwise. My sadness was the only thing that helped me exercise restraint.
As a native Southerner, I grew up going to the Cyclorama, a gigantic painting and diorama of the Battle of Atlanta, as the Southern soldiers were regarded as heroes as they defended their homeland valiantly against Northern invaders. William Tecumseh Sherman, who burned Atlanta on his march to the sea, perhaps saving Lincoln’s tenuous Presidency reelection, was cursed among many in my circles, or just not mentioned in the more polite company I maintained. I actually knew people who would not carry a five dollar bill in their wallet due to Lincoln’s picture on it. I happily relieved them on their burden in golf matches.
As a young boy, I remember seeing a slogan, “The South Will Rise Again” plastered over all kinds of things. “Hell No, I Won’t Forget” seemed comical to me, but with a twinge of sadness that goes with losing, which we reluctantly admit, a predecessor of the Big Lie.
In college, I took a history course from the noted Civil War historian, Bell Wiley, who wrote the classics, The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank, chronicling the actual “down and dirty” life of the soldier. Truthfully, I was not interested in the Civil War, but it was legend that Wiley had the stroke to get one into the University of Virginia Law School, a lofty goal. The proviso was that one had to “ace” his course to get his recommendation. So, I set out to do just that, leading the class in my reading of outside texts in my obsessive quest to get not only an “A” but, as we would joke with gallows humor, the “high A”.
I did well, resulting in the accompanying legendary personal note that Wiley would write to the parents of the golden student, heralding the brilliance of their progeny…a very Southern-style “thank you” note for the privilege of teaching your child. It played well with the home folks. But it also resulted in a phone call inviting me to a meeting of the Atlanta Civil War Roundtable, which, at the time, was a small collection of Civil War aficionados including Atlanta luminaries Franklin Garrett and Bev Dubose, along with Professor Wiley. It was heady company. And I returned to the group years later when I returned from Texas, the Roundtable now able to fill up a ball room at the monthly meetings. They even allowed…dare I say it…Yankees!
Wiley’s course did introduce me to the history of the military actions in the Civil War, but I was natively more interested in the political realities in the South and Lincoln’s presidency, notably his fight for reelection in the fury of a civil rebellion, specifically in his drive for the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery. My interest in the war ebbed and flowed in the years to come, although I always took time to tour battlefields when I travelled to see the actual landscape on which the epic battles were fought. Imagine how my kids enjoyed that. Right.
But underneath all of this was a nagging question: How could a Christian person justify the slavery of another person? It just didn’t make sense to me, and it still doesn’t.
Somewhere along the way, I got clear. Perhaps it was the genius of James Carville’s admonishment, “It’s the economy, stupid!” that finally made sense out of this chapter in American history. Follow the money. Slavery was behind the economics driving the South, and the North. The economy of the South was embedded in agricultural crops, cotton and rice, that were labor intensive. Cheap labor comes no cheaper than slave labor. So that provided the rationale for this evil arrangement.
As America’s better angels began to prompt a lagging conscience, people in the country, both in the North and South, began to question the ethics of the matter, most times basing the critique in biblical principles, but also recalling founding principles of the republic, such as equality. Abolitionists began the call to live up to the principles on which our country was founded, connected to the deeper biblical admonitions and commandments. And yet, as not uncommon, economics trumped ethics.
Slavery is the original sin of our country. We began with a Constitution that was purposefully ambiguous in its treatment of slavery. Politically, the issue was avoided in order to get ratification from the Southern states, a Faustian deal with the devil. It prompted foreign critics to point out the hypocrisy of heralding this “land of freedom” which allowed for slavery to remain, with impetus present for expansion.
We continue to struggle with this reality. Our teaching of history has tended to soft-sell this reality, including the failure of Reconstruction, the practice of Jim Crow laws to maintain segregation, and the bloody struggle of civil rights to assert the right of blacks to vote and other equal rights. At it’s heart, it is the assertion of a white supremacy that must be used to justify unequal treatment of others. And, underneath, there lies a deep fear of losing a privilege that one must maintain.
Changes in demographics, whether it’s the Irish immigrants early in the 20th century, or the growing numbers of people of color today, it’s always been fear bubbling below. And, politicians have used that fear to manipulate folk to turn on others as the enemy, duped into believing their huckster slogans. We are an easy target for these con men who will push us to sell our souls, as they smile toothy grins at our gullibility.
Critical Race Theory pushes a more adequate telling of this story. Some say it is pushing a radical agenda, painting our country in racist hues that they feel is unfair. It has become a “straw man” along with Mr. Potato Head, and Sleeping Beauty, to allow reactionary comments to emerge in order to stir up emotions. Truth is, we need to tell the truth and face the reality of the role of slavery in this country, as well as the white supremacist intentions that have been behind the bias of structures in our country.
Thankfully, we have made tremendous progress in this country as we try to live up to the principles of our Constitution as to the extension in terms of “who counts” in our country. Blacks, women, homosexuals have all had to fight for their right to count. Because of their pushing, we have slowly moved to improve the nature of our union. Though if you look carefully, we don’t like their “pushing”, calling them “troublemakers”. I remember hearing a family member make that remark upon hearing of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr.. He was just a troublemaker who deserved what he got. You may recoil at such callousness, but pause and look deeply into some of the things you say about folks pushing an equal rights agenda.
The truth and American principles threaten some. They are trying to deny the reality of demographics as they chant “replacement” lines in their white supremacist rallies. I remember the chills of watching and listening to the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, with their tiki torches and preppie uniforms, resurrecting the white supremacy of the Jim Crow era in this country, a sentiment that had gone underground until promoted by hate mongers who gin up anger, and then have the temerity to pronounce that these were “good people”.
We have come a long way, and we can be proud of that. But, we don’t have to deny the history of our past streams of racism and white supremacy. Like any addiction, the road to recovery begins with admitting we have a problem, something that needs addressing.
Demonizing Critical Race Theory is just another way to deny our clear history of racism in this country. We need the Truth…..but some folks seem to be unable to handle the Truth. That’s why it has always required people who push the envelope, “make good trouble” as my hero and Congressman John Lewis courageously said. We can not fail to continue the development of justice for all, ALL, in this country. We must continue to push, and “make good trouble”.
8 thoughts on “You Can’t Handle the Truth…or Can You?”
Beautiful, David. . . As a boy growing up in Richmond, VA, ‘the Capital of the Confederacy’, you transported me back and back and back some more. From age 7 to 9 or 10, we lived in a mostly ‘colored’ neighborhood, so I had to ride my bike across the city to go to (white) Elementary School where I had white friends, then back home where I had black friends. Because of that bi-racial commute and the neighborhood friendships I made, it was very hard for me to admit to being a racist. My own children helped me see it: as an older college-educated straight white male, I walk into a room as the unconscious benefactor of a whole RAFT of ‘isms’. Never a thought about any of those factors.
As one of my African-American colleagues said to me one day, “John, I never walk into a room of strangers without wondering: ‘Am I going to have a sister in the room today?”
Thanks again, brother. . .
Thanks, John. It is curious to me that many resist “confessing” their bias, which, in fact, is merely an admission of the reality of being a human being. Bias is a process, that when we become aware of, as you did thanks to your kids, you can attend to and amend with new input from one’s experience. I find it interesting that I have a profound, and crippling bias for academic success. I have made some tragic decisions in choosing some staff members due to that bias, which ignored the dimension of emotional intelligence.
Thank you, Dave, for your courage to write this piece. Like John, I was taken back to a number of places…Nassau, Atlanta, Charlottesville…and forced to acknowledge my own complicity in he enslavement of people. In the end I can only utter a heavy-hearted “Amen”…Stu
Thanks Stu. I still have a specific memory of a fraternity rush issue. But it also allowed me to watch minds and hearts change through the years, which is a source of hope.
I recently ran across a book at the local library, “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning With the Myth of the Lost Cause,” by Ty Seidule — https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250239266 . It’s a nicely balanced combination of rigorous historical scholarship and personal repentance. Highly recommended!
I have read it….very interesting. I once interviewed at REL’s church. There is a podcast, Political Rewind, which had an hour long interview with Ty about his book. It’s from a radio show from Georgia Public Broadcasting. Worth a listen.