a look back at charlottesville: contextualizing southern white supremacy

The following essay was originally published one year ago, in three parts. On this anniversary of what many think of as a coming out party for white supremacists, from the shame of the shadows into the brazen light, I think it important to revisit the historical tensions that set the stage not only for racially driven violence, but for the more gentle debate about Confederate monuments, and what those monuments signify about our shared history. We simply cannot heal if we can't understand or face our history. It is glorious, it is terrible, and it serves as both our origin story and a script we won't escape if don't find the courage to see the evil in our past.

Three weeks ago, we witnessed a tableau of hate, violence and tension as white supremacist groups and others protesting them descended on the campus of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.  At the center of those gathered was a statue of Robert E. Lee, Commanding General of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.  The violence on display there was despicable, but beneath all of the hate and frustration lurks a question haunting every American: What do we do with our past? 

In Charlottesville and in many other cities, citizens are asking and yelling answers to the question of how we deal with the many confederate monuments littering our town squares. America has a wonderful history of liberation, sacrifice and generosity.  We also have a lengthy past of violence against people of color, greed and hypocrisy.  For the most part, we have not found a way to explore these conflicting legacies in our churches, classrooms, or in the public sphere. 

Abraham Lincoln famously signed the Emancipation Proclamation; Lincoln also less famously argued that if he could preserve the Union without ending slavery he would do so.  The conflict he experienced and the priorities he gave his passions can serve as a metaphor for our current conversation.  Most Americans agree that slavery was bad, but many refuse to admit that the idea of the South to which they cling produced the odious institution of slavery.  If monuments celebrating the Confederacy only represented slavery, people would be less likely to overtly defend their places of honor.  These mementos do not only represent one story though, and if we examine what they signify we might better understand the debate surrounding them.

I believe the magnitude of passion surrounding this issue is due, in large part, to the national angst felt about the Civil War.  Was secession a hateful and treasonous act of aggression in order to protect the cruel practice of slavery?  Was it a noble stand to preserve states’ rights and defend against Northern aggression?  Having studied many angles of American history and the conflicts that resulted in and were partially resolved by the Civil War, I would like to contextualize this debate by revisiting the history that is memorialized by the argued-over monuments.  I do this hoping we can be more precise in what we are arguing about, and to help articulate precisely the history for which we advocate.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Southern states and their congressional representatives began to realize that they were in danger of becoming a minority in the United States’ Congress.  This reality, along with the impact of William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, whose abolitionary voices were growing louder, and the active resistance of the slaves themselves, led the Southern states to actively advocate for new states to enter the Union as slave states.  Battles over this desired balance led to legislation like the Compromise of 1850, the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  These acts upheld the precarious balance of states, providing equal numbers of slave and free states, and importantly, protection for the rights and legislative power of slaveowners.  The South seceded when threats to that balance—and the power it protected—finally seemed to permanently favor free states. 

The economic stability of the country, both in Southern plantations and in Northern factories, was dependent on harvested cotton.  Harvested cotton was entirely dependent on the practice of slavery.  Indeed, the work product of slavery had paid off American debts after the Revolutionary War, and continued to be crucial to the economic foundation of our country.  Knowing this, many defenders of Confederate monuments, and lovers of a romanticized Southern past, remember that slavery was not only a dirty pleasure of the South, but a necessity for the United States of America.  These Americans feel unfairly blamed for slavery, as if white Southern ancestors were evil and greedy, rather than making the best of a system the entire citizenry willingly endorsed and relied on for decades. 

It is likely that America’s survival as a postcolonial powerhouse would have been impossible without the foundation of slavery.  Slaves provided the expertise and labor that made the South financially great and culturally worth remembering.  Our country was built by, on the bodies of, and under the creative leadership of African and African American men and women who were owned by white people.  The entire country benefitted from this institution, and white Southern defensiveness about being solely blamed for two centuries of an atrocious moral lapse is logical when seen in this light.  However, when powerful voices began to acknowledge the horrific nature of slavery, and tried to take active steps to free slaves and extricate themselves from this outrageously destructive bind, Southern states defended the practice to such an extent that they seceded from the Union that gave them their American identity.  Despite the justifying narrative of Christian paternalism, the Confederacy was established and built on the idea of white supremacy and cruelty against slaves.  Indeed, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, in his Cornerstone speech, asserted his new government was built “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Confederate soldiers fought and died to uphold a racial hierarchy, and the monuments at issue here are, by definition, representatives of this view. 

Although the South lost the war, a new war quickly began for the memory of who the South was, how slavery functioned in it, and why the physical war occurred.  In the words of Robert Penn Warren: “in the moment of its death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.”  Peter Kolchin, in his definitive history American Slavery, explains that during and after Reconstruction, and later while monuments were erected, “white scholars, politicians, and publicists celebrated the virtues of a Southern civilization now ‘gone with the wind’ and sang the glories of the ‘lost cause.’ An uninformed observer of the South in 1910 might well be pardoned if he or she concluded that the Confederates had won the Civil War.”  The placement of Confederate monuments all over the South solidified this created—and now lasting—memory of Southern nobility, and the "racial mastery" of those who lost the Civil War (Blight).

In forming our views on the monument debate, it is worthwhile to examine our own thoughts about the South, the reasons for secession, and the place of white supremacy in our past and present.  After the Civil War, the Confederacy was in shambles, economically ruined.  Although the Union won, the union of states that survived was deeply weakened by the death toll, the loss of a free Southern work force, and destroyed landscapes.  In an intentional choice to reconcile, the congress passed laws to forgive confederate treason, allow former confederate leaders to run for federal office, and for the South to create their own racially based laws as they reorganized as a society.  The South, shocked at having been defeated, reeling from the abrupt erasure of the foundation of their economy, and outraged at their forced submission, was desperate to redeem the noble purpose of the cause for which they fought the war in the first place.  As the Civil War came to a close, a new war began for the memory of the war, and the South won this conflict handily.

The narrative of the Lost Cause, shared through Southern publications, memorial days, books, films, and throughout the political arena, created a memory of the antebellum South in which slaves were fiercely loyal to their masters, masters were good Christians who took care of their slaves with gentle, fatherly guidance, and all Southerners were committed to hospitality, Christianity, and kindness above all.  Historian David Blight explains,

            The Lost Cause took root in Southern culture awash in a mixture of physical destruction,                the psychological trauma of defeat, a Democratic Party resisting Reconstruction, racial                  violence, and, with time, an abiding sentimentalism.  On the broadest level, it came to                    represent a mood, or an attitude toward the past…For many Southerners it became a                      natural extension of evangelical piety, a civil religion that helped them link their sense of                loss to a Christian conception of history.

The Lost Cause represented a Christian narrative in which masters and slaves were friends whose relationship was built on mutual sacrifice and steady loyalty.  This narrative was undermined by the fact that hundreds of thousands of slaves abandoned their masters and their plantations during the course of the war.  Nevertheless, the Lost Cause asserted slaves were not mistreated, but they, being either helpless children or wayward beasts, needed the paternal guidance a white Christian male could offer them.  Slavery simply provided the framework that allowed generous white people to care for lost and lazy black people.  

In their view, and for many Southerners today, the Civil War was not fought to selfishly protect slavery, but to defend a state’s right to do what is best for its people. Historian Walter Johnson clarifies,

            when slavery was over and the slave market was closed, former slaves and slaveholder                    alike found themselves marooned on a shoal of history.  The longings of slave holders to                hold onto the past as it receded from their grasp are well-documented.  Well-known, too,              is the disbelief they experienced, the sense of betrayal they talked about, when their                      slaves left them behind. 

The narrative of the Lost Cause created a context in which a man who owned slaves, committed treason by seceding, and led an army who killed others to protect the right to own, abuse and economically benefit from forcing others to do labor from which they would not profit, became a sympathetic character.  After all, he was just protecting his people—slaves and family—from an overreaching North.  He had worked so hard to take care of these poor wayward black folks, and he sacrificed himself to protect a way of life they appreciated.

Those who nurtured the thinking of the Lost Cause soon created societies and clubs committed to memorializing their heroes.  The first Confederate statues were put in place in the 1870s, but most were erected after 1890.  Although confederate soldiers were not granted pensions at the same rate as their Union counterparts, they were memorialized, honored and held up as the best of the South.  The organizations who commissioned them, like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, endeavored to remind every person who walked by the town square that the South laments the death of and memorializes the life of these great men who lived honorably and fought nobly for a sweet Southern, Christian way of life that honored everyone involved, black and white.

The North, anxious to put the country back together, allowed such intense memorializing to occur.  Indeed, twelve Confederate monuments were built for every one Union monument, shocking numbers when we remember the Union, who fought quite literally—in the words of Isaiah in foretelling the birth of Christ—to “release the captives”, won the war.  Indeed, “The Lost Cause left just such a legacy; it was not essentially inhuman in character, but its very existence depended on dehumanizing a group of people” (Blight).  Part of our American history is that the South was encouraged in this revising of history, and that they built monuments to men who defended the right to ignore and erase the dignity of other human beings in the public square.  While it is perhaps true that many white Southerners cherish these monuments because they celebrate a beloved South, the monuments themselves were erected to memorialize a mostly fabricated version of the South.  In this way, the monuments symbolize the collision of Christianity, white supremacy, and loyalty, ideals that Southerners conscientiously admired and promoted.  Blight argues this movement, “reinvigorates white supremacy by borrowing heavily from the plantation school of literature in promoting reminiscences of the faithful slave as a central figure in the Confederate war.  Together, these arguments reinforced Southern pride.” 

The monuments’ place in society is problematic not because liberals want to rewrite history or because African Americans are sensitive; their place is fraught because of what they commemorate, then and now.  Consider this: At the unveiling of General Stonewall Jackson’s monument in Richmond, Virginia in 1875, the KKK, the sponsoring group, was present. They wore hoods and carried arches which read: “Warrior, Christian, Patriot.” Knowing this past, should patriots—and Christians especially—be troubled by the version of history commemorated by confederate monuments?  If we are concerned about erasing history by removing them shouldn’t we ensure we have learned all the lessons embedded in the history they honor? 

Confederate monuments were erected as a permanent public reminder of the Lost Cause, which revised the history of the South, making it a kind and loyal place, gently controlled by Christian men who protected their women and nurtured their slaves.  Many of the organizations that funded the monument movement were openly founded on the Christian legitimacy of the South and on the supremacy of the white race.  We now find ourselves in a battle over this contested past.  Many proponents of the Lost Cause, mostly white people who love their Southern heritage, are understandably frustrated that some non-whites, liberal whites, or Northern whites, want to remove Confederate monuments, erasing history.  They feel defensive, as if their entire legacy is being vilified and erased by people with no right to speak into Southern history.  This viewpoint makes perfect sense if the only history of the South is the Lost Cause. 

However, most Southerners—of all races—do not know the full history of the South.  They don’t know that most plantations were owned by absentee landlords, and were simply plots of land, worked by people under the lash of an overseer, with no “humanizing” white family nearby.  They don’t know that Christianity and baptism were twisted and manipulated, finally shared with slaves only when evangelism could be used as a tool of coercion against the new converts.  They don’t know that the vast majority of white people did not own slaves, and were victimized by a system that allowed huge plantations with a self-replicating work force to thrive while they struggled to get ahead.  They don’t know that the institution of slavery fueled, funded and built every economic gain America experienced, and that America itself owes a deep debt of gratitude to the people of color who made America great and possible in the first place.  They don’t know that statues of men who prioritized personal gain over loyalty to America were erected to honor a fabricated Southern legacy.  This historical ignorance must be confronted in order to think clearly about the current Confederate monument debate.

Here are the two sides of this debate as I understand them:

For many, the Civil War and the Confederacy are part of our history, and the men who fought in the war were valiant warriors loyal to their families, fighting for the rights of those in their states.  Honoring them has nothing to do with slavery, but instead commemorates the noble leaders who fought and died for their values in the bloodiest war America has ever known.  They are part of our history, and should be remembered.

For others, the monuments of Confederate leaders honor men who betrayed their country through legislated mutiny, and then fought for the right of their fellow statesmen to own, abuse, and control every aspect of the lives of their human chattel.  For these folks, the antebellum South, the Confederacy, the flag, and the soldiers who fought for the states who seceded are all fruit of the poisoned tree of slavery.  This past is fluid and invasive and one cannot separate part of the memory for honor when slavery was the reality that created the whole.

So what are we to do with this history?  I do not think that we can praise every confederate honoree as an unblemished hero or as a despicable tyrant who should be shunned.  That said, we cannot pretend that this debate is about a choice to honor history when the statues themselves were created to erase history.  America is a mixed bag; we are brave and free and fair, while also being cowardly and abusive and greedy.  The idea that this debate has a side who want to ignore or erase history (those in favor of removing them) and a side who wants to learn from or honor history (those who want to leave them alone) is problematic.  The history memorialized by confederate statues is a history created after the Civil War to erase the evil of the history that established, paid for and built our country.  

As a Southern American, I agree that we cannot erase or ignore history by removing confederate statues.  We have inherited a legacy of erasing and white washing the very histories of hierarchies based on race left to us by our ancestors, and this debate gives us a chance to reckon not only with our past, but with the ways we continue to remember and disremember that past.  We are responsible, each of us, for what we do with the legacy left to us by our ancestors.  For my part, I do see a place for confederate monuments in public life, but only if the following changes are made:

1)   The monuments should be joined by other conflicted “heroes”, like slaves, slave rebellion leaders, abolitionists, and leaders who spoke truth to the power of white supremacy when it was dangerous to do so. (It still is dangerous to do so, in fact…) The commemoration of others will create a robust dialogue about the role of individuals in promoting or confronting systems of injustice.  America has a legacy of abusive oppression, but we also have a legacy of resistance and seeking justice for all.

2)   Existing monuments should be moved to museums or accurately contextualized with posted explanations.  Nathan Bedford Forrest was a brave confederate general AND a violent promoter of racial hatred as a slave trader and the Grand Wizard of the KKK.  Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence AND forced a teenage slave he owned to have sex with him and bear several of his children, whom he freed while continually writing that interracial mixing was an abomination and abhorrent to God.  Robert E. Lee was a tenacious general who believed slavery was “evil”, supported abolishing it, AND held racist views that slavery civilized Africans and that he would kill soldiers who fought to abolish it.  The question about moving statues to a museum instead of honoring them in public parks in not a question of who is willing to remember history, it is a question of who is willing to place these statues in the historical context in which the men they honor lived and died, rather than the manipulative context in which they were originally placed. 

Our history is neither all progress nor all degrading shame; we are and always have been mixed bags.  We would do well to take an honest look at what our “heroes” accomplished on their best and worst days, allowing that knowledge to explain the legacy we all carry, and what we are to do with it today.

are salon's back?! in search for a civil public sphere

In 17th century Paris, the Salon phenomenon brought curiosity, enlightened thought and informed conversation to life.  It is the stuff of fantasy.  Leading thinkers, gathering together in the public sphere, to talk with one another, sharing ideas, listening, learning and arguing about how society might better function.  Print media did not yet exist, and so people had to gather, leaning in to one another to learn.  There were participants and there were spectators, but ideas were the champions of the day.  Ideas soared or were slayed based on the informed, rational, and civil public discourse that swirled around them. 

I have long dreamed of creating a similar arena in today’s world, expanded to include every gender, race and class.  I am a scholar with a PhD.  So yeah, I guess I know things.  But there are many, many gaps in my knowledge, and I would love nothing more than to sit with people on my porch, in a coffeehouse, or at a bar, and learn from others.  To think with people about things that matter.  To be so curious about what I don’t know that I listen to learn, not just to respond.  To discuss ideas that could bring more flourishing to people or the planet.  To talk about the many ways trauma, hate or fear destroy lives.  To bring our thoughts out into the open in an attempt to spur just action.

While I have romanticized this idea for over a decade, I have simultaneously shunned social media as distraction propping up vanity.  I have had no interest at all in redefining the words “friend”, “like”, “follow” or “tweet.”   People chasing the ridiculous approval of others become more performative, less authentic, right?

Enter the hypocrisy of my dreams. 

While I was busy shunning all the shallow people, most of you were experiencing small and large doses of the amazing salons of Paris without me!  While I was too arrogant to feel left out, I began to have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps platforms like facebook, reddit, twitter—and even instagram and snapchat to lesser extents—had become the new public sphere.  These arenas can beautifully create space for the exchanging of ideas, the fostering of curiosity, and the engaging of thoughtful discussion.  The salon lives! Could it be? On social media, of all things?

If Parisian salons of long ago call to my weary soul, then I must do my part to create the same hospitable environment in the arenas I enter, whether online or face to face. 

When my teenage son earned a phone and begged for an instagram account, I reluctantly created an account as well (in the name of good parenting).  Within a year, the slippery slope of engagement led me to create a twitter account as well (in the name of launching ExpandYourUs.com).  Here is what I’ve learned.

Social medias are public spheres.  Conversations are happening 24/7, and people from every walk of life engage each other in this magical space.  Yes, there is a shit ton of noise.  Yes, there are many more uninformed people with intense opinions than should be legal.  Yes, I wish they would all stop talking.  But I have learned that there are also interchanges full of wonder and curiosity.  There are people teaching others everywhere.  Lonely and oppressed people have been uplifted; silenced voices have been given a megaphone.  Social media is a public space in which ideas, dreams, practices and policies are debated and discovered.  Long Live the Salon!

Words and images speak to the soul.  Words are now amplified to destroy lives more than ever.  Images undermine and ruin careers and futures.  But words and images also offer us powerful ways to engage our deadened and distracted souls.  They give birth to empathy and compassion hard to find in our own routines.  They create space for curiosity and wonder.  Social media, with its manic merging of words and images, provides all of us with the ability to share goodness and beauty on a large scale.  It is easy to bemoan the destructive influence of social media as it spews hate and dehumanizes people who think differently; nevertheless, I offer an apologetic for the redemption of these platforms upon which we might remember how to engage civilly.

I am instinctively a binary thinker, but I am learning, partially through my disgust at social media, that binaries destroy nuance, and a lack of nuance prevents empathy.  In an ode to nuance, I would like to suggest that perhaps we might recognize the possibilities for an enlightening, empathy-building, public discourse provided by social media platforms.  If Parisian salons of long ago call to my weary soul, then I must do my part to create the same hospitable environment in the arenas I enter, whether online or face to face.  Rather than placing all our despair or all our hope in “the media,” or in “social media,” could each of us do our part to keep conversations going?  Instead of trying to win an argument, could we try to listen to a perspective wildly different than our own?  Could we privilege understanding over correcting?  Rather than creating profiles and a way of being in the world that encourages others to either passively observe us or to defensively react to us, could we actively attempt to interact?  To share ideas, to engage in conversations, to create a public sphere where perspectives are discussed, where the experience or thoughts of others are considered and honored?  As long as we pretend like the problem is “out there” or “with them,” refusing to acknowledge the ways in which we ARE the problem, social media will devolve in the same ways everyday conversations have: into defensive anger and the stubborn denial of other perspectives. 

Social media is a public space in which ideas, dreams, practices and policies are debated and discovered.  Long Live the Salon!

Because I believe civil discourse helps us all become better humans, creating more connected communities, and because social media is a ubiquitous public sphere, I am committing to do my part to make it feel more like a French salon, and less like a Spanish bull ring.  Join me?

on stoning: glass houses, arguing badly and hypocritical living

As a novice participant in the Twittisphere, I am new, and frankly overwhelmed by, the manic nature of the thing.   Having spent a lifetime in which completing tasks gives me great joy, Twitter might be my new Kryptonite.  You can’t finish.  It’s never done.  You check and get caught up, and then 10 seconds later there is more, so much more.  Your eyes burn, your brain is constantly in what feels like the-hour-before-a-headache-starts, and your attention span has suddenly always just done a line of coke, unable to focus and jittery as hell.  As I said.  Manic.

But I have begun with a digression.  Twitter has confirmed for me that many people feel under siege.  There is a sense that the sky is falling constantly.  I get it, and I feel it too.  The clarity that arises with 280 characters, combined with the ability to do simple fact checking, can lead one to feel like some of our nation’s leaders are really petty, mean, liars.  And yet, here is my problem: Twitter can be, at times, a metaphorical arena for a brutal stoning.  A target arises who has said or done something wrong, and people quickly gather, rock in hand, and fire away.  I am not that interested in our capacity to be mean to each other. This is not new. What is worth thinking about, however, is the lack of context we bring to the stoning.  How do we, either through attacking a person or even by our collective outcry of “Wrong!”, not realize that we are contributing to the problem?  Not to mention glass houses and all that.

I want to argue that we might temper our engagement in macrodiscussions with an awareness of ourselves in the micro context.  Many of us loathe the extremist and hyperbolic views we hear spouted on tv and social media.  We feel outrage when we hear people tell half-truths or give junk analysis of a situation.  We are angry when a person’s character or judgment is maligned.  We lament the cowards who do not speak up for, or write policies for, the vulnerable among us.

I am all for outrage.  I am all for resistance.  Our status quo is criminally unfair for the poor and for people of color.  To quote Jesus tho, “Let he who has not sinned throw the first stone.”  If we really care about helping each other find our most compassionate, honest selves, can we justify screaming at others for being unkind?  As we engage in this macro battle for our country, can we also wage war in our own micro realities?  Can I see all the terrible out there while also acknowledging all the terrible in here?  As much as it stings to say out loud, I have come to the conclusion that the “Washington swamp” is a perfect reflection of all of us.  I say that with great reservation.  I spent the last year trying to understand how “they” could be so terrible.  How all of “them” voted for “that.”  The truth though, is that the level and manner of discourse out there is not that far removed from my own ways of communicating.  We tend to believe the end justifies the means, but in this case, the end happens in the first place because our means are so dysfunctional.

How often do we talk to people with whom we disagree?  Do we take the cowardly way out and assume it is “bad manners” to engage in subjects that make us uncomfortable?  Many of us talk freely as long as we know no one will disagree or challenge our perspectives.  This kind of hiveminded thinking leads to confirmation bias, strengthening our particular arguments without actually exploring other angles.  And yet this is what we accuse our leaders of doing. 

How often do we weigh in on issues we don’t fully understand, demonizing one position with a drastic oversimplification of the issue?  How often do you double down on your point of view when someone challenges you, discrediting or dismissing your conversant instead of listening with curiosity and responding with humble conviction?  We rarely take the time to inform ourselves and simply dismiss anyone who disagrees by calling them a name or placing them inside a well known extremist tribe.  And yet this is what we accuse our leaders of doing.

How often do we speak up for vulnerable people in a way that brings understanding?  Regularly we either remain silent in the face of passive racism or ignorant stereotyping, or we attack the speaker in a way that shames them and ends the conversation.  Have you ever tried the hard awkward work of firmly, with kindness, challenging passive racism in another?  Of helping someone see their privilege or subtle bigotry in a way that might help them never do it again?  Changing an unjust status quo is exhausting work, but societal reconciliation and economic equity will require all of us; we will never work together if we don't learn to speak to each other without accusation.  And yet this is what we accuse our leaders of not doing.

It is hard work, but the necessary path.  I am not arguing that we should ignore the macro until we get the micro right.  I am not arguing we have to be perfect in order to earn the right to speak up.  I am arguing, however, that many of us regularly contribute to the toxic and mean spirited environment that we now decry.  We have easily identified the guardrails here.  We know it is cowardly to stay silent and brash to publicly destroy people for their inappropriate views.  What about all the options in between?  Before you “stone” someone on Twitter or face to face for being close-minded, extreme or bigoted, explore all the options available to you in the way you interact. 

There are so many ways for us to be a part of the solution. The first is simply to acknowledge that we are part of the problem. It is not just out there. It’s in here. Let’s hold ourselves to the elusive standard we pretend is possible when we criticize our leaders. Could we inform ourselves, pursue collaborative conversations with people whose perspectives differ, and find ways to engage others with compassionate curiosity?  This, although perhaps not instinctive, is, especially in our given context, a bold rejection of the status quo and a major act of resistance. If we the people start acting like we the people, then maybe our leaders will begin to represent us well. Civil discourse doesn't happen on the public stage because it doesn't happen at our kitchen tables or social media feeds.  Right now I am afraid our leaders are the perfect representatives of our bad behavior.