Here is a story that became a legend in our family: We were driving to church. My brother and I were kids. We were talking about the Civil War. Both of us knew it was fought to end slavery and keep the Union together, and that Abraham Lincoln was a hero. And my mother thought to herself “Where did I get those two Yankee children?”
Mom moved to North Little Rock, Arkansas, from Kentucky when she was about three years old, which would have been in 1934, and lived there until she graduated from high school, Class of 1948 I think. Every year, on her birthday, there was a big celebration all over town – because her birthday was January 19, which was also Robert E. Lee’s birthday, so it was like her birthday was a national holiday. That was another story that was legendary in our family.
Mom spent years of her life tracking down our genealogy, amassing documents and records, finding gravestones, documenting our connection to the Revolutionary War … which on both sides of her family ran straight through the Confederacy. I’m not nearly as good at the details as my brother, the historian, but we had relatives who were officers, as well as relatives who were enlisted. As far as I know, we had no relatives who fought for the Union. I never heard my mother express a moment’s concern or regret about this. I never heard her question whether her ancestors had really done the right thing, or whether she ever wished they had chosen to fight for the other side, which they could presumably have done, had what they cared enough to fight for compelled them morally to do. I never heard her voice any sentiment about the Civil War other than that it was not really, not only, about slavery. From this I conclude that she went to her grave believing that our ancestors who fought for the Confederacy did what they firmly believed was the right thing to do, that they had good grounds for believing that, and that there was no earthly reason for her to wish it otherwise. I don’t know whether she ever wished the South had won, or whether she ever thought it might not have been such a bad thing if that had happened.
I always knew my mother as a patriotic American. We always put out a flag on national holidays. The 4th of July was her favorite holiday. She was happy and proud to be an American, so I think she was glad there was a United States of America to be a citizen of. I never heard her talk about that in conjunction with what she had been told about the Civil War, or voice the observation that the America she was proud to be a citizen of was the one our family fought to prevent.
I always knew my mother as a smart person. I still think that; she was one of the smartest people I have ever known. So what I think about what she believed and said about the Civil War and the Confederacy and its politics, and how that affected what she thought about race and what she said to us about race, does not rest on the difference between being intelligent and unintelligent.
I think my mother was completely wrong about the Civil War, and our family’s involvement in it. I think she persisted in that complete wrongness because people had lied to her for her entire life about the meaning of what her (our) people had done: what they had supported, what they had been willing to fight and die for, what they had countenanced, what they had wanted for themselves, and what that had meant they had wanted for their neighbors, including their enslaved neighbors. And I believe those people had lied to her because they had lied to themselves, because they had had to lie to themselves, because in order to fight and die for something, for anything, voluntarily, you have to believe it is right; and in order to believe it is right to fight and die so that you and your neighbors can continue to hold other human beings captive, and to abuse them at will, you have to convince yourself that you’re not really doing that, you’re doing something else, really, you’re doing something that doesn’t make you in fact someone who wants to continue to exploit others, you’re doing something better than that somehow, you’re really simply defending your way of life, your right to live the way you choose, from people who are trying to force you give it up, so really, you’re the real victim here.
I’m pretty sure my mother believed something like that. I think she was completely wrong. I suspect being able to be that wrong about that trained her to be wrong, in similar ways, about other things.
Even though I am one of my mother’s Yankee children, I was still pretty old before I began to see that the claim that the white people of the South were the “real” victims of the Civil War could not withstand serious examination. Suffering that people bring upon themselves, for the sake of persisting in inflicting suffering upon others, is indeed real suffering. But it never would have happened in the first place if we had just done the right thing and abolished slavery, as we should have been humane enough to have done without a fight. And all it took to end it was to stop fighting for something we said we didn’t even really want in the first place. So … I don’t believe our people were the “real” victims. That was just another one of the lies, a way to insist that you weren’t a bad person for doing something that you knew in your heart made you, really, a person who was doing something wrong.
When I was younger, I had more sympathy. I thought of our people as misguided, but defensible; I thought “how could you blame them for believing what they had been brought up with, for being committed to their way of life,” etc. I thought they didn’t really have a choice. Now that I am older, and have seen myself make some of those choices myself, the kind where I went along with something I felt, or knew, or ought to have known if I had been paying any attention at all, was wrong because it was just easier “in that situation” or less risky with respect to some job or because the client was insisting on it … I feel I cannot afford to have that kind of sympathy. I cannot afford to make those excuses for them, or entertain the possibility that the lies my mother accepted, and wanted us to accept, had some truth to them.
I feel I cannot afford to make excuses for them that I cannot afford to make for myself. We – human beings – are supposed to pay attention to our neighbors. We are supposed to notice our neighbors’ suffering, to care about it, and to help alleviate it. We are not supposed to be causing that suffering, and if we are, we are supposed to stop it. Making the choice to do something other than that may be understandable, but I cannot tell myself that it is defensible without distorting my own ability to make the right moral choices I actually want to make. Those choices – the wise, just, brave, measured ones – are hard enough to make, without the added handicap of tying a blindfold around my own moral outlook.
All of which helps explain how I have been feeling about the removal of Confederate monuments around the country over the past week.
I take the damage the Lost Cause did to my mother, and what that meant for our family, personally. I am glad the monuments to that cause, which was disastrous in every way, including morally and spiritually, are coming down. I am sad for our people, my people, that they had a hand in defending it, and left me and my fellow Americans with its legacy, which has been so damaging and divisive for so long, and which is so inflamed at this particular moment in the dismal history of race in the US. I am determined to do better than they did. I still hope to.