Sunday, June 21, 2020

Confederate Necrophilia

Homage to a Confederate Icon

Growing up in Virginia in the 1950s and 60s, I drank a lot of Confederate Kool Aid. I was not a southerner by birth. I was born in Pennsylvania but I have no memory of living anywhere prior to Danville, Virginia where my family moved in 1949. Danville is located on the Virginia-Carolina border in what I call the Deep South part of Virginia. Then as now the area had a significant African-American population and was strictly segregated during my youth. Confederate symbols and mythology were everywhere during those years. The public library was housed in the mansion where Jefferson Davis took refuge after Richmond fell;   a Confederate flag flew alongside Old Glory until the 1960s. In that environment my “Yankee” heritage faded as I simply tried to fit in with all of my friends. I revered Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and the entire panoply of Confederate icons and could argue that the south did not actually lose the Civil War. And somehow all this fit with being a patriotic American. When African-Americans began demanding their civil rights I was as hostile to them as any native-born Virginian. Fortunately, I never acted out that hostility—it was all talk—but it’s not something I’m proud of. The Kool Aid was all around and I was intoxicated with it.

The scales began falling from my eyes in college at the University of Virginia during the late 60s. Which is kind of surprising since UVA was a pretty conservative place in those days. But the times were definitely changing, even in Virginia. Nationally the growing opposition to the Vietnam war along with urban unrest and riots raised serious doubts America’s commitment to equality, justice and international law. Courses in history and political science helped me understand the dynamics of American culture and public policy not addressed in my pre-college education. By the late 60s I had given up on the Confederate cause and was feeling increasingly alienated from America as I knew it. In contrast, the moral authority of the civil rights movement and growing demands for economic justice looked very much like the true embodiment of the American ideal.

The doubts and questions might not have loomed so large in my mind had I not ended up in the Vietnam war after college. That experience cemented any doubts I had about my country. I returned skeptical of all war, suspicious of men who would lead us to war and questioning the economic system that supported war. When I moved to Richmond in 1974 I began seeing the Confederate statues in a new light. Since the the Monument Avenue statues had always been part of Richmond that I knew from earlier visits , their presence wasn’t unusual or surprising, just part of unique urban landscape with lots of greenery and open space. But the more I reflected on their history the statues seemed like an anachronism, a testament to an ideal that never existed and the lies that perpetrated that dubious ideal. As I came to know the city better I became acquainted with statues not part of the Monument Avenue. They were seemingly everywhere, commemorating a Lost Cause that was somehow noble.

About that same time I came across The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society by Thomas Connelly which challenged the notion of Lee’s near sainthood in the American mind. Connelly argued convincingly that Lee’s image was enhanced by secessionist politicians and inept Confederate generals as cover from the opprobrium of launching a failed and devastating war. After all, if the noble and gifted Robert E. Lee supported the war, how could it be wrong? The statues were part of that deception as Virginia sought to establish the Jim Crow laws that would remain in place for the next half century.

My awareness did not assess how all of this Confederate imagery would look to an African-American. I did know that it seemed hollow and not right. That feeling extended to military base names. I probably would not have thought about bases at all if I wasn’t a veteran but that experience made me cognizant of many things military about which I had not previously thought. Fort Lee was just down the road near Petersburg and I wondered why the Army would name a fort after someone who renounced his allegiance to the US Constitution and led a secessionist army. From there it wasn’t hard to question Forts Bragg, Jackson, Polk and on and on. I know now that the naming privileges were given to the local governments when the military was building bases for World War 2. Naming the bases for Confederate leaders was just another way of normalizing individuals who would otherwise be regarded as traitors. I realize that reconciliation is necessary after a civil war but honoring the leaders of an insurrection is overdoing it, especially when it comes at the expense of a significant portion of the populace. White southerners at the turn of the 20th century, of course, weren’t concerned about that latter cost.

Richmond's Confederate statues are part of a grand urban landscape but they are not particularly good art. They are mostly just a guy on a horse on a pedestal. The only one that has any life to it is the Jeb Stuart statue—at least he looks like he’s doing something. Lee and Stonewall Jackson just sit on their mounts. The former looks stoic and determined while the latter looks beautific.  Until recently Jefferson Davis pontificated in front of a semi-circle of columns and a towering central column that rendered his effigy somewhat inconsequential. Obscure naval geographer Matthew Fontaine Maury sits in front of a towering globe and looks nothing like his fellow Confederates. Elsewhere, A.P. Hill stands with his sword over the intersection of Laburnum Avenue and Hermitage Road where his remains are buried.

The statues may not be good art but they are historically significant. They represent a form of southern heritage that contemporary America can do without. Neo-Confederates can claim the statues as homage to their ancestors but that legacy comes with a heavy dose of slavery—America’s original sin—and racism that persists into the present. While we need to be cognizant of the racism that underlay the slavery, the Confederacy and the ongoing social and economic discrimination faced daily by African-Americans and other persons of color, honoring Confederate leaders in our public spaces is not appropriate. If not recast into something more honest, those effigies need to go to a museum where the viewers can learn their complete history.

Removing Confederate statues does not “erase history". Removing them expands history by wiping away mythology and sentimentality that cloaks a war to maintain a slave labor economy and white supremacy with a whitewash of faux nobility. 


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