Thursday, July 2, 2015

'Heritage Not Hate' and Other Fallacies

In 1909, my great-great-great grandfather began a journal entry that would outlive him by many generations. At the age of seventy-seven, J.N. Taylor described for his children and theirs his experience in the Civil War as a soldier for the Confederacy. Those experiences included one in particular that took place on the day of April 9, 1865. That event was the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House.

Having enlisted in 1861, Taylor served for two years before going on furlough. He would then return to the war and serve until the surrender at war's end. He fought in the Battle of Appomattox Court House on the morning of the surrender. Born and raised in Georgia, the thirty-three year old would walk home following the surrender and the end of what were the most important years of his adult life.

Google Maps approximation
Writing about the walk home, Taylor said: "I walked from Appomattox Courthouse to Milledgeville I road [sic] from there to Stevens Pottery two miles home." Imagine walking 438 miles in tattered clothing, your weapons having been surrendered, no money to your name and no idea what your life would be with the war behind you. Google Maps says that distance would take 145 hours.

That walk home found itself portrayed with as many words, if not more, as the surrender itself. I have often wondered if he had written his memories down nearer to the end of the war if he wouldn't have voiced his disappointment in the outcome. He had fought valiantly for the Confederate States of America and they had been defeated by the the great Union Army, an outcome that would begin the uniting of a fractured country, a uniting that current events proves we are still working toward today.

About the surrender, Taylor wrote:
"In my seeing I saw General Lee surrender at Appomattox I saw him walk a few paces in front of a squad of men took out his sword and stuck it in the ground and walked back and talked to the men whom I thought was General Grant and staff I saw them get on their horses and road [sic] off towards Richmond then after that I saw the end of the war I saw about 500 men a fiting [sic] fist and skull of Yanks and Rebels and after we started for home without a mouthful to eat for about 120 miles we went about 3 or 4 miles and then we came to a mill and we pressed 2 bushels of mint we went into the woods and cooked and don’t  you forget we had something to eat."
Journal entry of J.N. Taylor
What he didn't write in his journal was what, like the paper he put pen to, would outlive him by many generations: A deep-seated prejudice. 

This man, born in 1838, never stepped foot north of the Mason-Dixon line. His kin would not leave Georgia for two more generations. And with them to eastern Idaho they took the prejudice that had been instilled in their ancestor since even before his time of service as a Confederate solider.

In the news cycle centering on the Confederate battle flag, I have often thought of my ancestor and wondered if those who continue to espouse the belief that there is no hatred attached to the flag they proudly fly would extend their so-called right to display it to a northerner like myself who, like them, had an ancestor fighting for the Confederacy. Isn't it my heritage, too? And if so, why do I, and presumably many Americans who likely have some connection in their lineage to southern soldiers, find the sight of that flag so jarring and offensive?

The answer to why I find the flag offensive is complex, perhaps made more complex by my understanding of American history. Sometimes it is visceral. But also, as is the case for many with this issue, it is quite personal. Obviously, I didn't live through the Civil War. I never saw my country attempt to heal as the Reconstruction was rife with hostility and bitterness. I have only read about the African-Americans who had to endure the Klu Klux Klan marching through the streets of their towns and neighborhoods, setting fire to crosses, waving that flag as they terrorized a community and often turned to lynchings. I never saw the menacing red and blue flag carried by children as I marched through Selma and other cities of the former Confederacy. My own life has been blessed with a distance from that level of hatred, but not completely distant. I was a child during the rise of neo-Nazis in the Pacific Northwest in the 90s. My childhood saw a scattering of right-wing domestic terrorism that often cloaked itself in the colors of that flag. That flag was not a relic in a museum as far as I was concerned. It was completely obvious to me what it stood for.

Even as a young child in the vast white population of Idaho, I knew what racism was. My earliest encounters with individual racism (rather than that of hate groups or institutions) could be traced back to the man who wrote in his diary about the day his service in the Confederate army ended. 

Journal entry of J.N. Taylor,
My great-grandmother, the granddaughter of J.N. Taylor, was a racist. I say that without any hesitation because I grew up knowing this to be true. The first time I realized this was as a child, no older than ten. I had been watching boxing with my grandfather fairly often and knew that he got his love of the sport from his mother. What I didn't know until watching it with both of them was why she loved the sport. To paraphrase a disgusting and highly disturbing statement she often made, she loved watching black men beat the hell out of each other. Of course, she didn't offer them the courtesy of calling them black or men. As disturbing as what she had said with my young ears present was that my grandfather didn't admonish her or later take me aside for a teaching moment. 

This wasn't the only time that one of them said something particularly racist in my presence and while words can be overcome, actions often cannot. In addition to speaking her racist beliefs, my great-grandmother lived her life by them. In her later years, she was one of those grandmothers who prided herself on the number of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren she had. Despite that personal pride, her underlying belief in the supremacy of the white race could not be overcome. My younger brother and I, both adopted, were not included in her tally of great-grandchildren because we were not blood. Not only were we not blood, there was no way to determine what kind of blood we did have. While we were obviously Caucasian, we could have had Asian, Native American or some "other" tainted DNA. Whatever bitterness I might have carried both before and after I understood why I was singled out in this way was at times lessened by knowing she had been as terrible to her own son. Her son married a Hispanic woman, having met her in Mexico, and they had children together. Imagine my great-grandmother's response to that abomination.

To my grandfather's credit, he allowed the influence of his liberal, tolerant wife to curb his own racism. She might have threatened him with his life if he spoke a racist word in front of the grandchildren for all I know, but it worked. In my childhood I can count on one hand the times he voiced something untoward. As it tends to happen, the generation between he and his mother was useful in changing the words he spoke, if not his heart.

Gone With the Wind, 1939
My great-grandmother's ties to Georgia and her husband's ties to North Carolina may not live inside me in the way someone born and raised in the south today might experience. I do not feel attached to southern heritage, despite my lineage. But like a child of the south, I am daily reminded of a period in our history that is now being both romanticized and defended by those who mistakenly believe the rebel flag represents only that time (to further understand why I say mistakenly: see Ta-nehisi Coates). Why? Because of a movie that was released in 1939.

Yes, every day I am reminded of what is one of the most romanticized and yet controversial films in American cinematic history. I was named after the fictional plantation created by writer Margaret Mitchell and brought to life on film by David O. Selznick and Victor Fleming in Gone With the Wind. A fictional plantation that subsisted on the backs of slaves. The film itself is riddled with historical inaccuracies and the bigger issue of romanticizing slavery, the treasonous act that fractured our nation leading us to civil war, and a reverence for Reconstruction and the perseverance of the South. This doesn't even begin to address the horrendous way that black actors were treated during the filming and production of the film decades after the events being depicted.

Did the lineage of my mother lead her to obsession with the film? Of course not. However, the things she must have grown up hearing from the mouth of her own father and grandmother must have made her far less sensitive to the atrocities the film viewed with rose-colored lens. Take a moment to consider this: Mitchell told the story of General Sherman's march to the Atlantic with the humanity of evacuating the white characters prior to brutal scorched earth warfare arriving at the plantation, but left the nearly 100 slaves of the plantation unprotected. They were nothing more than cattle. Facts like this, largely ignored by its fans, continue to be why historians argue about the film today.

I am not willing to ignore the revisionist history in a film any more than I am willing to ignore it in a conversation about a flag that flies tonight over the statehouse in South Carolina. It does not make a difference that my ancestor fought for an ideal attached to that flag. It does not make me romantic about a time in the south simply because of my name, either. Nor should it any other American. If we ever hope to heal the racial wounds of our country, we can't allow the lie of what a flag stood for or what it means today to persist. If we think we can live a non-violent existence in country where a flag is both the latter-day representation of hate toward all non-white groups and the symbol of our proud heritage, we're fooling ourselves.