I am a product of the south. There are many things that a true southern should be proud about. . . our Confederate history, not one of them. The code name that we southern’s like to use for the support of the Confederacy is “our heritage.” Putting it within that narrative makes it sound like it is our birthright, our inheritance, our family name or crest or coat of arms, and the essence of our history as a sub-culture.
I grew up in northeast Tennessee. The odd thing about this issue for us, was the fact that our part of the state sided with the north. One of the first and most vocal abolitionist newspapers in the nineteenth century was in nearby Jonesboro. Fighting from that war was local, where skirmishes left a cannon ball in the front of a church in another local town. They left the ball there for the historical context (although I’ve heard rumors that they had to take that Yankee ball out and re-cement it back in so it wouldn’t fall out and hit a parishioner in the head).
Yet, for most part, we had our identity closely connected with the Confederacy. If the Civil War, and slavery seems like a long time ago, I must mention, when I was born in 1955, there were still several Confederate solders still living and many emancipated slaves still alive. The last Confederate solder died when I was four and the last slave died when I was a junior in high school. So, in some ways, that war was yesterday and I was a product of the post Civil War period.
In my small town, the Confederate flag was flown as much as the American flag or maybe more. The logo, “The South Shall Rise Again!” was a common graffiti, painting on the sides of barns and bridges. It was something of pride for a subculture that, needlessly, suffered from a inferiority complex.
The reason that our part of Tennessee did not side with the south during the war, was our terrain. It was hilly and mountainous, not conducive to large plantations. Since slavery was basically free labor, the larger the plantation the more it would benefit, from slavery.
This is not to say that we did not have our share of slaves. I remember several antebellum houses or farms that still had slave quarters. I almost rented such a home in Jonesborough while I was in college. It was built in 1815 and had two (horrible) slave quarters under the porch, dirt floor and a stone bench where the family of five would sleep.
I remember one beautiful old plantation house sitting on a bluff above the Holston river. That land was first cultivated in the eighteenth century and grew into a large plantation with many slave cabins. It has been passed down in the family up to the time I was a child. I do remember my father, a good and decent man but with the same racism that generation carried, said as we drove past that house one day, “That whole family has been cursed with accidents, suicides, cancer and the like. They think it is a curse from God for owning slaves.” So, there was the notion, even then, that slavery was a work of the devil.
The Re-writing of History
I am a great fan of history now, but wasn’t then. I do remember clearly how the Civil War was taught from middle school into high school. I will put it in bullet points:
- Blacks were an ignorant and inferior people that the noble colonialist brought to America, educated them, Christianized them, took the bones out of their lips, gave them Bibles, gave them shoes, and gave them the opportunity to advance in society.
- The Civil War was not about Slavery but about hard working, God-fearing (white) farmers in the south, who were being taken advantage of by the north and the “states’ rights” to protect those farmer’s livelihood. The slaves, according to that history, didn’t want things to change for them because it was going pretty well under slavery.
- The south could have won the Civil War, but quit because the north was causing so much destruction by their ruthless (eg. Sherman) behavior.
The Myth of the Confederate Christian Champion
As I’m writing this piece, there is great controversy stirring once again about Confederate monuments. I could write pages and pages about this but I will summarize. Statutes of Confederate leaders are being brought down because many blacks (rightly so) see these as images of oppression and suffering. At the same time, people in my childhood culture (southern, white) are very angry they are coming down, saying it is killing their culture. It would be like (to them) banning beer and Oktoberfest in Germany’s Bavaria.
During this time, I’ve seen several things posted by my Tennessee friends and family with revisionist history about these figures (these histories usually have roots with conspiracy theorists and on politically far right web sites) that declare that these men were noble people who didn’t like slavery and those tearing them down don’t know history. The truth is, those who know history best are those who like the statues the least. The reason is, they understand who these men really were (not a revisionist, white-centric history) and they also understand why these statues were erected in the first place. It was not to celebrate the rich history of the south (mostly white history) but as a direct statement during the Jim Crow hyper-racism period and during the civil rights moment of the 1950s and 60s.
Robert E Lee:
The revisionist histories that are circulating cherry pick only a few points without giving the rest of the story. It is true that Lee was a great US general before the war and did not like the idea of secession. It is also true that he decided to honor his state of Virginia and join their cause as part of the Confederacy. The revisionist try to paint him as a friend of the slaves. That part is far from historical reality as he was a man of his times.
Lee inherited hundreds of slave an they were under his direct control. He could have set them free, but he did not. It is a complicated story (as it was for many whites during this period) where Lee spoke of the evil of slavery, but at the same time, directly supervised the whipping of his slaves, believed the myth (see above what I was taught) that blacks were better off as slaves in America than freemen in Africa. He believed that some day slaves could be set free but to never obtain the social status of whites, who were superior to blacks. I recommend reading real histories by real historians rather than things written by political pundits. You can start here.
In summary of this complicated view of Lee, he wrote the following to his wife:
In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.
The language that Lee uses is both offensive to any black person but is also the language of the modern “white supremacy” movement.
For the sake of time, I will just mention that while it was true that Davis was a statesman and military leader of the US, he was also a slave owner and supported slavery. You can read more about that here.
The False Narrative of the Pseudo-patriot
My southern friends often wrap themselves in America patriotism as a badge of honor, at the same time they are promoting the Confederacy as a keystone in their own culture, but the two are mutually exclusive. The succession of the south from the United States, was the greatest act of treason this country has ever known. It is also the greatest act of terrorism against this United States by far. Those same people reject the recent lawlessness and destruction that, unfortunately, accompanied (in a very small part) of the Black Lives Matter protests, yet, the Civil War was a million times worse in the destruction of property, lawlessness, and violence. Yet, they want to champion the Civil War’s cause.
The Sin of the Southern Church
One of the reasons that I’m not a big fan of organized religion is that they so often climb into bed with pure evil causes, for the sake of power and money. The southern church did the same for the same of the lucrative slavery trade and function. While members of the Christian society were eventually some of the loudest anti-slavery voices (and should have been) the compromise and promotion of slavery by the Church was more common.
I grew up as Southern Baptist. That denomination’s very existence was over their support of slavery and the denial of human rights to blacks. It is plain and simple. It was a great sin on that denomination and they still have not shaken it. When I grew up Southern Baptist, racism was massaged deeply within that Christian religion. I heard the “N-word” used by Southern Baptist preachers from the pulpit. I also heard statements such has “God never intended for blacks and whites to mingle, certainly not to marry.” I also heard whispers of white supremacy doctrines within that culture, such as “God gave the blacks muscles because God wanted them to be the working class and whites, the leaders and thinkers.”
The church I went to (in college) after I left the Southern Baptist church of my upbringing, was a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). It too separated from the mainline Presbyterian church over the issue of slavery, as the PCA supported slavery and the stratification of whites above blacks in society. Now, to give them credit, both the Southern Baptists and the Presbyterian Church in America have (if I remember correctly) made statements of confession and repentance over their churches’ sins. But a true cultural repentance is more difficult. It is like trying to get the purple out of your white tee shirts and underwear, after they have been washed with a new purple beach towel. Getting the towel out of the wash machine is the easy part. Getting the color out of your clothes is the difficult and insidious part.
I remember in 1978 meeting with a PCA pastor who was a Civil War enthusiast. He was working on book about finding godliness in the lives of Confederate generals and emulating that godliness. I know pastors now who are fighting to keep Confederate statues up.
I’m sure someone will prove me wrong, but I searched and the only statistics I could find for the PCA says that the percentage of the members who are black are “0%” and <1% immigrants. I’ve seen a black person, although rarely, in a PCA church so it can not be 0%, or can it? For the Southern Baptist, it is a little better, at 6%.
The Difficulty of Cultural Repentance
It is hard enough to go through a personal “repentance” or change of course. An example is an alcoholic who commits to sobriety. It is painful and hard. It is even more difficult to turn from the subtle errors of our character such as bitterness, anger, lying or manipulation. But the most difficult repentance is the cultural change. The reason is that it is external to our hearts. The society around us agrees with this error. If we buck the system our friends and family will loathe us and abandon us. We find our identity in the subcultures and to turn from them, feels like a part of us is dying.
For me speaking out against racism (and this is not the first time) and even this article against embracing the Confederacy, comes at a great cost. I alienated my entire birth family when I wrote an article here about my own racist upbringing. Some were very pissed off, as were people who grew up with me. Everything I said was factual, but painful.
I’m sure that this article will piss off Southern Baptists, Presbyterians of the PCA and virtually 100% of my childhood friends.
When you are facing something like cancer, friends and family are a premium. I’ve lost many who are either upset that I speak out against racism, or damaging our planet, or lying. I’ve lost many more friends from me being candid about my own emotional struggles. I know that if I were a conformist and only wrote what people wanted to hear, my quiver would be full of supporting friends and family. But I can’t help myself. I detest lying and injustice and will stand on my principles, even if I am the last person standing on them. Now, if I speak against racism I am accused of “virtue signaling.” So, then, are we to remain quiet on every point of virtue? I think not.
Before I close this article, I also want to add that just being white and raised in the south does not automatically make you a racist. But those who escaped this racism, at least during the age of my upbringing, were rare. I knew a guy who was raised by two intellectual (and atheist) parents, and he was very outspoken about civil rights and against racism and he lived in the same area as me. And being raised racist doesn’t make one guilty. . . remaining one does.
And being raised racist doesn’t make one guilty. . . remaining one does.
Finally, if the people of the south gave up their love for the Confederacy, what do they have? Will they give up their entire culture? Hell no! Look what they have that’s decent and worthy to build a culture on. The have the greatest music on the planet (look how many great musical artists trace their roots to southern music). They have the best food in America (not better than Italy, but America). They have the southern charm, southern hospitality to be proud of. I could go on and on. But the Confederacy is an ugly chapter in our country’s history and certainly the racism that goes with it. Give it up! Let it go. But don’t forget it. Study it in school. Learn form it. But don’t celebrate it.
The Lake Hermit