In my previous post, I described how I came to be one of the “Heritage, not Hate” guys. How a “Southern Pride” identity could lead me to identifying with a Confederate Flag as a symbol of who I was, even though I truly held NO ill-will toward black people, or any other race or ethnic group. This is not to try to justify Confederate flags, or statues, and it is CERTAINLY not a defense of White Supremacist ideology or the repulsive, hateful behavior displayed in Charlottesville, on alt-right websites, etc. I don’t “identify” with that; to the contrary, it makes me violently angry. I can understand, particularly if you’re not a white from the South, how difficult it might be to reconcile me saying I identified with the Confederate Flag as a symbol, yet bore no ill-will, and in fact had genuine love for black people. Just hang with me a while.
Another Army story: After college, I went back in the Army as an officer. I loved leading soldiers and building high-performing units. I spent a lot of time working on making my team the best, a place where everyone grew individually, and as a unit we did amazing things. Having been a private, it was important to me to hear what my privates were thinking. As a company commander, that’s harder to do, but I would schedule quarterly “sensing sessions” where I met with just the junior enlisted. No sergeants, no other leaders in the room. I gave them the opportunity to speak pretty candidly about what was on their mind. In one of these meetings, a black female specialist (E4) spoke up. I hadn’t been commander long. SPC Marshall was from East St. Louis. She told me something I’ve never forgotten.
I tend to be fairly self-deprecating, and I never really liked a lot of the privilege and honor that comes with being an officer (such as being saluted by those you out-rank). When I stood in front of my company, on more than one occasion I had referred to myself as a “redneck,” trying to imply that I was just a simple guy, nobody special. SPC Marshall informed me that she couldn’t understand why I kept calling myself a racist. “I’ve been watching you, and I don’t think you’re a racist.”
“WHAT?! When did I EVER say that?!”
“You keep calling yourself a ‘redneck,’ and where I come from that means a white racist. I couldn’t understand why you were calling yourself a racist, but I finally figured out it must mean something different to you, because you don’t seem racist at all.”
That was almost 20 years ago, but I remember the moment like it was yesterday. The conversation after that wasn’t significant; I apologized, stumbled through some quick explanation of what I meant in my mind, and we moved on to a new topic. But I learned a hard lesson there: A word, or a symbol, can have a huge impact on what people think about me, and it can take a lot to correct a misunderstanding. I don’t want to be misunderstood. I no longer had a Confederate Flag on my truck, but I decided then and there to pay more attention to the perceptions I gave others, because most people aren’t in the same situation SPC Marshall was. She had to pay attention to me long enough to discover the truth, because I was her commander. She couldn’t just go find another unit. I tried to eliminate “redneck” from my vocabulary from that day forward, not because of political correctness, but because I didn’t want people to misunderstand ME, and I didn’t want to accidently place a barrier between me and others.
It’s funny in hindsight, because about that same time, I received my copy of that big genealogy binder I showed you in the previous post. Not only does it have huge family trees, but it has a lot of historical detail, including dates of birth, marriage, death, but also occupations and records of military service. I didn’t know much of anything about my military heritage. My dad and his two brothers were in the Navy in the early 60s. His dad was crippled with polio as a child, so wasn’t medically qualified to serve. My mom’s dad was in the Navy in the Pacific in WWII. Other than that, I really didn’t know about any other family service. I really didn’t know much about my heritage at all. I had a few stories that my dad’s mom told about her relatives, including her grandma telling her about watching her dad being forced to dance on the hot stove by “Bald Knobbers” (a term I wasn’t familiar with at the time), and then cut up and fed to the hogs while she watched.
I poured over the binder, and discovered more about my heritage. I had a LOT of military service in my background. French and Indian War, Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Indian wars, and yes, the Civil War. On both sides, but predominantly the Confederacy. I didn’t dig into the details, other than to remember that there were a few officers, a few prisoners of war, but probably at least a dozen different family members with documented Civil War service. As someone who had by that time determined that I was going to be a career Soldier, I took pride in that history–particularly the Confederate history, for all the reasons I cited in the previous post.
The binder also contained other historical records. One of the key items was executed wills. They provide genealogists with a lot of detail on a person’s life, including their wealth, and property. It’s funny to read through a will detailing the disposition of a person’s plow, bucket, and other things that we would consider disposable today, certainly not worth accounting for, or willing to the next generation. Several of those recorded wills listed property that I was not all proud of… Slaves. My family owned slaves. Some just a few, at least one is estimated to have owned around 100. One, who died in 1796 (of the same era as Presidents Washington and Jefferson), recorded in his will instructions to free his slaves, provide them room and board, and pay them for their labor. Another, whose slaves were emancipated at the end of the Civil War had a married couple who chose to stay with their former masters on their land, and were apparently provided for and treated well until they died. Well, at least my ancestors were the kind-hearted masters. Except, that wasn’t any consolation. Reality started to hit home. Not so much guilt, per se, because it was not my doing, nor was it something I had any control over. But suddenly, that “Southern Pride” was stained. I could no longer claim all the positive things about my heritage while ignoring the atrocity of treating another human as less-than-human. I didn’t hate black people, but my family was implicit in treating them hatefully. And make no mistake, no matter how you try to spin it, depriving any human of their freedom, treating them like property, is hateful, no matter how well you treat them.
Fortunately, as my desire to have my identity tied to my Southern heritage dissipated, I found myself developing a new identity–Alaskan! Rugged individualist? Check! Capable of surviving in the wilderness, of taking care of myself? Check. Lots of macho cool-guy stuff? Check!!! (Note, this was long before reality TV made Alaskans look like rubes). Plus, cowboy boots on arctic ice was a recipe for disaster. My binder went on the book shelf, and the “South” was 5000 miles away. But the tragedy of black history in the US was about to get a lot more personal.
My second job in the Army in Alaska found me leading a combined team of Soldiers and US Army civilian workers. One of those civilians was a black man named Dan Grant. Dan was a retired Master Sergeant, and he was about the same age as my dad. He had served in Vietnam, and was an amazing man. Known around Anchorage as “Deacon Grant”, Dan was a big, barrel-chested man, always smiling, with a booming baritone voice that made him a natural choice for Master of Ceremonies at every military function. Dan and I became good friends, close friends. We often would spend hours, occasionally an entire afternoon, sitting in our office talking about life. Dan had not always been “Deacon” Grant; one of his last duty positions was as the NCOIC of the Club. But Dan found Jesus, and boy did he love him. At that time, I called myself a Christian, and I went to church, but I certainly wasn’t following God. But we talked about Him, and music, and the Army, and family…
The Army works hard to appreciate diversity, including holding ceremonies to observe things like Black History Month. One year our unit was tasked to run the Black History Month event for our installation. It was decided to present a dramatic reading of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. One of our soldiers would portray Dr. King in his cell by sitting on a darkened stage on a cot, dimly illuminated by a single spotlight, writing, while Dan was off-stage narrating Dr. King’s letter. To be honest, I’d never heard or read the letter. I really didn’t know much about King; I’d heard snippets of “I have a Dream” and I knew he was assassinated. Hearing Dr. King’s words, in my friend Dan’s voice, wrecked me. I was really glad the theater was dark, so people couldn’t see my reaction. Those impersonal historic facts became real. Afterward, Dan and I talked all that afternoon in his office… That’s when he told me about growing up in Georgia. I wish I’d have taken notes, but I don’t remember the precise locations. He talked about how he lived on one side of the tracks, and his white friends on the other, but it didn’t matter. His friends liked to hang out at his parents’ store, and they all did teenage boy things together. A few years passed, and Dan was marching in a civil rights march (led, as I remember the story, by Dr. King). Dan described how he saw some of his white buddies standing along side the road, throwing urine on the marchers as they passed by.
My heart ached, like it was made of lead–and at the same time, a white-hot rage burned inside it. In my mind, I could see myself doing violent, serious physical harm to anyone who would degrade another human, my friend, like that. That wasn’t in my history book. This was ugly. It was hateful. It was evil.
A few things changed that day. First, I resolved that I would try to understand and empathize that my story wasn’t like the story of others. Second, I began to learn more about the Civil Rights movement, and black history in the US in general. Third, I doubled down on the lesson that SPC Marshall taught me–I was willing to let go of things that I thought were important if they were hurtful to others.
In Part 3 I talk about reconciling heritage, rewriting history, and new identity.