Before I begin “Part 3” to my “Heritage” series, I want to take a moment to say thank you for the encouraging words in response to the previous two posts (if you haven’t read them yet, follow these links to Part 1 and Part 2).
I said at the end of Part 2 that I would talk today about “reconciling heritage, rewriting history, and new identity.” Heritage is an interesting concept. Examining different online definitions yields an idea of either possessions that are passed down from previous generations (an inheritance), or more commonly a set of cultural aspects one receives as a result of birth position. Heritage can have geographical, economic, cultural, and even physical/biological elements to it, but the interesting part is that you have exactly zero input into your heritage. You receive it from your predecessors. You didn’t earn your heritage; you don’t even get to choose your heritage. Think about that for a minute. I’ll wait…
Whatever your heritage is, it can have an influence on you, but you had no influence on it. And you can’t change it. You can reject it, or embrace it; you can choose the extent to which it influences your identity, but you didn’t form your heritage, be it positive or negative. While there is much more to consider with respect to heritage, I want to focus on the discussion of heritage occurring in our country today, particularly since the events in Charlottesville last weekend.
Earlier I used the phrase “reconciling heritage.” I honestly had no idea what I was thinking as I typed that out at 2 am. But today as I considered the word “reconcile,” I can only claim dumb luck or divine inspiration, because it’s a brilliant phrase to describe what I want to talk about, that I take no credit for crafting. Reconcile literally means “to bring back together.” It has multiple modern uses, including the accounting idea of making two accounts consistent with each other, and the broader definition of settling disagreement or bringing two disparate concepts into harmony. The more I learned about my heritage associated with the Confederacy the more I needed to reconcile that heritage with my innate desire to treat all people with dignity and respect.
I find myself confronting a second concept that, like “heritage,” is trending in the news today: “rewriting history.” The record of the story of black people in the US deserves a much deeper exploration than what I am able to do in this post. Ultimately, the point I’m launching from is that the history of the Civil War and slavery in the US was gravely distorted.
Take a look back at Part 1, where I described my understanding of the Civil War. I believed that the war resulted from a conflict over states’ rights stemming from economic issues. Is this simply the case of me remembering what I wanted to remember? NO!!! I studied the Civil War multiple times in elementary, junior high, and high school, as well as at least twice in college. I can vividly remember my military history class professor emphasizing the point that only fools believed that the South seceded over slavery. Again, this was at a Historically Black College! Why did I get taught this? It’s because our history books told us this!!!
Yet the true story is that primary documents from the era describe a very different motive. Secession was about a single right–the right to own other human beings. Look up the prolific documentation of reasons for secession from the states. More personally, here is the text of a letter my great-great-great grandfather, Captain William Dyer, wrote to his cousin in May 1861:
My Dear Cousin-
My regiment leaves in a few days for the east, presumably northern Virginia. My heart and soul is in the contest; I am, you know, a State’s right democrat, as defined by that greatest of southern statesmen- John C. Calhoun. This election of Lincoln by the aggressive anti-slavery element of the north was equivalent to a declaration of war against the south, and the institute of slavery-we have the alternative presented of tame and odious submission, or secession and war. In this hour of supreme necessity, hesitation would be treason. The South, if true to herself, will surely triumph, and may the God of battles lead her sons. (emphasis added)
Here’s the difficulty I bumped into in my own journey to reconcile my heritage: I was celebrating a heritage of a group of people who took up arms against the US because the majority of the US opposed the Southern institution of owning human beings and using them as property. The symbols of my Southern pride represented people who felt so strongly about the rightness of their superiority to black people that they were willing to go to war for those convictions.
People who are advocating taking down Confederate monuments and removing the Confederate battle flag from its prominence in public places are not trying to “rewrite history,” they’re trying to correct the accepted history that is grossly inaccurate! And that distorted history has served as a foundation for a heritage that is a key piece of many peoples’ identity. As a general rule, challenging a person’s identity, or a symbol that represents their identity, is not the best idea. You’re gonna get a fight. A pretty nasty fight. Logic and reason are almost hindrances in this kind of fight. So, why risk it? Let’s just leave the monuments up, and let Mississippi keep the Confederate Flag on their state flag, right?
Good argument, unless you’re a black person. Because no matter how vehemently I assert that my pride in my Confederate ancestry and flag have nothing to do with how I view racism, that doesn’t change the fact that those symbols were all about white supremacy, in 1865, and the next 100 years. Most of the statues placed around the country commemorating Confederate leaders were installed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as a means to glorify a southern identity badly damaged during the Reconstruction period. They represented Black Codes , Jim Crow laws, and lynching. The flag gained even more prominence in the middle of the 20th century when it was used as a symbol of opposition to the civil rights movement. That usage eventually mutated into a broader “Southern pride” symbol that could conceivably be detached from racist purposes. And whether or not an individual waving that flag hates black people, the vast majority of black people see the symbol, and are reminded of racism-much like SPC Marshall was when I called myself a “redneck.”
Consider that in recent polls about half of black Americans view the Confederate flag as a racist symbol. The 15 year old girl who started the petition in Charlottesville to get the Lee statue removed said she and her friends didn’t attend events held in the park because of the reminder of white supremacy there. Here’s a question worth pondering: If you strongly believe something, and then you discover that what you were taught was inaccurate, arguably even part of a deliberate campaign of deception, would you be willing to change your beliefs based on new evidence? Would you still hold onto it if the belief was not only false, but hurtful to others?
I have discovered that I’m writing for the benefit of at least two audiences: Those who, like me, might need to reconsider their beliefs in new light; and second, those who cannot understand how people like I was can be so hateful. I have friends in both groups. Let me talk to the second for just a minute: I spoke earlier about the fight resulting from attacking a person’s identity. If you start this fight with removing statues and flags, rather than helping people reconcile heritage in light of more accurate history, you’re quite possibly attacking an identity. Now, you can take the approach that you’re tired of waiting, and that the injustices of people of color are so horrific that they need to be fixed now, no matter the cost. But that approach is going to get you a much fiercer fight from people who are defending their identity. My hope is that by providing an answer to the often-shouted question, “What is wrong with you people?!”, you might see that nothing is wrong with them, they are simply operating off a misunderstanding not of their own creation.
Now let me talk to everybody again-please don’t take this post as me advocating for one side or the other. I’m trying to position my writing in the middle, and address both sides. Because both audiences are important, need to be valued and heard. We have an opportunity to turn Charlottesville into a milestone-in a few years we can look on it and say, “That was the event that caused us to come together as a nation, and resolve issues that had festered for centuries.” Wouldn’t that be a great legacy for Heather Heyer?
I was hoping to wrap up this “series” with this post, but we still need to talk about where to go from here. I have some ideas, based on what I’ve learned as I’ve walked this out. Because I think there is cause for hope that we can move into a much better future with respect to race relations in our country Check back for Part 4 on Tuesday. Or better yet, follow this blog by clicking the “Follow” button on the menu below (if you’re on a mobile device) or the menu bar on the left (if you’re on a desktop), and you’ll get notified when it’s published.