“…“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived – but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” -Maya Angelou
It was May of 2016 – or so I thought.
I was idling at a red light, and happened to glance up to face the names on the street signs at the intersection.
Strom Thurmond Boulevard and Lee (as in Robert E. Lee) Road.
I could have expected as much.
I was in South Carolina, after all – the very first slave state in the South to secede from the Union.
I was on a military base.
However, even that particular post (Fort Jackson) had been named for Andrew Jackson – a slaveowner, General, and President personally responsible for a gruesome catalog of injustices done to both African-Americans and Native Americans throughout his life.
I’d bet that the mere sight of me at that light (an African-American Army officer freely training with a fully-integrated unit) might have had all three of those men turning over in their graves.
I was painfully aware that the Confederate battle flag had flown proudly and unapologetically on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds until 2015.
Nine miles from Fort Jackson, give or take.
And it took the cold-blooded slaughter of nine African-Americans praying peacefully at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC (by an avowed white supremacist trying to start a ‘race war’) to get that flag removed.
Emanuel AME is roughly 4 miles (give or take) from Charleston Harbor, where Beauregard’s Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter in April of 1861.
These were the shots that effectively began our nation’s Civil War.
(Incidentally, South Carolina’s Secessionist Party has proudly re-raised that battle flag at the statehouse for a few hours every July 10th since – calling the removal of the flag ‘politically correct cultural genocide’.)
It was as if Columbia, South Carolina was some kind of parallel universe where the South had won the Civil War – with its heroes preserved accordingly.
That summer I would learn that this parallel universe extended to Texas (Fort Hood), North Carolina (Fort Bragg), Alabama (Fort Rucker), Georgia (Fort Benning & Fort Gordon), Louisiana (Fort Beauregard & Fort Polk), and Virginia (Fort A.P. Hill, Fort Lee, and Fort Pickett).
All named for Confederate commanders (some of whom were, ironically, below-average soldiers who cost the South dearly in the war).
So… what’s in a name?
Or a flag? Or a monument, for that matter?
Take ‘Lee’, for example.
It was sobering to march nearly every day of that 2016 summer up and down a road named after a man who fought and killed to keep my ancestors in terminal bondage.
It was gut-wrenching to take that hill to class every day, and be constantly reminded of Robert E. Lee.
It was hard not to take it personally.
To face other Fort Jackson streets immortalizing Sumter, Hill, Beauregard, Hood, and Dixie on my daily drives on and off base.
Granted, this was history that could not be unlived.
But need it be commemorated? Celebrated?
There is, perhaps, a thin line between ‘citation’ and ‘celebration’ – particularly in the context of major crimes against humanity.
Count me among those in favor of examining our history in its unabridged and unfiltered fullness.
Bringing our past’s shadows to light such that we might avoid reliving our darkest hours.
However, naming something after someone is a pretty high honor. For me, it proclaims your alignment/agreement with most (if not all) of who that person was, and that for which they stood.
I’d be the first to admit that customs and cultures change greatly over time, as does a society’s judgement of its past (and all the players).
Perceptions are moving targets. Rorschachs.
And we all have our personal shadows – many of which would not survive a cross-examination in the court of public opinion.
Yet – some names (i.e. Lee, Thurmond) carry narratives that feel troubling enough to the critical mass of us that continuing to glorify their legacies would seem to do considerably more harm than good.
I’d fully support preserving the Confederate flag in museums, textbooks, encyclopedias, etc. – lest we neglect that aspect of our heritage (and repeat it).
I have known (and do know) many proud southerners who are pleased to be citizens of the United States of America – and want nothing to do with the Confederate States of America.
For me, raising a Confederate flag in the here and now says you align with secession, slavery, and/or white supremacy. You’re proud of that cultural genocide.
For you, state’s rights trump civil rights. Human rights.
Particularly, the right of a state to enslave humans.
To me, every proudly-displayed ‘The South Shall Rise Again’ bumper sticker feels like a Confederate artillery round opening fire.
That is the impact.
And though it is not every displayer’s intent – it’s hard for me not to take the shot personally.
For what it’s worth, those names, flags, and monuments sparked many rich and courageous conversations that summer. Many of my fellow chaplains had no idea who Strom Thurmond was, or how much sweat equity he’d poured into keeping Blacks and Whites separate and unequal.
All while publicly denying his half-Black eldest child, Essie Mae Washington-Williams.
I was pleased to say her name out loud to them – which she felt she could not do until 2003, when her father was in his grave (likely turning over).
As we learned together, I witnessed some of the monuments in their minds come down.
I learned more about Lee’s history that summer.
2nd in his class at West Point (the first to do so without earning a single demerit). A stalwart in the Army Corps of Engineers, promoted three times for bravery in combat.
He was arguably the most promising soldier in the entire U.S. military before he resigned to join the rebellion (Lincoln had essentially offered him command of the Union Army two days before).
A slaveowner, both by birth and by marriage. He was ‘technically’ opposed to the institution of slavery – but also opposed to racial equality (and the post-war rights of emancipated Blacks).
The institution of slavery was a ‘great moral and political evil’, Lee said, but also a ‘discipline necessary for Blacks’ instruction’.
The sad irony of Charlottesville 2017 is that Lee himself was fiercely opposed to any Confederate statues, flags, monuments, or even memorialized battlefields after the war was over – calling them ‘divisive’.
There is much to be learned from Lee’s imagination in tactical maneuvers and his engineer-like strategies in conflict (often while outnumbered considerably).
There is also much to be learned from his errors. From his courage in battle, and his failure of courage in ultimately choosing his duty to the Commonwealth of Virginia over his duty to commonwealth of humanity.
Independence over interdependence.
So – what’s in a name?
And what should we do with the names of those we come to judge as having stood squarely on the wrong side of history? Remove them?
Do we say them out loud or strike them from the record? Or both?
Tear down the monuments, or clarify them? Or both?
I’m not sure there is an easy answer to any of the above.
I’m inclined to forgive and never forget. To face Lee (and history) courageously in the fullness thereof, and in the desire to learn from (and not relive) it.
I plan to take my son to Fort Jackson someday.
To show him the field where his father became an Army chaplain.
To have an honest conversation about Lee, Thurmond, Columbia, Charleston, Emanuel, and Emancipation – such that he might cultivate a desire to live on the right side of history.
I’ll also tell him that in my childhood I used to enjoy watching a TV show called ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ (before I knew what I was watching). Two ‘good ol’ boy’ outlaw brothers driving around in a ’69 Dodge Charger named the ‘General Lee’ with the Confederate battle flag on the side – and a horn that played ‘Dixie’ (one of the anthems of the Confederacy). Hanging out of their windows with rifles, screaming the ‘rebel yell’ during high-speed chases. (I had no idea what all of that meant, at the time).
I kept a Dukes of Hazzard blanket that lasted into my teens – until an elder gentleman of color passed me in a parking lot one day – as I was using it to cover up the musical equipment in my trunk.
He stopped his van on a dime – and gave me an impromptu impassioned history lesson.
I then deposited that blanket in the nearest dumpster, if memory serves.
That moment is a part of my past that I wish I could unlive, to be honest.
But I would have my son to learn the fullness of his dad’s history.
And to face the all of it (even the about-faces) with courage.
Still I Rise,