Down with the statues

On the Ashokan rail-trail, my friend Jim, New Jersey-bred to the degree that he can name every neighborhood in the opening credits of The Sopranos, asked me: “So. The Lost Cause …?”

Jim knows I grew up in Atlanta, and that my lineage links me to the Confederacy. I struggle with and write about this connection, and anyone who knows me, as Jim does, has heard stories of my upbringing in the seismic, post- Civil Rights Act years of that region. My Confederacy apologist maternal grandmother on one side, civil-rights activist mom on the other. (Rarely boring.) With the Lost Cause so much in the news, its monuments coming down and its flag removed, Jim wanted to know how this powerful lie touched me as a Southerner.

Gone with the Wind was considered a documentary, I said, “wherein the slaves were not brutalized, dehumanized, unpaid laborers, but ‘part of the family.’ I often heard my grandmother insist, ‘After they were freed, many came back to the plantation. Because they knew that’s where they belonged.’”

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This was an oft-repeated lie of the Lost Cause. (Seen also in Disney’s now-banned Song of the South.)

Gone with the Wind was a big part of my family. My maternal grandfather was a publicist for the movie, doing advance work in Southern theatres, making sure it was properly heralded.

At the 1939 Atlanta premiere, African American actresses in the film Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen were forbidden admission.

“What about Scarlett O’Hara?” Jim asked. “What’s the fascination with that character?”

I reckoned it was her “indomitable spirit,” that she could lose so much – her child, her culture, her husband – but still hold up a potato at the end of Part 1 and tearfully exclaim, “As God is my witness, I shall never be hungry again!”

“She didn’t lose the land,”

Jim pointed out. “She still had Tara.”

Indeed. That’s also part of the Lost-Cause fantasy. That ownership of the land bestows strength. Southern land. Red clay. Birthright. Land tilled by compliant slaves.

The truth that was kept from me was that the South fought for the right to enslave Africans. Like Scarlett’s birthright to the soil, the Confederacy believed in a God-given birthright to own people.

Instead of those facts, I was taught the war was about “states’ rights.” It was an effort to keep the Jeffersonian ideal of hegemony among the states, and lax federal control. (Sound familiar?) What was purposefully de-emphasized to me was that the states’ rights in question was the right to own people.

The “Lost Cause” would have you believe the Confederates fought for freedom from the urban North, likened in Lost-Cause mythology to England in the American Revolution. Similar to the crown, the North sought to control these people who believed God entitled them to build empires however they wished. The South’s vanquishing was legendarily extreme, the source of great shame that must be covered up, refashioned.

The post-war campaign to build the Lost-Cause mythology involved erecting many statues of “noble generals” that are now coming down. The Confederate Flag was “re-branded” from the sigil of white supremacy and oppression to a symbol of rebellion, “rebel pride.” Or, as our president and his followers prefer, “heritage.”

One might think the South is shameless, but it is not. The anger is actually masked shame. Those dismayed at the monuments falling, upset at the stars-and-bars being removed from flags and government buildings, have been fiercely taught that they are, like their ancestors, superior, entitled. But I believe in their hearts they’re aware that’s not so, and I believe that, like their forefathers, they know they’re going to lose, and that if they fight hard enough they’ll forget those painful facts.

 

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.

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