How Romanticizing our Southern Heritage Makes Us Vulnerable to Nazi Ideology

Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee (right) and Stonewall Jackson depicted on horseback in a monument erected in Baltimore in 1948 — more than 80 years after the end of the Civil War — and removed this week. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Over the last few days I have heard numerous arguments for and against removing Confederate monuments. The arguments against removing them usually reference Southern heritage. But Southern heritage is not unique to Americans of European descent. I am an African-American. I also share Southern heritage. My grandparents left the South after WWII when my grandfather returned from fighting Nazis in Europe but still didn’t have basic rights and decency as a man or as a veteran. While other members of The Greatest Generation bought houses upon their return with the GI Bill, my grandfather and other African-American soldiers went without access to the tool that created our country’s middle class and its wealth.

My grandparents told me stories of the terror of the KKK riding through their small town in rural Louisiana and the way the community fought back, shooting warning shots in the dark night above the approaching riders, scaring them into aborting the mission. The African-Americans in that community could only rely on themselves because the sheriff was either in the KKK or close with its members. Thankfully the topography of the area, the one road in and out of the community, and their ability to get information in advance from conscientious white people made managing these situations with no injuries possible. Others were not so lucky.

Given my DNA indicates a fair amount of European ancestry, but I have no known white ancestors post-slavery, some of the Confederate ancestors are my ancestors as well. According to ancestry.com there are white people in several states across the South who can be traced as my cousins. We each share a common but unknown ancestor. Mine were brutalized. More than 150 years and many generations later us descendants still have vastly different experiences and privileges in society based on our skin color alone.

It is our inability to look clearly at our history that prevents us from moving forward in unity. No single race can claim credit for building the country to what it is today. At this point in our history we are all inextricably tied together. Certainly I can take pride in what we have collectively achieved given all that my ancestors gave to this country, literally blood, sweat, tears, their lives, and their loved ones. Thanks to DNA testing, I recently learned that some of my African ancestors were here dating back to the early to mid 1700s in Virginia, pre-dating the establishment of the country. Still, many whites whose ancestors arrived up to two centuries after mine would not consider me fully American or deserving of the fruits of this land due solely to my skin color.

Our Southern heritage is agrarian culture, southern hospitality, music, folklore and comfort food, but also the heritage of white supremacy and economic oppression. It is a long history of turning a blind eye to the brutalization that went hand in hand with the ability to build vast sums of wealth and fund those beautiful plantation mansions and southern belle lifestyles. Some forms of this white supremacy and oppression are considered outrageous today but many forms are still acceptable and are regularly employed tools of our government and institutions. Germany embarked upon a mass reconciliation after WWII to confront their history. So did South Africa. We have not. Every step of progress made post-slavery has been met with opposition and resistance.

The KKK began in 1865, the same year the last slaves were freed. Their sole purpose was to terrorize newly free African-Americans and keep them in their economic and political place, without rights or power, or access to benefits paid for by their taxes. Whites across the South were vastly outnumbered and fearful of reprisal; the KKK acted on their behalf to instill fear in African-Americans. Political, economic and social power was wielded during the daytime through legitimate institutions and terror was wielded under the cover of night. In an ongoing effort to intimidate and control the African-American population, jobs and livelihoods were threatened, land was grabbed; businesses and whole business districts, homes, churches and sometimes whole neighborhoods destroyed; African-American men, women and children intimidated, assaulted, tortured and lynched by mobs with crowds of families and law enforcement in attendance, and bodies left on display as a warning to others. All of this transpired repeatedly over more than 100 years. If we want to preserve all of our history, not just the Confederate monuments, perhaps these are some events we should memorialize, too.

The first African-American senators were elected during Reconstruction: Hiram Revels in 1870, and Blanche Bruce in 1875, both of Mississippi. Once the South was free of federal oversight, Reconstruction abruptly came to an end. African Americans’ rights were greatly restricted and they found themselves at the full mercy of the KKK. In the 1910s and 1920s Jim Crow laws were created to officially legislate second class citizenship. Thanks to voter intimidation and the legislation of the original grandfather clause — that required your grandfather to have voted in order for you to vote — the African American voting block was decimated. Nearly a century passed before the next African-American senator was elected in 1967 and it wouldn’t be from a southern state. In fact, the next senator from a southern state wasn’t elected until 2014.

Since the 1920s, a variety of new and revamped tools were deployed all with the ultimate result of curbing the economic, social and political power of the African American community. Redlining, hiring discrimination, subprime loans and the use of eminent domain and urban planning projects to seize and disperse vibrant African American neighborhoods crippled the community economically over time. Police brutality, the war on “drugs” and mass incarceration, and defunding public education, “the other side of the tracks”and inner cities undermined the social capital of the community. Voter restrictions and intimidation, along with gerrymandering, served to sabotage the community’s political capital.

Most of the monuments to Confederate heroes were erected after 1900 — decades after the end of the Civil War — peaking immediately following times of progress for African-Americans, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement. These monuments were a veiled threat to people who look like me, a sign that they should be fearful, that the North may have won but there would always be the threat that the South will rise again or just that we would be killed or brutalized in the meantime. Imagine the pyschological impact of a Confederate monument on public land in front of the courthouse where everyone goes to seek justice. The irony is also not lost that it was considered appropriate to use government funds to honor Confederates who sought to overthrow that same government.

The Confederate monuments are dedicated to people who forced free labor from men, women and children, people who separated families and sold off their members (even selling their own children brought about through rape), people who brutalized other people for their own economic gain, and “laundered” the funds through other businesses thus enriching the country. Some of their descendants today, through their inheritances of funds and property, owe their wealth to this brutality that lasted for centuries (as do the descendants of their northern business partners). They are monuments to people who ensured I can’t track family beyond anyone who emerged from slavery because they were listed in census records as female 10, female 13, female 17, female 22, female 26, male 9, male 14, male 16, male 28, male 30, male 35. Out of the 10 to 100s of slaves on a plantation which would have been my ancestors? Why were they listed like cattle? Where were their names? Their family structures and relationships?

The rise of the KKK and their neo-Nazi cousins at this particular point in time should not be a surprise to us. We are coming off the heels of our country’s first African American President, and we have recently begun to digest the knowledge that children of color will outnumber white children in this country by 2020, as is already the case with babies. When the KKK and neo-Nazis descended upon Charlottesville last week with tiki torches, swastikas, and khakis, they shouted, “You will not replace us,” a phrase that harkens back to the angst of their predecessors in the post-Civil War South, being outnumbered and feeling fearful about their future.

Pundits have positioned this as a debate about free speech but neither the KKK nor neo-Nazis have ever just been about speech. History has shown that their words are closely linked to their actions and to their ultimate desire for the exploitation and extermination of others: African Americans, Jews, Latinos, Asians, LGBTQ, Muslims, any one who does not fit their world view. We fought a war to counter this ideology more than 70 years ago. We were not sympathizers with the other side then, why would we be now?

That the Confederate monuments would be a rallying point for them is indicative of the unresolved issues at hand for our country and the fast currents of emotion swirling beneath the surface, even around a war that ended 150 years ago. These emotions are still high because we have never done the work of reconciliation. We have never fully sat with the harm that was done, the humanity that was eviscerated on both sides. The mother and child who are torn apart for another’s profit lose their humanity, just as the man who snatches the child from his mother’s arms for profit does. The one beaten from the voting booth in the land of the free and the home of democracy loses some of his humanity, as does the one coveting democracy and freedom for himself but not for his neighbors.

Resentments expressed about the Civil War and the end of slavery never seem to incorporate the knowledge that slaveholders were compensated for “lost assets” — the humans they held as property — but former slaves were never compensated for centuries of lost wages. African-Americans are told that slavery ended a long time ago and we should get over it. But that does not reconcile with what we now know about trauma and toxic stress and how they are passed down through the generations. My children have inherited the trauma and toxic stress of generations of their enslaved ancestors and the generations of terrorized ancestors who followed the enslaved ones. Do we at least deserve not to have the purveyors of some of that trauma, who fought to hold on to their reign of terror long after the jig was up, held up as icons to be revered? Is that not an additional trauma in and of itself?

All of this is part of our very complicated history as a country, a history which we romanticize and sanitize regularly until it is unrecognizable - a tendency that makes it nearly impossible to keep from repeating the same mistakes. This sanitization creates flashpoints that are ripe for use as tools of division. We saw those tools wielded in Charlottesville by a torch-bearing mob, the likes of which haven’t been seen in my lifetime but the memory of whom lives deep within my bones due to my ancestors’ experiences.

There are always going to be many perspectives, but we should commit to weighing viewpoints against the backdrop of our founding ideals of Democracy, Rights, Liberty, Equality and Opportunity to discover those that are true. When we do that, it is not difficult to see which perspectives did not, do not, and will not stand the test of time. We do not have to double down on what we know to be wrong, just because our collective predecessors previously deemed it acceptable. Human beings are capable of growing and evolving in amazing ways, capable of making amends, capable of moving forward with hope, strength and grace, and capable of continuing to strive in order to form a more perfect union.

Usually we honor our dead by burying them and saying a prayer for their souls, by sharing memories and mementos, by talking about the physical attributes and personality aspects that show up generations later. A public monument is not a requirement. There are no public monuments to the Nazis in Germany or to the National Party in South Africa. Only reminders of the horrors they inflicted upon others and what humanity should never again allow itself to become.

*An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on my Facebook page on August 16th, 2017.