The Last Confederate Fourth of July

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The Robert E. Lee Monument in New Orleans being lowered, May 19, 2017. Photo by Infrogmation Of New Orleans, via Wikipedia.

Today may well be Donald Trump’s last Fourth of July as president of the United States. I’m more optimistic than in some time that he will lose November’s election decisively and go down in history as a failed leader — a larcenous petty fascist who showed us everything America might be by presiding over a four-year bacchanal of everything she should be standing against. Besides his epic malpractice in the Covid crisis, with the thousands of wrongful deaths and economic catastrophe that are resulting, the reason I’m most encouraged about his impending defeat is that with his back against the wall, he’s gone all in on racializing the campaign, and for the most part, my country is not having it. In a recent New York Times Siena College poll, 59% of voters, including 52 percent of white voters, agree that the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis was “part of a broader pattern of excessive police violence toward African Americans.” Black Lives Matter is viewed favorably nationally and in the battleground states, indeed more favorably by large margins than it was just four years ago. The harder Trump tries to divide the nation, he and his allies are discovering that the pluralistic American majority coalition they’ve seen forming in the demographic tea leaves for years is finally here and about to overwhelm them. The traumatic state of the union is difficult and agonizing for sure, but it is also making bolder, even radical political goals more realistic than they were before. And my thoughts here are about framing and defining one of those aims in a way that could make a lot of other things possible. This year, and the particular way Trump has decided to fight for his ill-deserved re-election, make plausible some important national unfinished business, and that’s the final capitulation of the Confederacy.

It took me a long time to put together a realistic and mature concept of the what the Confederacy means in the 21st century, including how it’s been weaponized over many decades. And I blame myself for the delay, because I try to be a realist in things socio-political, and I’ve seen this thing coming for my entire life. My swing in ideology on the Confederate flag, Confederate monuments and the so-called Rebel ideal has forced me to struggle at very deep levels of my psyche with my training for being a cultured citizen. If you will bear with me, I hope the story of my coming to terms with the legacy of The Confederate Thing will offer a guide for the personal journey every White American has to take and take now, in this urgent, decisive time. I don’t write claiming to be somebody who’s come out the other side and is now ideally woke and burnishing my anti-racist credentials. I’m a flawed man and proud Southerner and American who has seen some things and learned how to listen more insightfully. I’ve been blind. I’m working on seeing as never before. And putting my emotional stake in Confederate iconography behind me is one part of my reach for grace.

Here’s the deal. Even in my postgraduate years, armed with a fancy master’s degree in politics and policy from an elite Southern institution of higher learning, I defended the Confederate flag as benign and cultural, like grits or blues. I saw Confederate monuments in town squares around the South and thought they were quaint and historical. I let Shelby Foote get under my Southern skin during Ken Burns’ Civil War, as so many of us did. Growing up in the 70s, even in the relatively progressive city and state of Durham, NC, the Confederacy was taught to us and shown to us as a noble if lost cause, a vessel in which to keep time-tested virtues safe from those who didn’t get us or who looked down upon us. Rebel pride was atmospheric. My friends had t-shirts or window decals. I had a stars-and-bars belt buckle for a time as a pimpled pubescent. The flag was on the roof of the Dukes of Hazzard’s car, the General Lee, and Waylon By God Jennings himself was telling me that the brothers therein, drivin’ fast and mocking old Boss Hogg, were “good old boys never meanin’ no harm,” and who was I to gainsay Waylon?

One time, when I was about 22, I stumbled on a remarkable scene in New Orleans that may have started my prolonged pivot. It was my first visit, a long hoped for pilgrimage, and it was outrageously great. That’s when I fell hard in love with what I still call my favorite American city, and in a way in love with Black America, because New Orleans is a cradle, worth virtually nothing without its inherent Blackness. But one of my days there, as a tourist is wont to do and because the Civil War is certainly interesting, I visited the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum. It was your ordinary collection of maps, flags, guns and so forth. But it turns out I happened to be there on some Confederate holiday. So without much of a heads up, the hall fills up with White people dressed in Gone With The Wind antebellum finery, men in Confederate officer uniforms and hoop skirts for the chaste maidens. They danced to a band. I felt a complex mix of emotions at this, sort of admiring the preservationism of it all alongside a vague and noxious notion that somebody was trying way too hard at something. I certainly felt like an observer, someone not of this scene, but I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by it. Then the group played and sang “Dixie” as a sort of climax to this tableau, and when they did that, I admit I got southern pride chill bumps. They do not raise you down here to not get chills at “Dixie”. You are what you’re taught.

This is all to say that for years and years, nobody invited me or required me to entertain the African American view of this symbolism and this enduring fetish. I’m ashamed to say it took me too many years to take that initiative myself. My South was a self-satisfied post-Civil Rights region, a “new South” they called it, and the story was clear. We’d made amends for all that unfortunate business about the time I was born with major legislation and it was cool now. The absurdity of this narrative kind of burns me as I relate it here in 2020, but that’s just what was. Compounding this were many factors and forces of which there’s only space here to mention a few. Our city of about 300,000 was quite evenly split between Black and White, but it was segregated de facto if not de jure. We were told there were Black leaders and businesspeople of note, but rarely did we see them in a way that made them models for our future selves. (The great exception in my life came from music, especially my lifelong interest in jazz, where I saw unfiltered Black genius at work, but that’s another long story.)

Certainly, I was raised and educated to deplore racism. We were taught that neo-Nazis were a thing and a threat, that Roots was important television, that Martin Luther King was righteous, that Jesse Owens embarrassed Hitler at the 1936 Olympics, that black people invented the blues and that Lincoln Freed the Slaves. Yet we were taught, more implicitly but unambiguously, an incomplete and deceptive and self-exculpating definition of racism — that it was a sin of the individual human heart, a particularly odious character flaw. Where racists gathered together, as in the Klan, they were like-minded people drawn together by a shared animosity/ideology. Critically at the same time, I was conditioned to see Black leaders of my formative political years, personified chiefly by Jesse Jackson, as demanding, angry and militant. The typical liberal Southerner was inclined to see what remained of the Black Power movement in 1970s and 80s America as not wrong in their concerns per se but overbearing in their tactics and posture. Meanwhile, the aura of the Southern cities around me exalted an esthetic of the plantation and the antebellum dream. Many homes throughout my wooded, professional/banking class neighborhood idolized this version of propriety. Most of them had black housekeepers. Black people waiting on white people in upper-echelon environments was utterly normalized before my childhood and teenaged eyes. The literally white country club up the road from us presented a similar facade, and my Dad informed me some time in my early years that one reason they would not become members there, (even though there’s a swimming pool in walking distance!) was that the place had only allowed black members starting in 1973 and we didn’t aspire to be part of that society. (We belonged to a university faculty club some miles away, which was certainly privilege though not lily-white privilege.) And backdropping all this was the insidious drumbeat of local TV news and shows like Cops, which were, without my knowledge or consent, conditioning my brainstem to associate black faces and bodies with menace and crime. Something much deeper was going on with racism than a political fringe who despised people with different colored skin, yet there was a sophisticated apparatus in place doing its best to keep me from seeing it.

This was all more than 25 years ago. My years as a political and policy journalist in the 90s and as a cultural journalist in the 2000s offered me a wide new range of ways to learn about my country and my region and the nature of racism. I had to confront the fact that while I regarded myself as well-read in politics, for years my media choices, the voices I sought out and took in, were from institutions built without Black America in mind or in the room. I read all the right policy journals and op-ed pages, but I didn’t know what they were leaving out and who they’d been marginalizing. And it’s funny, because systems and design have always been important concepts to me, and once it was pointed out to me that I might investigate Black American political, social, economic, legal and cultural history through those lenses, only then did the veil begin to lift. It dawned on me that for years, I’d been listening to white people tell me about black people, only rarely taking in the contemporary testimony of black people themselves. To point out one work that helped the scales fall from my eyes more than most, I’d cite The Case For Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic in 2014. Old me couldn’t grasp the concept of reparations. I bought the apparent logic that the sins of our forefathers weren’t my generation’s doing, which was the case I heard most often. I didn’t understand the word reparations in all its nuance and prospects. But the central argument of this long, meticulous essay hit me in waves. It can’t be summarized with remotely the power of the sustained case, but it has to do with the vast cumulative advantage and disadvantage of generational wealth and social capital building over a few hundred years and how that translates into political power in modern times. Slavery was a pure transfer of labor and value from Black to White. That much was easy to grasp. Then, the post Civil War era put a legal gloss on an American apartheid system that enriched the established white caste while mining the black caste for still more labor without equity in a nation growing ever more wealthy. The supposedly modern era built a network of disadvantage for Black America in the realm of real estate, zoning, taxation, home ownership and neighborhood development. City highways were used to disrupt and ultimately break up thriving Black communities, like Jefferson Street here in Nashville. This realm, vaguely visible to me before, became crushingly clear. There are myriad works to read up on systemic racism, but for me, Mr. Coates has been invaluable.

The South is a meaningful and beautiful region, and I remain a proud, if chastened, Southerner. People across the country and the world crave Southern culture. Most even know at some level that the aspects of Southern culture they adore, chiefly the music and food, are Black by birth and cultivation. So that’s where the Confederacy comes back into focus for me as a frame for what’s gone so very wrong in Republican politics. As someone who used to see the Confederate idea as a soft signifier of Southern-ness, I would implore anyone on this same journey to empathize as vividly as possible with the African American view of that cause, that brand, that flag and those monuments. Just last week Nashville’s own Caroline Randall Williams poured out some of the most moving and humbling words on this subject written in this pivotal year. I’m a believer that politics and civil life and a country’s character rest on ideas as expressed in words, and the words of the Confederate idea are unambiguously about white supremacy. The lost cause was in defense of an economic and caste system that permanently subjugated a people for economic and power advantage. These are stains that can’t be bleached out or expunged with gauzy nostalgia. In fact, sentimentalizing and rationalizing something so heinous in a time when we have access to the knowledge, the testimony, the economic and long-term sociological data is a travesty. Yet we watch America’s hard core 35% gathering closer together and closer to Trump the more he spits out the narrative that they are the victims and that their Jim Crow Era monuments are more important than anything else going on in this crisis-plagued country. The Confederacy in 2020 isn’t just the Civil War dead-enders and the Southern Strategy GOP. It’s a matrix of ethno-nationalist feelings and resentments that simply have no future in this country as a moral or practical matter. Today’s Confederacy is the belief that there can’t, shouldn’t, and won’t be a multi-ethnic, multi-creed country, when we have proven (mostly through our big cities but really quite broadly) that indeed that American Dream is not only possible but enriching in every respect.

Here’s my thing about the statues. Some specific monuments may have a back story that wins them a place in 21st century America, albeit with plenty of contextualizing and re-positioning. This can be a case by case thing. But the vast majority of them are relics and idols that need to go. I believe that the more of them that come down through regular civic decision-making, the more powerful and credible the movement behind their removal becomes. Cities like Richmond and New Orleans are proving that these removals can be fast tracked and legal. Mississippi’s vote to retire the last Southern state flag with the stars and bars, belated as it is, should be celebrated and remembered widely in the months and years ahead, because it offers bigger prospects than we’ve seen before. The Overton Window on police and criminal justice reform/remaking is wider than it’s ever been. What once seemed radical now feels possible and even advisable. While those opposed to these new prospects, those so eager and needy to reduce a mainstream mass protest to “rioters and looters,” seems almost uniformly wedded to the preservation of the Confederacy.

But the Confederacy as an idea is done. Trump looks like a lonely troglodyte as he tries to cosplay George Wallace in 2020. We consign to the past the Southern Strategy and cynical racialist campaigning and Strom Thurmond’s sexualized bigotry and Jesse Helms’s political messaging to the resentful white job reject and Jeff Sessions as Attorney General of the USA pulling the Department of Justice back from supervising corrupt and racist police departments. Tired and expired is the 50-plus white male whinging as if still in thrall of those Helms TV spots that he’s the victim of a zero-sum game instead of an agent in a dynamic economy. Those who cling to the mantle of the Confederacy as their binky in a globalizing technocratic world have none of my empathy. You want to solve a problem? Make your case with data and reason and accountability. But casting your faux rebel lot with a dishonest megalomaniac who mugs like an idiot while literally hugging the flag — this is your swan song? What a sad little firework. Without voters who think the Civil War ended the wrong way, Trump couldn’t even come close to winning in November. They’re all he has standing in between him and oblivion, and I now feel guardedly confident that there just aren’t enough of them.

Journalist, radio host and speaker in Nashville. Music news producer for WMOT/Roots Radio. Host of The String. Co-host of Music City Roots.

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