I am no different than most Americans. I was taught what most Americans are taught about the Civil War and about its heroes. I was taught to believe that there were heroes on “both sides” of the Civil War. Chief among those heroes were men like General Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson, who we were taught were great, valiant, and noble men who served honorably in a difficult time. They were honorable “gentlemen” who just happened to “disagree on the issues.” Yes, the main issue at question was the nation’s “peculiar institution of slavery,” but for men like Lee it was largely an issue of federalism and “state’s rights.” They were so venerated in my high school textbooks that I might have almost inferred that if I were in their shoes, I would have similarly fought, and similarly acted as a matter of conscience.
And you know what? Maybe, just maybe, if my grandparents and parents had not been sharecroppers on cotton plantations in Jim Crow’s South Carolina and Georgia, I would have been tempted to believe this whitewashed and perverted version of history. Or maybe if I didn’t witness firsthand the aftermath of Nixon’s and then Reagan’s attempt to galvanize and then weaponize the same racial fears of white people into a “Southern Strategy” and a so-called “War on Drugs,” I would have been sympathetic to these arguments. Maybe, just maybe if my high school AP History teacher didn’t show us how D.W. Griffith’s racist propaganda film, Birth of a Nation, gave rise to the KKK throughout the country and was endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson during the exact time frame in which most Confederate monuments were erected, perhaps I would have believed what they wanted me to believe about the Civil War. But I knew better.
Of course, my history books wanted me to believe that Robert E. Lee was a complicated saint of a man who was forced to lead the Confederate army for the sake of his “beloved Virginia.” Yet what was Virginia’s stated reason for secession?
In its ordinance of secession, the state of Virginia argued that they seceded because “the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” That’s right. You read that correctly. Virginia and the ten other states who literally kidnapped, sold, bred, and enslaved humans charged that they were being “oppressed” by the federal government to end their barbarous enterprise. And white folks across America have tried to argue that the dismantling of the idolatry of white supremacy is their “oppression” ever since. As has been stated eloquently by others, when you have only known a brutal and barbaric power, even equality feels like oppression.
So no. Robert E. Lee was no gentleman. Robert E. Lee was no hero. As far as I’m concerned, Robert E Lee was the Richard Spencer of his time. Like Richard Spencer, he was educated at the finest schools, clean cut and polished. Like Richard Spencer, he perceived of himself to be a noble, honorable man. Like Richard Spencer, he bought into a narrative that he was somehow a champion against white oppression and victimization.
How did this gentleman, Robert E. Lee, behave, when the humans he owned tried to pursue their God-given right to freedom? This “gentleman” had them beat like cattle or whipped them himself, as The Atlantic recently reported. And when faced with the possibility of serving alongside his West Point classmates who sided with the Union or fighting to defend white supremacy, this “gentleman” led an insurrection against his homeland leading to the death of over 600,000 people, the bloodiest single war ever on our soil. And what did “gentlemen” like Robert E. Lee lead men into bloody battle to defend? White supremacy, plain and simple.
Yet today we have a president who on a Monday condemns white supremacy while reading scripted remarks, then condemns “both sides” when a neo-Nazi claims the life of Heather Heyer. By Friday though, he laments the removal of “beautiful statues and monuments” dedicated to those who died to defend white supremacy. Then of course today he announces that he will send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan, hoping that we will all just forget about it and move on.
Yet moving on, is precisely how we got here. Moving on is how 81 percent of evangelical Christians voted for a man who has brought out the very worst of this country’s demons of racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and protectionism. Moving on is precisely how it is 2017 and we are still living with the very real threat of white supremacist fueled domestic terrorism in America. Moving on is precisely how we have managed to sanitize, normalize, and ritualize the legacy of white supremacy in our city squares and on a college campus in Charlottesville. Each time we tell ourselves to “move on” we turn a blind eye to the reality not only of our country’s racist past but to its racist and monstrous present. We lie to ourselves to suggest otherwise.
It’s time for us to finally face the truth in our country. Only through confronting difficult truths can we hear the cries of our neighbors for justice, truly repent, and chart a way forward to redress the iniquities of our past and present. Richard Spencer and his clean cut, khaki band of white supremacists impersonating real gentlemen may be the tiki torch bearers of racial hatred today. However, the truth is that they carry a torch that was passed on to them by the clean cut “gentlemen” of a stubbornly persistent era of our nation’s gruesome past. They gathered at that monument of Robert E. Lee to remind us all that Robert E. Lee was the Richard Spencer of his time.