On the removal of our Southern ‘heritage’

Bye Bye Robert E Lee

In the US South, in various places, confederate statues are being removed. In New Orleans Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, General Beauregard – all these relics of the Confederate past are being transported to a legacy of cobwebs, pigeon-shit and dust.

And so they should be.

A sizeable population of Southerns are angry about this. If you’re from the South you’ve heard these arguments that glorify the Lost Cause of the Confederacy a thousand times. Heritage not Hate. As a Southerner myself, believe me when I say it’s a heritage based on hate. It’s a heritage based on the immorality of owning other people, the auctioning of souls to be beaten, abused and barely fed to harvest cotton or sugar cane for a white man, all because these men thought they were morally superior to someone who was a different color from a different land.

Robert E Lee was a great general of the Confederacy, but he fought for the right for one man to own another. We like to think in the South that this ‘great man’ was full of dash and derring-do and somehow was not a racist because he was a ‘kind master’ to his slaves, or let them go (he ran out of money, he had to) because he was good. He was definitely good at his day job, but make no mistake, his day job was fighting for something base and immoral. There is nothing about the Civil War that was good. And it is true, the Civil War was fought for states rights. The right of people occupying a state to own other people, the right of Southerners to own slaves.

To many of us, racism seems like a simple issue. To many of us a racist is a white supremacist, a neo-Nazi, a member of the alt-Right or whatever the hell they call themselves these days. But these people are small in number and lurk on the edges of society, no matter how loud they may scream and how much news coverage they may get. But they are out there, they are identifiable. What is worse and harder to identify is the casual racism in the South (and indeed other places in the US and the wider world). The people who swear up and down they are ‘color blind’, that they see no race.

This is crazy and blind. Crazy you can’t fix, but blind you can deal with. Please don’t pretend that in the US we are all treated equally – open your eyes, read the statistics. If you are African-American you are much more likely to be incarcerated for a crime than if you are white. If you don’t ‘see’ color you are clearly blind and if you as a white person in the South can’t see how we treat our fellow Americans that are a different color then you are willfully blind and it is time to deal with it.

Harper Lee knew this. She knew about the incipient problem of casual racism, before anyone else knew that ‘casual racism’ was a thing. She wrote about it, not in To Kill a Mockingbird but in Go Set a Watchman. This is the book she wrote first and allegedly didn’t want to publish first (or ever?), perhaps because it is closer to our racist truth. It shows the sickening,covert underbelly of the racism encapsulated by ‘good people’. The subversive infantilization of the White Man’s Burden where most slave owners felt they were enslaving their fellow man for their own good, because they were ‘good people’. Or as Robert E Lee put it “The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race… How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

We in the South have to open our eyes and address this past, warts and all. We have to stop glorifying the Civil War, we have to set a Watchman, we have to keep our own eyes open to our own casual racism. Instead of insisting you don’t have a racist bone in your body – most people don’t think they are racist – open your eyes, look at your attitudes, check yourself. Don’t be Atticus Finch, he was not a ‘good man’, he is our lesson. Most of us aren’t a ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ racists – but how many of us are ‘Go Set a Watchman’ racists? This is the question we need to ask ourselves.

I have the same desire as the Mayor of New Orleans, who said in a glorious, poignant speech on why it is time to rid ourselves of Civil War statutes and the cult of the ‘Lost Cause’:

I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us. And make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago — so we can more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation and forge a clearer and straighter path toward a better city and a more perfect union.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain
This entry was posted in Civil War Statues, Confederacy, Racism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On the removal of our Southern ‘heritage’

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    While agreeing with the principle that statues like that of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans need to be taken down, I think to limit it to those on the losing side of the Civil War is to miss more important points.

    First, if we judge someone in the 19th century by our 21st Century standards, we are guilty of presentism. If is a valid judgement against Lee, then it is an equally valid judgement against the Founding Fathers of the USA, like George Washington, who were also slaveowners.

    Secondly, and more importantly, the existence of statues promotes the ‘Big Man’ (and it is usually a man) meme, where the course of history is seen as the result of the actions of a few. Lee could not have been the general that he was without those willing to fight for the cause of the Confederacy, while Lincoln could not have prevailed without those who fought for the Union. A better result might come from confining all such public statues to museums, where their life and actions could be treated in the proper context.