Inheriting Civil War Stuff

In Joel Chandler Harris’s “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story,” the turpentine and tar stick figure stays still and silent throughout the two-page short story. Yet, it’s the Tar-Baby’s refrain from polite speech that draws the ire of Brer Rabbit while Brer Fox lays low in the bushes. The hundreds of Confederate monuments scattered around America are equally muted and infuriating. Standing watch in front of courthouse squares and manicured green spaces, these sculpted monuments have further divided a fractured country. Erected generations ago by windbag politicians and the doting matrons that formed United Daughters of the Confederacy, these marble tar-babies have ensnared passersby but by their nature are unable to let them loose. The primary solvent is an honest examination of the gilded accounts that have been handed down from our predecessors.

At the centennial of the Civil War in 1961, Robert Penn Warren, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize winner for All the King’s Men, published The Legacy of the Civil War. His 108-page essay was subtitled a Meditation on the Centennial and dissects the war’s “influence on our economy, our social institutions, our domestic politics and foreign policy, our philosophy and our psychology.” The war, Warren asserts, was fought to salvage the Union, the respect for which still beat “deep in many a Confederate breast” and the abolishment of slavery. These are each critical ideas to establish and paramount in placing the war in perspective.

America won the Civil War.

Not the Yankees.

Not the North.

The United States of America.

The same Army that helped win two World Wars and protects us today defeated an enemy intent on destroying the country that we honor before the kick-off of every football game from pee-wees to professionals, and in this victory, we vanquished a heathen system hell-bent on brutalizing our fellow human beings for their own economic gain. On these two facts, there is no room for honest debate.

Warren acknowledges that the war restored the Union and emancipated the slaves, yet “it did little or nothing to abolish racism.” Leaving us with a public discussion on how we free ourselves from the viscous legacy that in our imperious indignation we’ve collectively punched, kicked, and head-butted until we’ve mired ourselves in a befuddling trap.

A recent New York Times article, “Aging Parents with Lots of Stuff, and Children Who Don’t Want It,” focused on the issue of children dealing with their parents’ “competitive accumulation of material goods.” Like reluctant offspring trying to diplomatically tell their mothers they don’t want her Lenox china, Southerners have inherited Confederate memorials in public spaces that wouldn’t be erected today. Unfortunately, a hundred Jefferson Davis statues can’t be unloaded at an estate sale, and it fails to address the core of the dilemma:

Racism.

Not merely subtle colorism, institutional discrimination, or overt bigotry. It’s hate. It’s white supremacy. It’s racial terrorism.

Patrick Phillips’s Blood at the Root provides a chilling account of racial terrorism’s demonic evolution. A former resident of Forsyth County, Georgia, now a sprawling Metro Atlanta suburb, Phillips’s goal was to understand “the people of my home” and “to trace the origins of the ‘whites only’ world they fought so desperately to preserve.” From the forced removal of the indigenous Cherokee to the 1912 merciless purging of all blacks from the county to the 1987 attack on the Brotherhood March, Phillips details the county’s brutal and shameful heritage. It’s the resurfacing of this vitriol hatred in north Charleston and Charlottesville that all Americans should unite against.

These perplexing heirlooms can’t be dealt with by sharing cranky white dude memes or sneaking cranes in at midnight. Dr. Wayne Dyer, a renowned self-development author and speaker, said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” The beauty of this is that it works for statues and people.

At the base of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest chalet in the Austrian Alps is a museum. Nearly all vestiges of der Fuhrer have been stripped from the site to discourage neo-Nazis pilgrims. The various displays are designed for Germans to learn their recent history and to teach us all an invaluable lesson on the menace of a narcissistic cult gone mad. Dynamiting the face of Stone Mountain is problematic, but there’s merit to the establishment of a southern museum of African-American History and Culture at the site of the largest Confederate memorial in the world.

The little boy to whom “the (tar-baby) story had been told” asked Uncle Remus, “Did the Fox eat the Rabbit?”  Wise old Uncle Remus doesn’t answer the question conclusively, which is the tale’s resonant appeal. The resolution requires a willingness to turn away from what appears to separate us towards what binds us together. We must set aside our fears for the sake of hope. Compassion must be our legacy.