Thursday, August 17, 2017

Sorrow In The Land Of Cotton

As a man raised in the South, and who attended Robert E Lee and Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar High Schools, I can relate to the almost visceral admiration for General Lee. At the same time, however, I learned, long after graduation, how "the South" I was taught to revere was not the idyllic milieu that was presented in my classes.

I remember our third-grade Texas History textbook actually using the phrase "nigger slaves," and how, in the '50s, the use of the phrase didn't seem inappropriate. i remember not being shocked at the existence of "white only" drinking fountains, the sign announcing "colored entrance" to the cafe adjoining the bus station in Lufkin, Texas, and even one forbidding "colored people" from using the x-ray machine in the shoe store that showed how a pair of shoes fit. And I remember my high school graduating class of nearly a thousand people, all but a handful of which were white.

My time at college changed my perspective dramatically. I was shocked to learn of the atrocities that "colored" people endured under slavery, and that they still endured in East Texas in the late '60s. A good friend in college - who happened to be black - had to leave Nacogdoches with his white girlfriend out of fear for their lives. And Leon Russell had to flee his native Oklahoma, just because his wife, Mary, was black.
Fast forward to today, and I can see how the hate that drives the white supremacist movement is still as virulent as ever, and how the efforts to stem that hate are actually exacerbating it. I don't think the answer is to attempt to redact anything that was borne of an earlier period of our history. Destroying the symbols of hate won't eliminate the hate, any more than the pre-penicillin treatment of syphilis - cauterizing chancres - cured the disease. All we are doing is hiding the symptoms, while allowing the disease to fester.

I agree with the removal of monuments to the worst of our past, but think it more effective and less inflammatory to move them to museums than to just tear them down and destroy them. At the same time, we need to ensure that we are more honest in our reporting of history in our classrooms. As it turns out, my high school has been renamed and stripped of any association to General Lee. But my nostalgia for that mythical South is outweighed by my awareness that we need to not idolize our darkest times, for while there were countless acts of heroism on both sides during the Civil War, it was, in and of itself, certainly not a heroic effort. It was an ugly, horrific war, fought, as are most wars, for the least noble of reasons.

We won't eradicate racism, Nazism, and all the other ugly ism's in our lifetime. What we CAN and MUST do is put a halt to the violence, and commit to teaching our children (and their parents) that the nobility of war is an illusion. its deep flaws hidden behind grand statues, its anguished cries silenced by songs that praise death. We need to learn that our real enemies are our own ignorance and fears, and that the only way those enemies can be vanquished is by a commitment to a compassionate resolve that stops violence in its tracks, and builds upon a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We can do it. It will be slow, and will involve compromise, not of our deepest values, but in the way we share and impose those values. It is not a time for ideological purity, which is itself the breeding ground for intolerance. It is a time for honesty, for real strength, and for patience with each other. Because lacking any of these qualities, we condemn ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren to a world where fear and hate reign. We can and MUST do better.

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