Deep Thoughts, Real Life

When is a guy on a horse not just a guy on a horse?

There are a lot of things I don’t know about. One of them is what it’s like to be black in the South. I can empathize as a human being, and I can generalize from my experiences as a woman, but when a cop pulls me over, my biggest fear is that my insurance rates are going to go up if I get a ticket.

But my grandparents lived in Nazi occupied Holland. My grandfather hid under the floorboards so he wouldn’t be taken to the work camps. The Nazi soldiers shot through the walls of my grandmother’s home when they came looking for hiding Jews. I didn’t find out until I was older that some of Oma’s family died in the concentration camps. When I asked her why she never told me that, she said, “We were lucky it wasn’t worse. Who am I to complain?”

There are no two sides to that.

ANyway. Fast forward a quarter century to Dallas, Texas. My mom didn’t come to the U.S. until she was in high school. That’s when she had her first American History class. All she really remembers about that class was the teacher introducing the unit on the Civil War by jumping out of the closet wrapped in the Confederate flag and shouting “The South shall rise again!”

Me, when she told me this: O.O

Mom: True story.

Me: I hope he had on more than just the flag.

Mom: Yes, but I always felt really icky about anything to do with the Civil War after that. (Pause) You know, it’s illegal in Europe to display the swastika or Nazi flag.

Me: Yeah, but we have this thing called the first amendment.

Mom: sigh I guess.

But despite this or because of this, even my mom (who didn’t remember much after the Rebel Flag Incident), asked me to explain the difference between a statue of Robert E. Lee and one of George Washington.

Me: pushes up nerd glasses I’m so glad you asked. Let ruin your morning and tell you about this thing called the Jim Crow laws…

Mom, who is no more racist than anyone else in her generation, nevertheless had no reason to doubt the misinformation that these Confederate monuments in question now were put up after the Civil War to honor the dead.

The immorality of slavery is not complicated. People and politics, though… Which brings us to Robert E. Lee.

Lee is this near mythic figure to people in the South—honorable, conflicted general, brilliant and heroic commander, reluctant to fight, but given no option when the North invaded Virginia. Some of that is probably true. What he was, really, was a complicated guy, full of contradictions. (Here’s an article from 2003 that’s trending on Smithsonianmag.com.)

Myth, reality, heritage, history… it’s completely irrelevant to the current discussion about Confederate monuments on public land.

When is a statue of a guy on a horse not just a guy on a horse?

It comes down to intent. The monuments that people are talking about aren’t heritage—they’re propaganda. They were erected to normalize racism and intimidate black people.

They were part of the post-Reconstruction blowback as the “white is right” crowd retook control of the legislatures in the ex-Confederate states and began to systematically dismantle the rights of blacks in every way they could.

These were called the Jim Crow laws and no one even pretended they weren’t meant to keep ex-slaves in their place. Say you’re an old, rich white guy and you don’t want black people to vote. First you pass a law that blacks and whites can’t go to school together. If the children of the ex-slaves aren’t where they can get to a black school, they don’t learn to read. And then you pass a law that requires you to take a literacy test in order to vote.

Boom. You’ve gotten around that pesky_ 15th Amendment_.

Now, at the beginning of the 20th century, the veterans of the Civil War are dying off, so you need to reinforce to their children that the war was noble and about protecting States Rights and not really about slavery. And while you’re spinning this myth, make sure to emphasize how much everything sucks since Abolition.

And so, monuments. I’m not saying people were primed for enlightenment. But this is the mood when a film called “Birth of a Nation” came out, causing a “revival” of the Ku Klux Klan.

And lynchings…you guys. So many lynchings. Thousands of black people killed in “extrajudicial” executions, without a trial, tortured, demeaned, and desecrated.

Mob “justice” was murder of Jews, Mexicans, Native Americans all over the country, but African Americans far and away suffered the most. It’s horrifying. But to turn away is to perpetuate denial.

This is why there can be no equivocation when it comes to hate speech and violence. None. Once someone murders a defenseless human being, the only sides are right and wrong. When you pile all your hate onto one group and then go around screaming and waving torches, that’s terrorism.

We need to recognize it for what it is, and we need to admit this is our problem. Those were Americans in Charlottesville. These hate groups live like roaches in the walls, just waiting for the conditions to be right for them to come out.

It’s up to us to make the house inhospitable to vermin. Don’t accept racist talk around you. Confront misinformation. Don’t let anyone give you shit about being politically correct when you’re simply being sensitive to somebody’s feelings. But most important, don’t turn the lights back off and pretend our house isn’t dirty.

The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference.

So, what did you do to promote love, tolerance, and diversity this week?

3 thoughts on “When is a guy on a horse not just a guy on a horse?”

  1. Wow! I never knew that about your mother’s family. Knowing somebody who lived through that kind of persecution puts the present in a new perspective.

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  2. Rosemary – This essay is excellent; informative, moving and beautifully told. The sad part is that those with the most urgent need to know the true facts about history will find ways to deny the truth. Confederate symbols, such as monuments, statues, and especially the rebel flag, have always made me cringe. What my response to all of it will be from now on finally came to me. I will ask: “Why would anyone with any sense of pride, or just plain common sense, want to display a symbol that, since the end of the Civil War and after all else that might be claimed, ultimately celebrates only one thing – YOU LOST?”

    BTW: Thanks for including the link to Smithsonian!

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