Heritage. A small word packed with the breadth and depth of many meanings. It represents multiple ancestral lives, people with many backgrounds and experiences melding into one resultant individual. It includes stories from times past, often with little regard for accuracy. It is a hand-me-down litany of beliefs, conclusions, and “truths.” It nourishes, if not inflames, old wounds, unresolved grudges, bitter animosities. It glorifies that which has been ennobled – from the vantage point of the ennobler. It evolves from legacy into the cornerstone of one’s culture.
“Our Heritage” provides a bulwark against attempts to tell an old story through contemporary eyes. When difficult questions are asked of us about our view and understanding of past times, or how those past times reemerge in our current life, “It’s Our Heritage” neatly obviates a need to answer rationally or from one’s own fresh critical self-analysis. The past simply remains frozen in time, unmoving, unchanging, unassailable. As a result, WE remain frozen in time, unmoving, unchanging, our perceptions unassailable.
Nowhere is this idea of heritage more visible than with Southern Culture. It is an idea, an institution, currently under great scrutiny during this latest struggle over racial equality and justice, particularly as regards the African-American community. While virtually every ethnic group in America (except for the English) can point to a legacy of discrimination and intolerance in their American heritage, African-American heritage holds a special distinction in their story. Unlike other immigrants, African-Americans came here involuntarily – by kidnapping and thereafter into the bondage of slavery. 245 years of the structural buying and selling of them as merely “property” was followed by 155 years (so far) of de facto continued enslavement and 2nd-class citizenship. This is a current reality that needs to be, must be, changed. But “It’s Our Heritage” is one of the biggest obstacles to making that change.
A pause for full disclosure. I am a white Southerner by birth and my first two decades of upbringing. (I am now finishing off my last decades relocated back in the South.) I was born into a family and culture steeped in the Old South, including the Daughters and Children of the Confederacy organizations. It was a culture that operated within the “legal” Jim Crow restrictions and separation pervasive in those times. All the while, I was virtually oblivious to the racial segregation which surrounded me; “it was just the way things are.” I asked no questions, while my eyes (and mind) were shielded from what was standing right in front of me.
I was a voracious student of Civil War history in my youth. Like any good Southerner, I came to idolize the names and places and artifacts of that War – “the heroic war to defend the right of our state and its (white) people to live without outside interference (i.e. ‘Northerners’).” The destruction of that way of life by that war, combined with the forced redefinition of the South’s legal, political and economic structures, was a bitter pill to swallow. So when the hated ten years of Reconstruction ended, and the opportunity then presented itself, everything was moved back to the way it had been. Slavery was effectively reinstituted by disguised legal barriers, social isolation, educational disadvantage, and economic exploitation. To make this restoration of ante-bellum Southern life truly work, though, required “justifying” – i.e. ennobling – the War. And the way to do that was to ennoble not the War, but the men who fought in it: “the patriots” – the husbands, sons and brothers of Southern families – who gave of themselves in service to their state and family. And so the statues and shrines went up across the South to honor “the men,” rather than slavery and the slaves, emblazoned with the adornment “Lest We Forget.” The statues served to cover over the continuing horror and maltreatment of Jim Crow domination of the “freed” slaves.
My great-great-grandfather was one of those ennobled heroes. As a teenager from Tennessee, a non-owner of slaves, he likely enlisted more out of peer pressure than a real conviction on his part. Nevertheless, he saw the War to its end, and I have no doubt that he fought valiantly and served honorably. After the War, he became owner of a general store, raised a large family, and ultimately wound up in California – a normal, unremarkable life far away from the War and its legacy. Samuel Carroll Lee is part of my personal and Southern heritage, and I honor his legacy as part of the family ancestry that created me. But that does not require me to honor the Cause that he fought for. It was the wrong Cause to fight. It is today the wrong heritage to honor and celebrate.
The South lost the Civil War. As it should have, as it was destined to do. Yes, there was a legal and philosophical argument about the rights of the States versus the Federal government. But men do not go to war over philosophical arguments. They go to war over power and wealth. Slavery represented Southern wealth. The South lost the war due to Northern over-powering manpower and armaments, and the lack of the right side of a moral and patriotic justification. Human slavery is a reprehensible concept, and the fact that it existed in world history for thousands of years did not justify it in America in 1860. It is an institution that cried out for redressing in the evolution of human civilization, and America was unforgivably one of the last to let it go.
My great-great-great-grandfather David Baggerly, Jr. from North Carolina also fought in a war as a teenager – the American Revolution that created this great Nation. However one might try to dress it up, Samuel Carroll Lee fought to undo David’s work, and to split this country into two parts. There is a word for the action of a citizen who wages war against our Nation: Treason. However right he thought it to be at the time, whatever was the call from his community, if one takes up arms against these United States we would appropriately charge them with treason, and/or designate them as an internal terrorist. I may feel compassion towards my ancestor(s) for doing what he thought was right at the moment, but he was wrong. And the consequence of his wrong-ness is not to ennoble him for that wrong, but to de-glorify his decision. Which means de-glorifying the statues and memorabilia we have erected and perpetuated over the last 155 years.
As history has shown us, great things can happen when a defeated country separates from its wartime misadventure and begins its future anew (e.g. post-WWII Japan and Germany), rather than stagnates in “what was.” It is long past due that we Southerners move on from the stranglehold that “It’s Our Heritage” has trapped us under. “It’s Our Heritage” freezes us into a time and circumstance that is long past. That freezing prevents us from seeing the Truth of the past, and embracing the legal, social and moral demands of the present. There is a reconciliation with some of our fellow citizens that is right to do, and long overdue to do. We need to consign the past to the museums and halls of study where it belongs, that we might learn from our past, but not relive it. Honor our heritage not by what we may have believed was right yesterday, but by doing what is right today. We do this because it is right for African-Americans to finally participate fully in the Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness to which they have long been entitled. We also do this for us, because it is right to finally free ourselves from our own self-imposed enslavement to the burden of “Our Heritage.” We would do so in order that we may move forward and achieve the best of who we are. This is how I choose to honor my ancestor, Samuel Carroll Lee, in the true reality of the year of 2020.
(If interested in an additional relevant reading, click on this link for my previous blog essay “Assessing A Life Lived,” November 12, 2017.)
© 2020 Randy Bell https://ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com