Many older Southerners, this one included, moved past the mythology and contrived mystique of the Confederacy a long time ago.
That advance was not automatic for kids growing up in North Carolina in the 1940s when blacks and whites lived in separate universes connected only by the bus routes that delivered black maids, nannies and yard men to and from white homes.
Change was incremental because the races did not talk to each other about the curtain that separated them. For the most part, whites weren’t interested in starting such a discussion and for the most part blacks were afraid to start it.
But change was in the air. World War II had something to do with it, I think, bringing into our formative years the ideas of a wider world beyond the insulated Old South, including the discovery that blacks and whites, even in separate units, could fight effectively against a common threat.
For youngsters, life in 1940s Dixie was full of contradictions and puzzlements.
• In some families, mine included, what has now become “the N word” was banned. While I walked to the nearby drug store with an aunt, we passed a uniformed maid at a bus stop. A polite and soft-spoken Duke University librarian, my aunt was commenting that I was growing up and soon could abandon short pants. She said, “Next year you can have knickers.” Shocked, I snapped “Shh! There’s one now!”
• In my all-white school our sixth grade music teacher pushed the anti-slavery if racistly ambiguous 19th century songs of Stephen Collins Foster, complete with the “darkie” dialect that Foster contrived. She also touted the work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), urging that we interest our mothers in its project of filling public spaces with statues of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, “lest we forget.”
Our current national debate over the propriety of displaying those hundreds of symbols is itself full of contradictions and puzzlements.
Even “Silent Sam,” a statue of an anonymous young confederate soldier standing prominently next to the Franklin Street entrance to the University of North Carolina (courtesy of the UDC) is under threat. For many Tar Heel undergraduates of the post-WWII era, Sam didn’t symbolize nostalgia for past conflict; the controlling narrative and standing joke was that every time a virgin walked by, “Silent Sam” fired his rifle. Now the statue is again taken as symbolic of something beyond undergraduate frivolity, and UNC is under pressure to remove it.
Symbols are easier to destroy than — and should not be mistaken for — their underlying truths. Destroying them is a poor, if sometimes temporarily satisfying, substitute for doing the real work of repairing the fractures in our social structure that they represent.
And there’s fracturing to make up for on all sides. Think John Brown, whose 10-foot-high figure dominates John Steuart Curry’s 33-foot mural that itself dominates the Kansas State Capitol rotunda.
Brown, Bible in his left hand, rifle in the his right, stands astride the bodies of two men. By today’s standards, his raids and murders in the name of abolition would easily qualify as terrorism. He was hanged for leading a bloody raid on the Harper’s Ferry, Va., federal armory, having been captured by a company of U.S. Marines commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee.
History’s contradictions and puzzlements are endless.
Davis Merritt, Wichita journalist and author, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.