Over the weekend, I attended the funeral of a woman whom I held in great honor and respect because, among many other things, she was the epitome of the best of the South in which I grew up—a genuinely welcoming soul to everyone I ever witnessed her interaction with. I was close enough to her in spirit to have sat with the family at the funeral service, but at the last minute, I chose not to. Instead I sat across the aisle from the family.
When I first sat down, I was alone on the end of the pew in the chapel where the service was to be held. But soon I was surrounded by a group of women dressed in colorful hats and uniforms with badges. It took me a moment to figure it out, but the group was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization in which the lady whose funeral it was had been an active member. Some years ago, she had become the formal or informal family archivist, as her son wrote in her obituary, and, to me, the most prominent item among the objects in her archive was a collection of letters written by an ancestor to his wife during the Civil War, on which the book Letters to Amanda was based. (It is co-written and annotated by Sam Hodges and Jeffrey Lowe, in case you’re interested in reading it, published by Mercer University Press).
The fact that my decision not to sit with the family had resulted in my being ensconced conspicuously bare-headed and badgeless amongst this colorful group struck me as humorous, but one family member thought it funny because of what she considered the irony, given the “liberal” things she has seen me post on Facebook before. I have to confess that that thought had not crossed my mind, mostly because I don’t consider what I post on Facebook as aligning with any political or other man-made group, and therefore not necessarily liberal or conservative. I am not the sum total of my opinions, mostly because they often change as new information is acquired, and although my views are dynamic, the basic principles I try to live by with respect to my fellow humans aren’t.
Granted, if you look at the political environment of the recent past, I understand why my view is seen as more liberal than conservative. There have been infinitely more opportunities for me to rebut the views of some “conservatives,” despite the fact that I consider other terms more accurately descriptive of some of those views. But, unless you’re stalking me (and free of confirmation bias), it is unlikely that you will have seen everything I post, and your assumptions about what I believe about things I haven’t written about are very likely skewed as a result.
But back to the Confederacy. In this sesquicentennial year of the march of Sherman through Atlanta, I have had reason to revisit a number of times the impact of the Civil War on my life and others of my geographic identity. Once again, arguments about states’ rights have reared their heads, this time with respect to voting procedures, same-sex marriages and learning standards.
I happen to have been born, raised and still reside in the southeastern United States. I am Southern through and through. I celebrate the fact that it is only in the South that people still pull their cars to the side of the road in honor of a passing funeral procession. It happened on Saturday even as we drove down a divided highway on the way to the cemetery, and at one turn, a man holding a sign for some sale in the strip shopping center behind him bowed his head as we passed. Excepting the gnats and mosquitoes, I’d much rather live in place that can’t justify buying a snow plow. There will never be anything to me that compares to the sound of crickets at dusk or the slamming of a wooden screen door or the melody of one-syllable words stretched into three. There will never be a more beautiful sight than a freshly plowed field of red clay mixed with beach sand from 10,000 years ago. Nothing will ever taste better than a watermelon straight from the field or peanuts boiled in brine. The history of almost 400 years is marrow in my bones.
But despite the fact that a glance at my personal ancestral history will find nothing but Confederate soldiers and sympathizers, including one who died at Gettysburg, I do not and will not swear my allegiance to the St. Andrew’s battle flag or the cause for which it stood. From 1957 when I was born to today in almost 2015, I have never been a Confederate American, an oxymoron if there’s ever been one. I am an American, period, who has spent a lifetime swearing my allegiance to a country in which people of character take credit for what they achieve and responsibility for the mistakes they make, ensuring that those mistakes are not continued. They make amends when they are proven wrong, even if the amends are simply the expression of compassion, the acknowledgment that another has been injured by something. They unite around the liberty of every citizen today, including the descendants of those enslaved or otherwise mistreated by members of their family trees, including those Americans interned during WWII and those whose reputations were besmirched by the likes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose perverse spirit seems curiously alive in some today.
I don’t know what my attitudes or opinions would have been if I’d been born in 1857 instead of a hundred years later in the burgeoning era of the civil rights movement. I don’t know what I’d feel if it had been my uncle and not my great-great-uncle who likely died in Pickett’s Charge. But that is not the world or the country into which I was born, and many things have transpired to affect my perspective, including culturally-imposed restrictions on my gender for no rational reason–not the least of which was the fact that by virtue of having been born with two X chromosomes, I was considered a freak to have a high aptitude for math and incapable of assuming the top responsibility of spiritual leadership in the church I spent the majority of my adolescence as part of. It was only natural, I suppose, that I identified more with those who were not only prevented from eating beside me in a restaurant or studying beside me in school because they were dark-skinned and I am of Anglo-Saxon-Celtic origin, but actually beaten, tortured or murdered for daring to try and change it.
Let me hasten to say that there is nothing about the United Daughters of the Confederacy that offends me, but I’m not a member. I’m not a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, either, though I qualify via several branches. I appreciate history for its ability to illuminate why certain decisions were made by certain people at certain times under certain conditions, and the clues for decision-making today that it brings, both in choosing paths and not choosing paths based on the triumphs and mistakes of those past. One of the perks of reading Letters to Amanda for me is in getting a little closer to what it might have felt like for that soldier to be so far from home for so long and what it might have felt like to, in this case, be one of those at home who would not only never see him again, but would be denied the opportunity to lay him to rest in a known location. It gives me an idea of what it must be like for those families with MIAs from WWII and Korea and Vietnam and the Near and Middle Eastern wars in which we have involved ourselves. External things have changed, but the hearts of humans have not.
One of those characteristics of the human heart means it is not impossible for me to suffer inconvenience or to accept changes, even if it requires me to give up some privilege I have grown used to but am not entitled to, especially if it is in support of the “common defense” or “general welfare” of every American, even those who subscribe to different or no religious beliefs, manifest different skin pigmentations and hair textures than mine, or have an IQ higher or lower.
It is not impossible for me to have an opinion or belief so far removed from another’s that I cannot conceive of how he came to have it, and yet be devoted to defending his right to have it, even while resisting his decidedly undemocratic intent to make laws that favor his view over that of others who don’t share it for equally valid reasons of their own.
It is not impossible for me to quietly honor in my heart the preachers and hard-scrabble farmers from which I received my DNA and their willingness to risk death for what they believed…and still state, absolutely and unequivocally, that they were 100% wrong, that no amount of economic dependence on cotton and tobacco would ever justify what they did to African men and women kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains to this land we occupied.
Now, that in no way suggests that I condone revenge-taking for wrongs committed. Nor does it suggest that I believe there should be reparations for slavery in any financial form. The idea of placing a dollar value on a human life based on what might have been in a world as unpredictable as ours is offensive to me, whether we’re talking about the opportunity costs of the centuries-long oppression of demographically-defined groups or damages in a wrongful death suit based on projected lifetime earnings. If God loves me so much that he knows every hair on my head, then he knows every hair on the head of every human who has ever graced this earth with his or her presence, and there is nothing—including the opinions of any other humans—that can separate him or me from that love, or raise or lower our value in the eyes of the only One who matters. As Jesus said, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” The sun shines on both, too. It’s the nature of life. The people to whom reparations might have been owed and the people who arguably might have owed them are long gone. And as Queen Elizabeth I once said, “The past cannot be cured.”
But the past can be studied, the accomplishments of our ancestors honored, and the mistakes they (and we) made acknowledged for what they are. And the future past—today—can be cured in advance.
If you think those views are liberal, so be it.