I am from Texas, but I can’t recall ever having called myself a Texan.
I am from the United States of America, but I rarely identify as American.
One of the high-schools I attended was named after Robert E. Lee. While it was our mascot, I’ve never claimed to be a Rebel.
I was raised without patriotism and never wanted to embrace it. My lineage and birthplace are accidents of my birth. Still, the accidental nature of the life I was born into does not exempt me from examining history.
In junior high, I had a history teacher that taught me that history was really “HIS Story”. HIS being God. There was no need to explain which one. My teacher was clearly referring to the big white spirit guy in the sky. He also said that the Civil War wasn’t actually about slavery. Then we all watched Denzel Washington get whipped in Glory.
It was a weird class. I sat in the back, next to the first friend I made at that school. In fact, it was one of my favorite classes. The middle-aged, obviously Republican, leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, church-going, married with two kids, cis white man that taught it humored me.
Recently freed from religion, but also removed from all my friends, I was just beginning to form my own opinions about the world. I wasn’t an atheist; I called myself spiritual. I hadn’t thought at all about social justice, racism, or feminism. Yet, here was a man of authority with whom I naturally disagreed. I was fundamentally averse to all of the things he used his classroom as a pulpit to teach as fact. I wasn’t eloquent, but I called him out. I disrupted his class and he let me. We actually got along all right.
That was the last classroom in which I learned much of anything about the Civil War. World War I & II were duly covered, but the textbooks’ sections on the Civil War always seemed brief. If it hadn’t been for the fact that one of my high-school history teachers was actually a Vietnam veteran, I would have been taught from a textbook that thought that the near 20 year conflict deserved no more than three paragraphs.
Looking back, I realize that my formative thoughts about our planet and its history were entirely filtered through old white people, all but one of them men. How different those classes would have been under people of color, I can only imagine.
The absurdity of the fact that many of our streets and buildings were named after Confederate figures didn’t escape me as a teenager, but it didn’t make much of an impression either. As an adult, that’s changed.
While I attended Lee High, I dated a guy not-so-distantly related to Robert E. Lee. I have family members that have bought versions of the Confederate flag to wear and display. I have a diploma from an institution that took its name from a man that led the army that took up arms against its own nation.
I’ve heard it argued that these monikers are simply patriotic nods of the head celebrating American heroes. But how can that be? I may not be a patriot, but as I understand it, a patriot does not seek to disband their country. A patriot does not attack their brethren. A patriot does not enslave their fellow citizens. If not, what exactly is the point? Lee did not fight for the United States. He fought for the Confederate States. Thankfully, he was defeated.
He is not an American hero. It is neither heroic nor patriotic to revere his name or the symbol of the resistance he led. When his name, and the names of those that fought under him, are venerated as “heritage”, we are forgetting the nightmare of history — brother against brother, humans in chains, and a new country torn apart soon after its birth.
America is a country born of high ideals, ideals it has yet to live up to. We do not mindlessly look past swastikas. We do not name buildings after Gavrilo Princip. We do not build monuments to the leaders of the Apartheid. The signs of Jim Crow are locked in museums. Roads named after Martin Luther King Jr. should not share crosswalks with roads named after General Lee.
Yet, a 2011 poll showed that 10% of Americans have positive associations with the Confederate flag and 58% feel neither positively or negatively. 48% of Americans still regurgitate the line that the Civil War was about states’ rights.
It’s been 154 years. The last Civil War veteran died in 1956, less than 60 years ago. On the line of time, the Civil War has just happened. The ink of its history is only just now drying. Have we already forgotten? Has it already faded from reality to hazy nightmare, its effects still felt, but its meaning lost?
I am not a patriot. I am a humanist. No matter how we identify, it’s time to wake up and learn the lessons of our long night’s sleep.