Take Them Down

By Juanita Giles, founder of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival.

This is a guest post, originally written as a Facebook status by Juanita Giles. I share it with her permission.

One would be hard-pressed to find someone more tied to the Confederacy than I am. My great-great grandfather, Thomas Taylor Pettus, was a Captain in Co.B, 34th Va.Inf.Regt.-CSA, who lost his left leg to a miniball at the Battle of High Bridge. His father was the largest slaveholder in Mecklenburg County. His wife, Mary Eliza Whittle Puryear, had two brothers, one, Alexander, was sent to Alabama (where he became Emmitt Smith’s great-great-great grandfather), to run a plantation because he was too violent to stay home. Mary Eliza’s great-uncle, William Puryear, had moved from Mecklenburg County to Jackson County, Georgia (later Clarke County) in 1793, where he was killed by his slaves before the end of the century.

And me? I live on a large farm, the remnants of a plantation, in a house built by the first white man to settle in what is now Charlotte County, and my bedroom window faces a slave cemetery that lies in a grove of hardwoods just across the drive. As a child, my class would go to the Confederate Cemetery on Memorial Day and sing “Dixie” and “Goober Peas.” In middle school, the Civil War was referred to as “The War of Northern Aggression.” When I was a senior in high school, I had my superlative picture taken at the Confederate statue in Farmville. In college, I often wore a Hampden-Sydney College t-shirt that had the flags of the Confederate states emblazoned on the back. As an adult, I kept a portrait of Robert E. Lee on my mantle.

And now I want his statues to come down.

For the majority of my life it never occurred to me that the everyday reality of the Confederacy was offensive or wrong or desperate. I never thought about what those songs, those portraits, those statues, meant to anyone but me, a daughter of the South. Even as I marched against Apartheid as a middle-school student, I didn’t think about it. Even as my circle of friends grew to include people of color, I didn’t think about it. Even as I campaigned for Bill Clinton, and later Barack Obama, I didn’t think about it. I am ashamed I didn’t think about it.

I didn’t think about it then, but now I am thinking about it a lot now.

I am thinking that my not thinking about it before comes solely from a place of white privilege. There is no other explanation. If it’s not white privilege to erect statues to men that fought on the side of slaveholders, I don’t know what is. If it’s not white privilege to incorporate those monuments into the fabric of everyday life, I don’t know what is. If it’s not white privilege for a liberal, like myself, to fight for equality but never give those statues a second thought, I don’t know what is. If it’s not white privilege to cling to the myth of a benevolent slaveholder, I don’t know what is.

And I’m thinking about more than that. I’m thinking about what a conundrum it is to be Southern, especially a Southerner that loves her home, her commonwealth, and her region. I’m thinking about how that love informs the need to cling to the myths of the gentile Robert E. Lee, how we Southerners need heroes of our own, and will tell ourselves as many lies as necessary to keep them.

The South is a poor region and has been for a long time. We have the lowest educational attainment in the United States, the shortest life expectancies, the highest poverty, and the most obesity. Long before the Civil War, inequality reigned in the South, and despite the powerful landowners in government, the majority of whites did not live on plantations or have a vote. It was an agricultural society at its most toxic, and after the War, that long-standing inequality gave rise to a culture of white nationalism, because losers still have to feel they are better than somebody. That white nationalism didn’t just birth the KKK, but also a different kind of Southerner, one that decided to take race out of the narrative, to deny the truth of what had happened and was happening here, one that, like me, believed in equality and justice, but kept a portrait of Robert E. Lee on the mantle. That white nationalism birthed a lie that “liberal” Southerners like me clung to desperately.

Why did I believe the lie? Why did I need to? Was it because it was all around me? That it was a given? Was it because as a Southerner I felt superior? Because I felt inferior? Was it because the shame was too hard to bear? Was it because questioning the lie was too hard? Was it because the lie was never challenged? Was it because I didn’t know it was a lie?

In truth, I think it was all those things, but the root of it is that I believed the lie because I could. The half of me that is white gave me that option. It gave me the option of not facing the shame, the responsibility. It gave me the option to not see the truth, because the truth is a horror. The truth makes me culpable and complicit, and brings a level of complexity to my life that I don’t know how to resolve.

But my being able to find resolution is not what’s important, and believing it is is just another benefit of white privilege. Recognizing the lie for what it is, and acknowledging the immense pain and suffering it has caused and is causing is far more important than any complicated feelings I may have for Captain T.T. Pettus. Laying waste to the myths that have made it possible for me to never THINK is more important than any misplaced Southern pride. Because humanity is more important. Because people are more important. Because yes, black lives matter. They matter more than any lie, any myth, any statue, any monument. They matter.

They matter more than any lie I ever told myself.

Take the statues down.

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
― Søren Kierkegaard


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