by fugitive ink
This article first appeared as a guest post at Mars Hill, Paul Burgin’s excellent blog.
Although I’m British now, I was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the American South, and I lived there until I went off to college in 1984.
Raleigh wasn’t a bad place to grow up, at least for someone like me. Still a slightly sleepy, genteel place then, its wide streets shaded by mature trees and, downtown at least, blessed with plenty of handsome antebellum houses, the old-fashioned southern charm was constantly undercut, before it had the chance to grow cloying, by more bracing influences: three first-rate universities all within a short distance of each other, for instance, and the presence of something called the Research Triangle Park, home to forward-looking enterprises such as IBM and various pharmaceutical companies. As a result, the Raleigh of my childhood attracted intelligent, hard-working people not only from around the USA, but also much further afield. My tiny, Episcopal Church-run school placed me side by side with children whose parents had come from Egypt, Iran, Vietnam. Although it was a church school, I grew up with Muslims, Jews, Catholics, protestants of every possible persuasion and even the odd out-and-proud atheist. The universities also ensured that we had more than our fair share of high culture: a very good art museum, as well as concerts and theatre performances from world-famous groups. A thriving farmers’ market co-existed with shops where it was possible to buy Thai shrimp paste.
The reason I am spelling this out is that I don’t want you to get the notion that the Raleigh of the 1970s and early 80s was some sort of redneck backwater wherein good ole boys sat around pickin’ their banjos and swilling moonshine on the front porch all day. In our household, anyway, a recording of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony and a glass of reasonable chablis would have been more like it. And we didn’t even have a proper front porch.
Of course, there were plenty of places in North Carolina, in the South more generally, that weren’t like that. When my parents had decided to move from Kentucky (via Ohio) to the South in the early 1960s, they very consciously sought out a location that wasn’t conspicuously full of idiot racists. The civil rights movement, which was starting to achieve some important successes, had made unhappy truths about Deep South places like Alabama and Mississippi all too evident. So my parents — university-educated white people, politically active within the Democratic Party and priding themselves on their progressive attitudes regarding race — made their new home in Raleigh. It wasn’t perfect, but even in terms of race relations, the general perception was that it could have been a whole lot worse.
Raleigh is North Carolina’s state capital. My mother worked downtown, first as director the National Association of Attorneys General, then later for the NC District Attorneys’ Association. One consequence of this was that I ended up spending a lot of time hanging around the state government buildings.
Of these buildings, by far the most significant was the Capitol itself. Erected between 1833 and 1840 in an austere Greek Revival idiom, rather small and elegant by current standards, it was set off by itself on a square of green lawn dotted with elderly trees, paved paths and quite a few statues. Unsurprisingly, three of these commemorated the presidents that North Carolina has contributed to our national life — all of whom, oddly, were living in Tennessee at the moment of their elevation to the presidency. Other statues evoked the memory of various North Carolinians deemed to have achieved useful things. Also, there were war memorials.
Three of the war memorials related directly to the American Civil War. The first was a memorial to Henry Lawson Wyatt, the first Confederate soldier to die in battle in the Civil War. A private in the Confederate Army, he was killed at the Battle of Big Bethel in Virginia on June 10, 1861, as his brigade attacked Union troops. The second was a more general memorial to the women of the Confederacy, erected in 1914. There is a photo of it here.
As a child I particularly liked this monument, because while it depicted an older lady holding an open book, the main focus was, in fact, on a child — a little boy handling a sword and looking thoughtful.
Finally — far and away the most prominent, towering in front of the main approach to the Capitol Building, assertive, even intimidating — there was a monument to the North Carolina Confederate dead. This is how the NC Historic Sites website — a state government body — describes the structure now, in 2017:
“Confederate Monument — This monument is in remembrance of North Carolina’s Confederate dead (nearly one quarter of all Confederate deaths were from North Carolina). The three statues on the monument represent Confederate infantry, cavalry, and artillery soldiers. The inscription, ‘First at Bethel – Last at Appomatox’, represents the forwardness and tenacity of North Carolina’s soldiers during the Civil War.”
As a child, I took this thing for granted. It was simply part of the Capitol grounds and I never thought much about it. It is only now that I am learning anything about its history.
The memorial, it turns out, was unveiled in 1895, at the stratospheric cost of $22,000. It was funded not by donations, but with public money, which enfuriated some opposition politicians — Republicans, mostly — even at the time. You can look at a photo of it here.
Apparently the News & Observer, now a perfectly respectable regional newspaper but at the time very much a creature of the locally hegemonic Democratic Party and fully signed up to its explicitly racist rhetoric, celebrated the creation of the memorial with the headline ‘The City Still Ours … No Negro Rule in Raleigh‘.
So much, then, for the notion that this memorial was, and is, primarily about remembrance, rather than racism per se.
* * *
I was born exactly one hundred years after the Civil War ended. Yet even when I was growing up, in the 1960s and 70s, there was a strong sense of unfinished business about the whole situation.
On one hand, the Union had clearly won that terrible, bloody, famously tragic war. People had long since stopped treating ‘the United States’ as a plural and now regarded it as resolutely singular. Slavery had been abolished. The state Capitol, mentioned above, sat in Union Square, with the Stars and Stripes flying above it. At school, we sang the national anthem, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance — something my British friends find bizarre, but which seemed to us the most ordinary activity imaginable. We celebrated the Fourth of July with picnics, patriotic music and fireworks. We were proud of the US armed forces. We rallied round heroes like Superman, with his explicit support for ‘truth, justice and the American Way’, because we were pretty sure that ‘American Way’ only meant very good things. We were, in short, Americans.
Yet despite that, in my largely white, superficially liberal and unquestionably patriotic world, you didn’t have to scratch the surface very hard to find a thick substratum of pro-Confederate feeling. It was everywhere. There was a general feeling that Southerners were different, and what defined the difference? The not-very-distant Civil War, of course.
Although we sang the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ at school, we also sang ‘Dixie’ — some of us expressing considerably more enthusiasm for one than the other. The flag of the Confederacy popped up everywhere, from the Dukes of Hazzard to — well, we’ll get to that one in a moment. Although membership of the Daughters of the American Revolution was considered smart, membership of the Daughters of the Confederacy was, if anything, considered smarter. Plenty of things, and indeed people, were named after Confederate luminaries such as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. For instance, I had a friend whose mother rejoiced in the given name of Pickett, demonstrating to all the world that she was a descendant of George Pickett, whose spectacularly unsuccessful charge at Gettysburg was the subject of intense if in some ways inexplicable family pride.
It went deeper, too. Near the end of my time in Raleigh, I had a summer job at the state legislature, where I worked for a state senator — a Democrat, obviously, because at the time, virtually any NC politician of any consequence was a Democrat — who ran a particularly influential committee. The senator had better remain nameless. He, in turn, relied heavily on a lawyer, lobbyist and all-around political fixer whom we’ll call, for the sake of argument, John. Tall, glamorous, profane, sharp-witted and extremely funny, John walked with a terrible limp; rumour had it that he’d been blown up during his time in Vietnam, most likely by his own men. Yet there was something about his blend of cynicism and wholehearted conviction that was incredibly attractive. I had a lot of time for him. Anyway, one day we were sitting around in some over-air-conditioned anodyne conference room, probably waiting for the senator to emerge from something, and talking politics, because that’s all John did. I had been rash enough to hazard to idea that in the fullness of time, what with Reagan and everything, moderate conservatives even in places like North Carolina might eventually, perhaps, consider voting Republican.
‘Republican!’ I can almost hear John’s incredulous, langorous drawl right now. ‘Republican? Ain’t no one here gonna vote Republican. Them’s the folks that burned us out in ’65!’
To this day I have no idea whether he was serious, but then that was the thing about so much of the cultural memory of the Civil War during the years of my youth — you could always, to use the language of another time, pass it off as banter, or irony, or something similarly unproblematic, so you didn’t have to think about any of it very clearly.
* * *
There were several things that I could never, under any circumstances, have admitted openly to John. The first, clearly, was that I quite liked him, to the extent that an unworldly teenage girl can like a 50-something superstar lobbyist and master of the darker political arts. But it would have been equally impossible to admit to him that my own forefathers, rather than getting burned out in ’65, had been the ones doing the burning — my great-great-grandfather had, quite literally, marched with General Sherman. Also, there was one lunch-hour wherein I sneaked out, not to my usual sandwich bar, but to the Board of Elections, because I had come to the conclusion, after a year or so studying at Amherst College up in Massachusetts, that I really was a Republican, not a Democrat at all. John was perhaps better off not knowing about that one, either.
Some of my school friends were well aware of my socially awkward links with General Sherman. There was a stage, when we were all about 12 years old, when one friend, quite a Confederate stalwart, had taken to handing around a dog-eared photocopy of an article about Andersonville Prison. For those of you who don’t know, Andersonville was a Union-run prison — well, more or less a concentration camp — in which Confederate prisoners of war were subjected to appalling conditions. Of the 45,000 men imprisoned there, nearly 13,000 died. After the war, the Union officer in charge of the camp was found guilty of war crimes and executed. Anyway, at the time I knew little if anything about Andersonville, so the slightly grimy, almost samizdat article, shared secretly in the school playing-fields, was a revelation. I can remember, quite clearly, apologising very gravely to my friend for whatever part my family might have played in this atrocity, and can also remember the grave, friendly generosity with which my apology was accepted. Even in the 1970s, being a ‘Yankee’ in the South could feel distinctly uncomfortable.
Sometimes, while driving to the coast, I’d sing with my mother ‘As We Were Marching Through Georgia’. It felt like a rebel song, which was quite ironic really, because it was actually a song about fighting rebels.
Hurrah! Hurrah! we bring the jubilee!
Hurrah! Hurrah! the fight that made men free!
And so we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea
As we were marching through Georgia.
Yet as always, life is more complicated than that, because while one side of my family was burning its way through the Southern heartland, there was another side who, right up until the Ohio Compromise made it impossible, owned slaves. There were family members who, at least according to legend, had started the war supporting the Union, but who had been so affronted by the behaviour of the Union army that, on the eve of Union victory, they switched sides and threw their lot with the Confederacy. (Anyone who knows me will not be surprised by this.)
Music was complicated. As a child, one song I dearly loved was The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. The version I knew was that sung by Joan Baez. Evidently, I remember it from 1971, when I was five years old. It was odd, that song, because the person singing it was clearly a woman — a Yankee, at that — but she refers to herself in it as a man, with a wife, so that was paradoxical. Also, it had a rather celebratory tone. Yet in it, the singer is also clearly situated as an American Southerner — well, actually, a Confederate soldier. What was one to make of that?
“It was a time I remember oh so well …”
(Odi et amo. quare id faciam fortasse requiris? nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.)
Also — while we are in confessional mode — there was a song that turned up in 1974, when I was about eight years old, called ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. I rather liked it, because it’s quite a catchy song — oh, come on, the guitar line is hard not to like, surely? — even though I was aware, even then, that it carried an approving reference to a segregationist politician whom my parents didn’t much admire, as well as an archly dismissive reference to Watergate: ‘It does not bother me. Does your conscience bother you?’ Whereas my mother, at least as legend had it, was on some sort of Nixonian blacklist. So that, too, was a problem.
And then there’s the lingering worry that a Maryland slave trader, who shared a surname with some Maryland relatives of mine in the 18th century, is somehow a kinsman of mine. He was quite a ‘successful’ slave trader, too, whose entrepreneurial efforts must have shattered literally thousands of lives. When I was briefly in Guyana — a place very much tied up with this slave trader’s ventures — his bitter memory literally haunted me. But in a way, of course, it hardly matters whether he and I are literally related, because my whole world, as a white person who has lived in the US and the UK, is in some sense a legacy of slavery. We are all guilty. None of us is guilty. Apologies don’t help much, but it seems wrong not to make them anyway. It is all really, really complicated.
* * *
When I was growing up in Raleigh, I am pretty sure that it is right to say that on Confederate Memorial Day — because there really was such a thing, apparently even now observed as a public holiday in some US states — the Dixie flag, the flag of the Confederacy, the rebel flag, used to fly over the state Capitol building.
My mother, not a Southerner by birth, was rather bemused by this. Her objection was that flying the Dixie flag was disrespectful to men who had died fighting for the Union. So the problem, really, hinged on the feelings of white people. Did anyone even raise the issue of what black people might or might not have thought about the flag of a racist regime, that had enslaved and murdered millions of their forebears, flying over their state buildings? Perhaps someone did. But if so, they didn’t do it within my hearing. Mostly, it just seemed a normal part of everyday life, along with buildings named after Robert E. Lee and a sticky residue of de facto segregation and ingrained racial disadvantage.
There was also, it is worth noting, no particular narrative at the time — or at least none that I appreciated — identifying these Civil War memorials with the early years of the twentieth century, a retrenchment of segregation, Jim Crow laws and lynching, yet more of the ongoing politicised attempts to deprive black Americans of their clear-cut constitutional rights. I only add this because recent commentary on Confederate memorials has made clear that virtually all of them were a product of this sort of explicitly racist, segregationist programme. Knowing that this is the case, the continued presence of these memorials becomes yet more unacceptable. My point, though, is that this reading of them wasn’t an obvious one, at least to a white person, in the 1970s and 80s. With hindsight, we should have been more curious. We should have asked more questions. But we did not.
What, then, did I think of those Confederate memorials, back when I was growing up? Honesty is hard at the best of times, but over the distance of decades, it becomes virtually impossible. Did I recognise them as what they now seem to be: monuments to racism, the granite-and-bronze equivalent of a locally famous sign that, until as late as the 1970s, announced to all potential visitors ‘Maysville, NC. Niggers keep out’?
In truth, I did not read the memorials this way, although I’m now aware that others must have experienced them very differently.
For me, personally, Confederate memorials meant two things.
One was about ancestor-worship. Most of my friends had kinsmen who had fought for the Confederacy — very often, they could name these ancestors, share their stories and felt very proud of what they viewed as laudable courage and resolution. Well, I could understand this, because while I sometimes felt guilty or sad about things my own ancestors might or might not have done, I also — at the same time, in fact — felt very proud of them.
It takes nerve to go off to war, to surge forward at the bugle’s awkward throaty croak, to die for something important. My own great-great-great uncle had died in an infantry charge at Missionary Ridge, in Tennessee. My family still had his diary. I used to spend a lot of time dreaming over its pencil-smudged pages. He was young, drew well, got ill from eating green corn, missed home and was killed by a single bullet — ‘supposed to have died instantly’, someone had written onto one of the later pages of the diary, in what was surely meant as a consoling coda.
His younger brother had joined the Union army too, grossly underage. The first time he tried this, he was sent back. The second time, the recruiters were more desperate and turned a blind eye. On the night that his brother was killed, my great-great grandfather lay out on the same field, badly wounded, staring at the stars. I used to wonder whether, if circumstances had been different, I’d have been brave enough to do any of that. I suspect my Southern friends had similar thoughts, broadly untroubled by the issue of whether their ancestors had suffered and died in the service of a wretched, unworthy cause, because that isn’t really how most people are brought up to think about their ancestors.
Perhaps this is why, as a child, I had one further reaction to the Confederate memorials — one of deep sadness.
Growing up, I genuinely came away with the impression that the American Civil War was, in a literal sense, tragic. Never mind that the right side won, that slavery was abolished, that the Union was reaffirmed. This was, after all, a war where brother fought against brother. Something like two percent of the population of the US died as a result of the war. If this were scaled up to match today’s population, it would mean the deaths of six million people. Nor does that statistic include the long-term disabled in body or mind, the lives disrupted or disordered, the massive destruction of infrastructure and economic potential.
So when people suggest, today, that the Confederate memorials ‘celebrate’ the Confederacy, although I can certainly see why that interpretation rings true for them, it simply isn’t the way the memorials felt to me when I was growing up amongst them. To me, anyway, there was always a sense of ‘never again’ lingering about them. They were there to remind us of death, so we would never again be so casual about secession, rebellion, civil war. They were there to mark how far we had come, and how glad we should be about having covered that distance, and how vital it was for all our sakes that we never found cause to tread that blood-mired track again.
* * *
Is there anything as empty, as guileless and innocent as a symbol?
Symbols do not, after all, mean anything in themselves. They function because people use whatever culture, experience and personal inclination have taught them in order to invest the symbol with intelligible meaning. Most sane people, for instance, recoil at the sight of a swastika — but it’s not that hard to imagine an archaeologist finding one three thousand years hence, having no idea what it ever stood for, and hence having no particular reaction to it whatsoever.
If you don’t believe me, go to the British Museum, wander through the galleries related to a civilisation about which you know very little, and see how far you get trying to interpret the various objects without any guidance. Is that figure a god, a leader, a famous athlete, or just a person? What do those marks mean? Someone obviously went to a lot of trouble making and burnishing a stone disc, but why?
At a basic level, then, Confederate memorials mean nothing at all. But then they also mean any number of things, which change all the time. And this, really, is the serious problem with them right now.
A few weeks ago, from the cosy, familiar vantage-point of my kitchen in rural Norfolk, I watched on my iPhone as students in Durham, North Carolina — a city only a very short distance from Raleigh — tore down a statue of a Confederate soldier and stamped on what was left of it. This was very soon after the grotesque events, culminating in murder, which took place in Charlottesville, Virginia.
As someone who used to know the South, I watched the news from Charlottesville with a mixture of horror and incredulity. Since when was it considered patriotic to wear Nazi symbols? When I was growing up, most adults — older parents, all grandparents — had lived through a war in which defeating the Nazis was, pretty obviously, a major priority. And why did these ugly men, their faces contorted into masks of stupidity and rage, get the notion that being born white was such a spectacular achievement? What exactly is wrong with these people?
Oh, I know there are answers — Breitbart, 4chan, that cankered monster Bannon, Trump himself — but I suppose what I really wanted to know was more basic. When I was growing up, it genuinely seemed to me that things were getting better, especially with regard to race. During my own lifetime, segregation had notionally been abolished, people of colour were in positions of authority that would have been unthinkable in the year of my birth — there has even been a US president who defines himself as black. So why does it seem, now, that things are getting so much worse again?
Having grown up in the South, I was never starry-eyed about the progress of the civil rights movement. True, segregation had gone — but there are still plenty of spaces that look awfully white or awfully black, just as there are in the UK, which rather suggests that formidable bars to access or achievement still exist for black people.
My own Episcopal, private school was proudly desegregated — it was actually one of two Episcopal schools in Raleigh, our headmaster having broken away over the issue of segregation — but it was still overwhelmingly white. For the last two years of high school, I had decamped to a large state school. Here, the classes where setting by ability was in place tended to look rather colour-coded, too, with few black students in the higher-ability classes. At lunch, black students sat at one end of the dining hall, white students at the other. Friendships formed across racial distinctions could feel fragile, fraught with ignorance or accidental hurt.
Barriers were still very real. I remember, for instance, a boy who was at senior high school with me. He and I had a nice, jokey, playful sort of acquaintance. We were a study in contrasts, really, because while I was a bookish girl who got straight As and wrote pretentious poetry for fun, he was a football superstar in a school where football was taken very seriously indeed, but that contrast was probably one reason why we got on so well. He was also, not to put too fine a point on it, really attractive. I liked his voice, his laugh and his sweet sense of humour. But of course the other reason why we could flirt so casually and happily was that, as he was black and I was white, there was literally no danger that we could ever even think of going out with each other. No danger at all. Indeed, at high school, the only inter-racial couple I knew about were two gay men, who were, frankly, a lot braver in all sorts of ways than most of us could ever hope to be.
I also remember, all too well, one Saturday when a dozen of my fellow students were due to turn up at my house. We were all members of something called the Honour Society — a group selected by our teachers on the basis of academic and otherwise laudable achievement, which was probably exactly as excruciatingly smug as it sounds — and we were preparing materials to induct the next batch of students at an assembly the following week. One boy, though, was rather late in arriving. A soft-spoken, extremely polite, actually rather fogeyish young man, he was the son and grandson of highly successful lawyers. It was unlike him not to be punctual. When he finally turned up, he explained mildly to my mother and me that he had been stopped by a police patrol while walking from the bus stop to our house.
His crime? He was, as you’ll have perhaps guessed by now, a black youth, walking through a white neighbourhood. This story took place not in 1963, but in 1983. Our local country club only accepted its first black member in 2013. So when some people saluted the election of Barack Obama as a sign that America’s race troubles were somehow ‘over’, this seemed slightly optimistic.
Still, despite all of this, when I was growing up there was a definite sense that America was changing for the better. Things were bad, but they had turned a corner. The day would come when race would hardly matter to anyone. We just had to be patient. Optimism regarding the future is, or used to be, a very American trait. For a long time when I looked at race in America I saw it through that filter. Perhaps this is something that comes easily to white, liberal, privileged Americans. Perhaps the optimism was yet another luxury that made our life in the South the comfortable thing it so often was.
Be that as it may, however, watching the scenes from Charlottesville the other day, I found myself looking around for that sense of optimism, and wasn’t entirely surprised when I discovered that it was nowhere to be found.
* * *
I still keep up with some of my old friends from school via social media.
Most of the time, this simply involves admiring an old pal’s delightful ginger cat, agreeable dogs and myriad culinary triumphs; wishing it were possible to buy decent sweet onions or properly ripe tomatoes in the UK; smiling wryly at the fact that our various children are now mostly older than we were when we were last at school together; occasionally offering consolation when something bad happens, but more often, celebrating achievements or exchanging whimsical memories.
Charlottesville, though, like the election of Trump before it, sent a tremor through this largely happy, friendly and probably lightly fictionalised little world.
Before you ask, it’s not that there are any KKK enthusiasts or Stormfront stalwarts on my Facebook feed — but neither are there any black North Carolinians. Judge me if you like, but the sad reality is that informal segregation has worked its baleful magic in ensuring that my pool of childhood friends, at least as currently represented in social media, is lily-white. As it was, though, even these white friends showed a startling variety of responses to the events in Charlottesville and Durham. Odder still, and much worse, was the note of shrillness that appeared out of nowhere.
Not everyone was shrill, of course — a few of my friends are near-saints, or at least calm adults, which is almost as rare these days — but all the same, it actually hurt to read old friends disagreeing on what, rather innocently, I had previously taken to be generally shared assumptions about the importance of freedom of speech, the rule of law, even old-fashioned good manners. Post by post, I could see people who have cared for each other for decades suddenly taking sides, squaring off, apparently assuming the worst about each other.
Well, if you’ve lived through Brexit — or indeed May, or Corbyn, and their divisive effect on their respective parties — you’ve probably seen this one yourself. But in the American context, it was hard not to fall back on another, even less encouraging historical analogy. Surely, this is how civil wars start?
On one hand, some of my friends — and here I am generalising and aggregating — wholeheartedly condemned the fascist violence in Charlottesville, but also condemned the destruction of the war memorial in Durham. These friends, I think, would be happy enough to see Confederate memorials removed, but want it done with careful thought, due process and regard for the rule of law.
On the other side, other friends clearly saw these arguments as the expression of an embattled, privileged elite making excuses in order to extend all the unfair advantages tied up with property, law, and the ways in which these things historically have worked to oppress black Americans for so many centuries. Of course ripping down a statue won’t change everything — but for heaven’s sake, why not hurry up and make a start?
And then, of course, there were the friends who simply went quiet. I can’t help wondering whether some of them, while finding Charlottesville disgusting, actually rather regretted the removal of the statue in Durham, but weren’t quite brave enough to say so, even amongst friends, because this might make them sound like the sort of thugs who wandered around Charlottesville waving barbeque torches and Nazi emblems, which wouldn’t be fair at all. My silent friends may be thinking something along the lines of ‘yes, but my great-great granddad fought for the Confederacy, because he was a 16-year old boy and that’s what all his friends were doing, and why should I have to forget my family history just because other people rightly want to remember their family history too?’ They may watch footage of students kicking in the face of a representation of a young Confederate soldier, and wince, as I have to admit I did, but not be sure whether this says something bad about them or not. I am sure they were all genuinely appalled, at the same time, by the footage of a bunch of white racists kicking the face of an actual young black man. I am sure that they would all agree, too, that when it comes right down to it, the real man matters more than the statue, because these people, whether you agree with them or not, are not monsters.
In any event, their silence, too, is a way of squaring off, drawing lines, taking sides. And then there are our black friends from school days, none of whom are represented in our little Facebook plebiscite. That, in itself, constitutes another sort of ominous silence. Would my friend who was the son and grandson of lawyers want to uphold the rule of law, or would he applaud the people with the ropes, the heavy boots and Marxist slogans? Was my gentle, funny footballer friend secretly as angry, as full of hurt and grievance, as these students were? I genuinely don’t know the answer to these questions. I wish I did.
But then there is such a lot I don’t know, now I come to think about it, about the world in which I grew up, the people who were my friends and neighbours, the country that for so many years was my own.
* * *
Let’s avert our eyes from America for a moment, yes?
Anyone who follows Japanese news with any seriousness will be familiar with the annual fuss over the Yasukuni Shrine. The story is a complex one, but to simplify it for the sake of argument, the Yasukuni Shrine is basically a Shinto temple in which are enshrined the Japanese war dead from 1867 to 1951. About a thousand of these were men convicted of war crimes in the wake of the Second World War. As this implies, in its time as the occupying power, the US stopped short of removing all signs and tokens of the previous regime. It felt that some sort of continuity would work to its advantage. The Yasukuni Shrine was part of that.
Every year, senior politicians either visit the Yasukuni Shrine, or send it a gift, or do something else that ends up inflaming opinion. What are these politicians doing, after all? Are they simply fulfilling a religious obligation in placating the spirits of the dead, which is a pretty mainstream element of Shinto practice? Or are they basically spitting in the face of every single soul who died in the Rape of Nanking, every Korean ‘comfort woman’, every brutalised internee or prisoner of war? The answer, obviously, is very finely balanced, and nationalist politicians in particular can be quite manipulative in the way they use this controversy to appeal to their base, while concurrently pretending they are doing something else entirely.
Strangely enough, another visitor to the Yasukuni Shrine was Justin Bieber, who posted a photo of it on social media, with an approving caption, before his PR team realised what was going on and mounted a rescue operation.
This is quite a good example of how symbols are meaningless in themselves, as the Yasukuni Shrine clearly meant something rather different to the hapless Justin Bieber than it does, say, to Shinzo Abe or some other Nippon Kagai enthusiast, let alone to a dignified Korean grandmother who still can’t talk openly about her past but who will always bear its deeply painful scars.
Japan has quite a serious problem with aggressive nationalism — something that may become increasingly apparent as tensions grow between China, North and South Korea, and other regional powers, and as ‘America First’ rhetoric provides a green light to Japanese nationalists’ military aspirations. This is why the Yasukuni Shrine, and whether a few ministers spend a little time there once a year, actually matters a lot.
Similarly, anyone who has read the volume of Alastair Campbell’s diaries dealing with the Northern Ireland peace process will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the degree to which one person’s totally innocuous, inoffensive activity can suddenly emerge as someone else’s completely unacceptable provocation, which the grassroots on no account could possibly be expected to accept, full stop. Where should a parade route run? When is it okay, or not okay, to fly a particular flag in a particular place? How should chairs at a meeting be arranged? Who shakes hands with the famous visitor first?
The fact that the Good Friday agreement, and resulting years of something resembling relative peace, emerged from this sea of pettiness can sometimes appear near-miraculous. Here, the key seems to have been a group of reasonably neutral mediators, patient, skilled and stubborn enough to make each side see that it had a vested interest in securing some sort of agreement. And even then, the agreement that resulted is in some ways a frighteningly fragile one. The Tories’ casual Brexit-fueled vandalism of Irish border arrangements may yet destroy this delicate semi-peace, in which trivial symbols still play an important, if often mysterious part.
And then there’s Brexit itself. How many people voted to overturn a broadly successful set of economic, legal and diplomatic arrangements purely because they wanted blue passports (which they already had), wonky bananas (which were a fib, but who cares?) or because they didn’t like the sound of a European Court (although they can never quite remember whether it’s the Court of Justice or the Court of Human Rights they don’t like, but never mind, it’s one of those, and it’s definitely European)? Too many, so perhaps we should not feel superior when it comes to voters and their enthusiasm for slightly ridiculous symbols. In truth, most of us have symbols that matter to us, but would strike others as downright silly. That’s one of the many reasons why symbols are so vital to people — their reception helps define communities, for good or for ill.
Alternatively, we could go back in time and contemplate our own Civil War. In his magnificently elegiac Repertorium of 1680, the great Sir Thomas Browne catalogued the damage done to Norwich Cathedral during what he calls ‘those unhappy times’. The Roundheads, after all, had strong views regarding symbols. To their way of thinking, Norwich Cathedral was full of ‘monuments of superstition’ — toxic heritage of the pre-reformation church, redolent of papistry or worse. Accordingly, old tombs, old inscriptions, old structures of commemoration or worship were smashed to bits with the pious glee of absolute cultural certainty.
While Thomas Browne remained superficially rather neutral during the Civil War, maintaining friendships on both sides, it is clear from his language that he minded this destruction enormously. What the puritans hated for doctrinal reasons — evidence of a flawed past, the encouragement of error and sin — Browne loved for its connection with earlier lives, however imperfect, and thus for its reassuring message of stability and continuity.
I don’t think Sir Thomas Browne would much have approved of the destruction of the Confederate memorial in Durham. I suspect, although I might be wrong, that he’d have been in the ‘move it to a museum and use it for teaching’ camp. And on Facebook, he’d probably have been one of the quiet ones. However strongly he felt, he would not have thought it risking friendships on either side of the argument.
Many are not so silent. Other people’s problems are always so much easier to solve than one’s own. In the wake of Charlottesville and Durham, it was very notable that every single UK commentator who expressed a view, bar none, argued in favour of tearing down all Confederate memorials, right away. One extremely popular line of argument seemed to run that just as there are no standing monuments in Germany to the Nazis — not even to ordinary German soldiers from the Second World War, as far as I know — so surely there should be no monuments to the Confederacy either.
Is this, though, entirely the right analogy? In Spain, for instance, there are still plenty of monuments to Franco — not only huge, landscape-dominating ones such as the Valle de los Caídos, either. For instance, in proudly Leftist and totally anti-Franco Barcelona, a cellar room in Montjuïc Castle displays — or at least it did in the 1990s — an equestrian statue of Franco. When I was there in the 1990s, the statue was kept in a cage, presumably to prevent people vandalising it. All the same, there was an eerie sense that the cage was also somehow protecting us from it, this jarring, upsetting fascist totem. Odder still was the fact that several bouquets of flowers had been shoved in through the bars of the cage, in tribute to el caudillo.
More recently, there have been various moves to get rid of some of these memorials, and to put more official effort into commemorating Franco’s many victims. Here, though, the solution to symbolic challenges has largely been gradual, pragmatic and incomplete. It’s as if few dare to press the issue too aggressively, at least right now, when memories are relative fresh and feelings can still run very high.
As with the US experience, Spain’s civil war left scars that haven’t entirely healed. So this kind of forbearance may be normal in a context where neighbours were fighting neighbours, friends fighting friends. It’s rather different when the armoured vehicles of other countries come rolling in, carrying soldiers speaking unknown languages, all with their own strong views about the desirability or otherwise of local memorials.
On the other hand, as we have seen, in the US many of these memorials were put up a generation or so after the war in question, rather than during the course of it, which makes any analogy, fascist or otherwise, a bit of bad fit. Who amongst us is brave enough, or sufficiently armed with optimism, to predict what sort of memorials will be standing in central Europe in a few decades’ time?
* * *
My parents’ politics were progressive. My mother, actually, had gone through a phase of being a card-carrying member of a communist party. That was one of the two problems that prevented her from obtaining the State Department job she had coveted when she finished her time at university. The other problem, apparently, was that she had gravely offended Kentucky sensibilities through the outrageous act of sitting down, entirely unchaperoned, at the same table as a fellow graduate student who happened to be a black man. I am sure she must have done it knowing the consequences, too. I am rather proud of this.
My father came from a less privileged family than my mother did. His father was a farmer but he also ran a shop, in order to keep his large brood of offspring going during the Great Depression. My father could have had a scholarship to Yale, but settled for the University of Kentucky instead in order to help with the farm. As it was, he ended up as a senior administrator in the North Carolina state university system. He took a particular interest in the educational opportunities open to black students, and did what he could to expand these. Coming from the background he did, it would have been very easy for my father to have ended up as a racist, and the fact that he didn’t is one of my favourite things about him. So I am proud of him, too.
Both my parents supported the civil rights movement, but they were both creatures of their times, social classes and experiences. They had blind spots. They weren’t perfect. So it is that I am intensely aware that when it comes to issues race in the South — to issues of race anywhere — I also have blind spots. The difference is that while my parents’ blind spots are pretty obvious to me, my own, sadly, are not.
In the past few months, I have learned a lot about the long-vanished South of my youth. Those memorials, harmless familiar things which perhaps might simply have added a bit of darkly-patinated gravitas to the oak, studded, dignified Capitol lawn, turned out to have meanings previously unknown to me. Those memorials caused hurt, they were offensive, they held people back from feeling that our state belonged to them in the sense that I felt it belonged to me.
And yet I don’t like smashing things. I don’t like seeing things torn down, especially when those doing the tearing down are motivated by anger. I find myself wondering, genuinely so, where exactly the logical end of this process lies. For instance, remaining on the lawn of the Capitol building, one of the presidential statues, mentioned earlier, commemorates Andrew Jackson. He was a terrible president and a worse human being, who was responsible for, inter alia, the dispossession, persecution and murder of many thousands of Native Americans. Why should this wretched man’s statue remain, if a statue commemorating ordinary Confederate soldiers is deemed unacceptable? But then if one expands the logic, don’t statues that celebrate slave-owners also normalise and sanitise slavery, in which case Canova’s statue of George Washington in the Capitol’s rotunda ought to go, too? Or does that get rescued, because it’s actually not a bad sculpture in technical terms? But then what about the Capitol itself, which I am pretty certain must have been built by slave labour? Where do we draw the line? And who, as far as that goes, ought to do the drawing?
The genuine answer, rather to my surprise, is that I no longer feel certain that my own opinions on this issue have any validity. I’m at once too close to it, and also much too far away. Also, I can feel the meaning of those memorials shifting in my own mind every time I read anything more about them. Fashioned of stone and bronze, they turn out to be as labile and illusory as the summer sunlight glinting off their bright surfaces. Their multiplied meanings confuse and blind me. Sometimes I think they should all be removed immediately, but at other times I wonder whether their sheer outrageousness doesn’t in itself have some sort of mimetic value, if only in reminding us how the Civil War didn’t really end in 1865 but was still somehow going on in the early 20th century, and perhaps is still going on today, so that we should always be on the lookout in case we are still fighting it right now, this minute, which indeed may well be the case. Or does that put me in terrible company? Probably it does. Well, perhaps they ought to all come down immediately after all.
Ultimately, by rights the decision probably belongs chiefly to the people who had no say over the erection of these wretched memorials, whose story still isn’t being told loudly enough in many of the places where American history is set out to be admired and even emulated, indeed whose story is misunderstood even within the UK, where the intertwined narratives of slavery, empire and black British lives is too often treated like a sort of optional add-on to ‘real’ history, which is assumed to take place elsewhere, presumably amongst powerful white people. Black people in America have lived with symbolic discomfort for years, as well as every other kind of discomfort. It is not the end of the world if a few white Americans have to do the same.
While we are on the subject of white discomfort, though, there’s one more point to be made. As for America — not just the South, either — I have never in my life felt so worried about its immediate future. Whatever else this sudden irruption of concern about memorials may presage, it is surely no sign of a confident, generous nation in which people are generally willing to believe that even those who disagree with them are acting in good faith. And this, in a democracy, is a serious problem.
Looking for something else recently, I stumbled over a speech I last read a long time ago, when I was a student at Amherst College, having just left the South — as it would turn out, more or less for good. It was a speech delivered in 1944, to a huge crowd in New York that included many new Americans who had just received their citizenship.
The speaker was a New York federal judge with the rather odd name Learned Hand. Hand explained to the crowd that written constitutions never really worked, because ultimately, liberty had to repose in the hearts of men and women, and that once it had been lost, no court could help. He went on to say the following:
“What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”
Hand, by the way, was actually an agnostic, but the point he is making is no worse for that, or indeed for its apparently paradoxical nature: that the strongest guarantor of liberty is, in fact, a degree of self-doubt, coupled with an interest in how things seem to other people.
Trump, hazarding the destiny of nations on his badly sub-edited tweet-storms, could learn something from this speech. But then so, too, could most of us. Here in the UK, as well as the US, shrill certainty is the order of the day — in particular, the certainty that those who disagree with us are wrong, possibly dangerous and probably evil too.
Although it’s been said before, it’s worth remembering, looking at those Confederate memorials, how mistaken we ourselves can be, how differently different people can see things, how important charity is in politics as well as life. And it’s also worth remembering, while we’re at it, that it’s far easier to start a civil war, or to prolong an existing conflict, than it is to end one.