History

When I was in training for my Peace Corps assignment in Bulgaria, we exercised our community involvement muscles by organizing a civic improvement event. We recruited kids from schools and orphanages, did pledge drives and bake sales, organized volunteers, and had a great time of it. We contracted with a local welding shop to make some sidewalk trashcans, got children into teams to paint them, bought paints and brushes, and had an art contest in the town square to decorate the cans and award prizes for the best designs. As part of our Bulgarian lessons concurrent with the project, we made posters to advertise the event and tried to come up with team names to suggest to the kids. Peace Painters, Paintbrush Friends… simple and corny phrases with words we could find in our ever-present English-Bulgarian dictionaries. The word we found for “Friends” was Drugari. (‘dro͞o·gə·rē).

Our Bulgarian language teacher frowned and said, no! That wasn’t appropriate, not at all. What, the word “friends” is not OK? We were steered to a synonym, Priyateli, and told that was a nicer word. “We just don’t use that old word much anymore,” she said. We persisted: why was her reaction so negative? A little reluctantly she explained that was what Communist Party members called each other before the old government fell. Comrade! That was the word for Comrade. The word, swept up in the tumult of history. had been spoiled.

History turns things around. In a book I’m reading, Margaret Mitchell & John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With the Wind, I read how the young author was imbued from childhood with her Georgia history in the early twentieth century. She recalled long summer evenings with her extended family, hearing stories of hardships and triumphs down through the generations from back as far as the earliest days of English colonial life, up through the terrible war which was then still smoldering hot in the memory of her elders.

“None was a more powerful storyteller than Grandmother Annie, who told Peggy endless tales about the Civil War, bloodthirsty Yankees, freed slaves, scoundrelly scalawags, cheating carpetbaggers, and the importance of behaving well in the face of either defeat or prosperity.”

Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind was made into a movie, epic in its scope and grandeur and immensely popular since 1939 for showing the tragedy wrought by the Civil War. History. Like The Wizard of Oz, it is an early Hollywood classic that has endured to a robust old age while lesser works of film art faded and died. The film has been shown in Memphis’ historic Orpheum Theatre as part of a summer film festival for 34 years. No more. It offends. Canceled. Things change.

I recently read and shared (on Facebook, if you must know) an interview by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the subject of Confederate monuments. Confederate. That’s another word that has changed, like drugari. She took the position that the monuments were a part of history, should be given appropriate context and not be torn down. With Charlottesville fresh in the news, I rather thought it would be an opportunity to examine a different view than what most of my friends are exposed to in their (our) own silos and echo chambers.

By Hal Jespersen at en.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By way of background for why the topic was of such interest to me, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia (google “Monument Avenue“). What I knew about Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate figures was informed by the perception that they were bound by a sense of duty and honor, and took up arms to defend their beloved home states (never mind who fired the first shots). On my walk from the bus stop to my high school, I passed the Confederate Widows’ Home and would wave to the little old ladies sitting on the veranda in their rocking chairs. They would wave back and smile. In my basic training for the United States Air Force, after leaving my home state behind, I was required to memorize, among other things, “Lee’s Quote.” It was, “Duty then is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more. You should never wish to do less.”

It is hard now to understand the depth and passion of that feeling of loyalty and duty to one’s home state, rather than to all of the states together, but that was 1861. Things were different. Then once the war started, it could only be governed by the relentless, inexorable logic that war brings to itself. I concluded my sharing of the Rice interview with a quote from a thoughtful reader of the Dallas Morning News, saying that “We cannot change history by removing statues and renaming schools…. We can change the present by stressing positive concerns, such as equal educational opportunities, equal job opportunities and equal respect for the opinions of others.”

I took a solid drubbing in the ensuing discussion. The points did not turn on duty and honor, but on traitors, treachery, and comparisons to Hitler. The most insightful comment in the discussion, the one that got my reasoned attention, was from my friend Ivan. He wrote that he thought my argument was focused too narrowly.

“The issue is not the monuments as reminders of history, the issue is that they are part of the broader effort, to maintain racism, and even restore racist policies. The white supremacy groups wanted to preserve the monument because it enhanced their views, not because they appreciated the historical value.”

My initial reaction had been that the momentum seems to be on the side of the monument-destroyers, and I thought it was a damn shame. The exchange made me think, and read, and think some more. I was aided in this by another friend, Laura, who put me onto a set of videos that exposed a sore point: my view had been shaped within the confines of a privileged position that I seldom, if ever, even perceived let alone understood what advantages it had given me.1 And finally, this article was most instructive in my eventual conversion. The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.

I have changed my view. The big bronze statues along stately Monument Avenue have long been a subject of contention, and now I can see what must have been obvious to others for a long time.2 Sadly for some and triumphantly for others, the tide is flowing and it will take them away. As the saying goes, take it as you will, “They’re history.”

As a native Virginian, I hold a tinge of regret for their passing. I have released the bitterness of thinking “It’s a damn shame,” but a faint scar of regret will remain. The regret is for illusions lost, and it is overshadowed by being on firmer ground, but it is regret all the same.

_________________________

  1. The videos that Laura recommended are clips from a film called The Color of Fear. This is a good introduction to the set: Just Be American. And then you need to see these two: The ‘Red Ground’ Scene and What It Means to Be American.
  2. Another Richmond native writes about The Motionless Ghosts That Haunt the South. His reasons and depth of feeling are far harsher than mine.

21 thoughts on “History

  1. Thanks for writing this, Bruce. I appreciate your candor. As a fellow sort-of Virginian, these things weigh heavily on my mind, too. And I had forgotten (or somehow missed the first time around) the anecdote about using the word “drugari”. It reminds me of a conversation just last year that I had with my German colleague. I used the word “Rasse”, which means “race”, as in a person’s race. She immediately recoiled and I thought I had said the wrong word. She explained that linguistically, it was the correct word for what I meant, but “Rasse” has had such a negative connotation in the last 70 years, and it surprised her to hear it. I hadn’t even thought about it, when when I did, it made sense. Thanks again for such a nice piece.

    • Thank you for reading! I could see how that would come about in German, given the history, but never would have thought of it. Race language is a sensitive matter but the word for the subject itself… wow! I remember stepping into traps while discussing the chapters on Langston Hughes or Dr. King with my English Lit class. The Bulgarian word is shocking to our ears but not derogatory in Bulgarian; I had to tell them not to use it or its near-homophone in English, no matter what they had heard in American movies. And to say that “now we say African American,” well, um…

  2. It is good to know that we are open to new ways of thinking and to “changing” our minds about past views! Having grown up when “America was Great”. I have to say I like the world today that has learned that love ❤️ is possible between all sorts of different friends better than I liked the narrow views of my youth! So many heroes are born in stressful times like 9/11 and Houston hurricanes. If we want to walk beneath heroes perhaps we can inspire our children with new statues! History is yesterday as well as two centuries ago!

  3. So glad to aid this new formulation from you, Bruce.

    For those interested in the set of video clips that I put you on to: “The Color of Fear” was a seminal film I absorbed 16 years ago, when I got trained to facilitate community dialogues on racial reconciliation and healing. That film galvanized me.

    Also noteworthy: My facilitator training came through a worldwide network called Initiatives of Change, which has its U.S. headquarters in, of all places, Richmond, VA. http://us.iofc.org/

  4. Great post as always….It is wonderful to hear words so important, now, said with great clarity. It tires me, listening to people chat about things. There information is taken from the “headline of the day”, it’s all slanted…..The best thing I have read, this evening, beside your post here, was the news of finding dinosaur bones, in Thornton! Thanks again. Oh, I copied down the title of the book your reading, sounds very interesting!

  5. Thank you, Bruce, for this candid confession of conversion. I need to forward it to a friend in Chapel Hill. The article by Adam Serwer is a gem, a valuable resource in any discussion. I’ve been thinking of reading Blount’s bio of Lee, but suspect it plays into the myth — I’ll find out. Keep on thinking and writing. Peace,
    elaine

    • Good for you, on considering the Lee bio. I expect it would still be a good read. It’s not a flaw in biographies that they often lionize their subjects. At the least I expect it would lead to a better understanding of a lot of people you might not ordinarily get to meet and understand.

  6. As always, your writing is wonderful, but I’m too worried about being a “default white nationalist” to think about it. An excellent article said that if I don’t have any black people in my circle of friends I am helping to perpetuate racism. So, since I agree, I’m figuring out how to change that.
    judi

  7. Since your intro was with a Bulgarian story, I somehow though that you would also make a connection to how statues of communist leaders were dealt with after 1989. They were all taken down. Hungarians were the first to decide to put them in a Memento Park (http://www.mementopark.hu/) and until 2011 Bulgaria was the only country in the former Eastern bloc without a Museum of Communism (It is called Museum of the Socialist Art and it does not have a website). I am a sociologist and I understand how the same object can carry different meanings for different people. But when something is placed in public place, it is not a matter of individual meanings but what the public wants to showcase as its collective values (what it is that carries honor in this society). Clearly, the debate about the Civil War /Jim-Crow monuments is a reflection of a divided nation over what those collective values should be.

    • (copy of comment posted to Facebook) Svetla, thank you. The Memento Park in Hungary is a fascinating idea. Although some have proposed removal to museums for Confederate statues, it will be a challenge to go that route now in light of how much antagonism has been aroused. On the removal of political leader statues in Bulgaria, I wasn’t aware of that. I considered a comparison to the destruction of statues of Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assadt and of course the Third Reich monuments, but I avoided it as too far from my main point in the article. In Bulgaria, I believe the bronze Todor Zhivkov still presides over Pravets as a notable exception. Its longevity there illustrates the power of wistful or romanticized memories overcoming harsh truths. I read an interesting article based on the fact that Robert E. Lee is memorialized at West Point in the naming of Lee Barracks (and Lee Road, Lee Gate) and the reasons for it, starkly contrasted with how the memory of Benedict Arnold is cast in stone for the ages. Think about This… Although it doesn’t change my coming around to the view that the Confederate statues will have to go, it points up the depth and complexity of renaming all the buildings, roads, and schools, and taking down or hiding all the statues. [Afterthought added: Army bases, counties, cities!] You are so right on point about collective values. In our nation now, values are increasingly fragmented and that is very discouraging.

  8. I think it’s very difficult and rare to change one’s opinion, especially via an online discussion. Congratulations on being so open minded – I’ve always appreciated that about you. You are a one-percenter for sure.

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