As the debate over the significance of dedicated buildings, memorials and other public links to the Confederacy and its leaders intensified over the summer, I found myself settling in to a binary characterization of those at center stage.
On one side, the passionate champions of social progress calling for a scorched-earth scourge of all “celebrations” of criminal racism. On the other, the rabid defenders of “heritage,” easily dismissed as proponents of hatred and violence. The sturm und drang produced by these two factions made it easy to ignore those in the middle on the issue and to fail to understand their motivation.
One recent afternoon, I found myself in in a relaxed social setting with a handful of white millennial graduates of Washington and Lee University and listened as they bemoaned that their alma mater and its founder had become another area of militarization in this culture war. Perhaps “bemoaned” is too strong a characterization. Their comments were marked by a sensitivity to the underlying social justice issues, but there was also a wistfulness. In the lexicon of the day, their comments and tone seemed to ask, “Why does this have to be a thing?”
As a young man, my career and my life revolved around a city (New York) and an industry (textiles and apparel) in which the gay community was a rich and strong influence. As a southern WASP and a hetero “breeder,” the arc of my awakening to the social-justice issues surrounding what at the time was described as the gay and lesbian community was hesitant, fitful and made more difficult by the AIDS crisis.
In time, through the fortunate presence in my life of some powerful advocate members of that community, I became educated and sensitized to the point that I was identified among my peers as an early supporter of gay rights. As such, I was a bit confused a few years ago by my muddled reaction to the battle over same-sex marriage. While strongly supportive of faux solutions like civil unions and domestic partnerships, I felt a tug of heart that translated into a desire that the institution of marriage be preserved for its traditional role in our society.
Searching for the source of this contradiction, I became aware of a wistfulness regarding the rapidity with which our nation was evolving, and a nostalgic yearning that something be left unchanged. Why did this have to be a thing?
The genius of Freud was not required to spot that my ambivalence resulted from the recent loss of my father and mother and an emotional attachment to my view of their long and successful “traditional” marriage. It didn’t happen overnight, but when forced to face the sadness and injury suffered by same-sex couples resultant from denial of access, I recognized the need that I get past my nostalgic attraction to the idea of traditional marriage.
In my mind, the calculus changed: it wasn’t about the loss of my attachment to something of sentimental value, it was about the opportunity to support a change that would bring great peace and joy to a completely deserving group of my fellow citizens.
So, to all those “in the middle” on the issue of removal of memorials to the Confederacy, be they the millennial W&L grads I recently encountered or be they white Southerners of my own generation: I understand your feelings. As a young boy, I sat on the sofa next to my father as he read Douglas Southall Freeman’s “Lee’s Lieutenants” and heard noble tales of the men of the Confederacy.
Most of us who grew up white in the South have some similar experience or conditioning and our unease regarding the issue is linked to these sentimental memories, not to some pathetic desire that America be restored as a white man’s paradise. Regardless, sentiment cannot be an impediment to justice. That’s why this must be a thing. All the side skirmishes; whether memorials honor the Confederacy or the Jim Crow era, whether Robert E. Lee was or wasn’t a righteous defender of slavery, are nothing but noise.
There is only this challenge: the removal of memorials to the Confederacy and its leaders must not be viewed as the loss of an attachment to something of sentimental value, it must be embraced as an opportunity to bring about a change that will bring great peace and joy to a completely deserving group of our fellow citizens. All proud and responsible white men and women of the South must embrace this challenge and move forward.
Allan Preyer is a sales and marketing executive and a freelance writer living in Chapel Hill.