Heroic Memory

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A few questions emerged, yesterday, from comments and also after I gave Elizabeth Brown Pryor's lecture another listen. (Her book is here.) She offers the following thoughts on how to remember, and honor, Robert E. Lee while accepting that Lee did lead a war to establish an independent slave society, and that he, personally, embraced slavery:


It's wrong to turn him into this unreal person. And I'll tell you what I would propose. I think those people who admire him, and I put myself among them, the greatest thing you can do to honor him is love him for who he was. Because if you make him up, if you say he was all these things, you know he never drank a drop of whiskey, he never lost a battle he just ran out of ammunition, he was an abolitionist and so on, then you're insulting him. You're saying he wasn't enough. You're saying who he was wasn't enough. And I think who he was is enough. I think he was a very fine man, in many ways, and with some warts, like we all have. But I think the greatest respect you can show him is to admire him for who he really was.

You can scroll back through the lecture and hear some of the qualities Pryor admires--Lee's courage under fire, his steadiness, his willingness to lead an examined life. I'm not sure that all of that does it for me, in terms of admiration. The closest I can come is to say I admire the ferocity of John Brown, and though I think Brown was ultimately morally right, I don't expect everyone to share my sense of things. Perhaps Nat Turner is even better, as I'm still sorting that one out. 

But I appreciate this argument, because it's honest, and makes a case for honoring Lee based on the facts, not from the position that slavery was "not important." If you look earlier in the lecture she challenges a few people who are more sympathetic, including someone who claimed that the relationship between Lee and slaves seemed warm.


At any rate, I wanted to pair Pryor's proposition, her theory of heroic white Southern memory, with something Cynic offered yesterday in response to this whole question:

The most gripping and compelling heroes are those who are flawed, like us. It puts me in mind of the leading figures of the Old Testament - Moses, barred from the Promised Land; David, philandering, hands stained by blood; Solomon, brought low by his hubris and ambition. From this perspective, the canonization of Lee is deeply problematic. John William Jones famously eulogized him as: "a Caesar without his ambition; a Frederick without his tyranny; a Napoleon without his selfishness; and a Washington without his reward." A leader, in other words, utterly devoid of flaws. This seems like a willful disregard for reality.

But in the lecture to which you link, Pryor herself offers a more generous interpretation. She suggests that the hagiographies of Lee reconstruct him as his admirers wished he might have been, as an exemplar of "the values that they would like to have; the values that they think are right." And, she suggests, "that says good things about them [because] what they say is that he was an abolitionist, not a pro-slavery guy."

I agree with Pryor that it is, in some sense, heartening that so many admirers of Bobby Lee wish to will away his embrace of slavery. But she fails, I think, to consider why Lee has not been accorded the same treatment as the Virginians of the Revolutionary generation - generally admired, even as the stain of slavery is acknowledged. Why can Lee not be embraced with his own flaw?

The problem, I think, is that Lee is not simply a figure within a pantheon of heroes, interchangeable with King, Smalls, Van Lew, and Roberts. They were all Southern, but whereas the others whom you list stood in courageous opposition to a flawed society, Lee stood in its defense. Nor is the system of slavery separable from his accomplishments; his great legacy is his defense of the system, through force of arms, at a horrific cost. His admirers wish to separate him from the stain of slavery, just as they wish to construct an antebellum way of life separate and distinct from a slave society. It is not possible. 

What you are asking for, ultimately, is not simply the selection of new heroes, or the acknowledgement of the complexities of the old ones. It is the acknowledgment that the South was built upon a profoundly unjust and brutal system, in which the society itself was implicated. And, by extension, that the nation as a whole was built on a flawed foundation. That is a very painful thing. We define ourselves as a people; this amounts to admitting that we were once an obdurate people. The North, at least, can look to the vast bloodletting for the war as a sacrificial expiation of its guilt; where can the South turn for consolation? It is simpler, easier, to rewrite the past, and to pretend that our forebears in fact embraced the values we wish they had held.

I think the key problem here is the point that Lee's "great legacy is his defense of the system, through force of arms at a horrific cost." That system being a kind of all-encompassing white supremacy--a system of consumption--that did not just indict slave-owners, but poor whites and yeoman farmers that owned no slaves. 

The question, though, is one of means versus ends. Can you admire the way someone lived, even if you deplore that which they were willing to give their life for? I don't know. I have deep-seated questions about the means employed by some people who I have, at various times, included in my pantheon. I question John Brown's means, but not his moral ends. I question Nat Turner's means, but not his moral ends. I'm hard pressed to come up with people admire despite deploring the great cause of their life.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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