Growing Up in the Shadow of the Confederacy

Memorials to the Lost Cause have always meant something sinister for the descendants of enslaved people.

A Confederate flag hangs in the window of a house.
Owaki / Kulla / Getty

For most of my life I didn’t know Confederate statues could come down.

Throughout my childhood, those equestrian statues of victory, obelisks, and granite figures of soldiers were as immovable and immutable as the hills and the lakes. Other symbols of the South as it was before 1865 were also part of the fabric of reality. Old battle flags were inevitabilities, waving in the wind. Plantations might as well have been wonders of the world, and old battlefields holy places. Part of living in the South, just as much as eating and breathing were, was partaking in a perpetual reenactment.

In my hometown of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, we have our own little shrine to the Confederacy. The Nash County Confederate Monument is a column with one soldier standing atop its apex, surrounded by four shorter empty columns.The base is engraved with two rifles crossed.

According to the inscription on its base, the monument is dedicated:

To the Confederate soldiers of Nash County who in 1861, in obedience to the summons of their state, freely offered their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor on behalf of the cause of Constitutional liberty and self-government, and through four years of war so bore themselves in victory and defeat, as to win the plaudits of the world, and set an example of exalted and unseen patriotism, which will ever be an unfailing inspiration to all future generations of American citizens.

I witnessed that statue just about every day. I ran past it during track practice, down a path that took me between Stonewall Manor, an old plantation, and Rocky Mount Mills, one of the earliest cotton mills in the state of North Carolina—and thus one of the earliest cotton mills operated by enslaved persons in the state of North Carolina. It rarely—but not never—occurred to my younger self that, as a descendant of persons just like those, I built my body in a trinity of places built upon the brokenness of theirs. Again, the monuments to a world past seemed like landmarks, as much a part of my surroundings as the pine trees and the Tar River into which they once bled.

But, as I would learn, obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose. As per my textbooks, the local newspaper, and often teachers, the purpose of Confederate monuments and of the other shrines to the Old South was to remember something lost, recall the days of men who were somehow taller and stood straighter, and honor a common heritage they protected. In my adolescent mind, filled to the brim with the Tolkienesque, the statues in their tellings were analogues to his Argonath, the grand memorials to a time before, when magic was real and something about man was nobler.

The history of the statue in my hometown, unveiled on May 14, 1917, indicates such myth-making was already prevalent when it was dedicated a century ago. The entry on the day of its unveiling in the local Evening Telegram declares the Nash County monument “one of the handsomest monuments in the State of North Carolina.” Of the Confederate soldier to whom the monument is dedicated, the newspaper wrote: “And when the star of the Confederacy had finally set in agony and in tears behind the bloody horizon at Appomattox, Robert H. Ricks and his brave ‘Manly’s Battery’ were still fighting. For, this man never surrendered.” It seems certain that in Ricks, the white citizenry of Rocky Mount still saw themselves, as fighters continuing in a war and a cause.

But as intense as the indoctrination in the South was—and I imagine it much more intense in other states, since North Carolina prides itself on being the least Confederate of the Confederate states—the myths were always revealed to be lies, through the very fact of my own existence. How could I reconcile the storied bravery and defiance of a man like Ricks, when the cause he never yielded intended to continue the subjugation of my ancestors? How could the golden race of the Old South be so golden when they whipped, raped, and killed people with faces and skin like mine, and when their grey-coated defenders massacred black people and prisoners in the field? How could Old Dixie be so worth remembering when, if it had survived, I might still be working those cotton mills today?

Indeed, as the legends behind the statues revealed themselves to me, so another truth was revealed: that I lived in occupied territory. I did not belong in the society represented by the statues, even though my ancestors had tilled the land for centuries. I was at once, somehow, a thrall and an invader. It occurred to me that it is not possible to both worship at the altar of the Confederacy and fight for the liberation of people like me. That fact may seem obvious now, but for my white classmates who wore Confederate flag shirts to class, even as they assured me that “I’m not racist,” the idea that one could celebrate the heritage without the hate held currency. And I believe that even today, many of those old friends tell themselves just that.

Black people have always known better. Black people were around when the statues started coming up—and some of those people are still around today. And they know the truth: Confederate statues were built in waves that corresponded to the creation of the “Solid South” and backlashes against black political power. The Nash County monument was part of the beginning of the second wave, built two years after the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan and during a period of intensifying race riots and lynchings nationwide. As Jim Crow sub-citizens, black folks could not vote to stop the onslaught of the granite memorials, and they faced cross-burnings and lynchings for daring to speak out against the projects.

Their incapacity is testament to what all the statues, regalia, flags, preserved plantations, buildings named after ex-Confederates, and football teams named after Confederate regiments really celebrate: not only some intangible vision of an Old South ideal, but of its direct successor state in Jim Crow. The reverence of men who, like Ricks, would not yield, was not merely a preservation of heritage, but a real-life rallying cry for the ongoing defense of white hegemony and for massive resistance against anything challenging that hegemony.

That’s why I never thought the statues could come down. In my experience, they were so woven into southern white identity, and the hierarchies that identity still implies, that removing them would be akin to amputation. It’s too soon to tell if many or most of the statues will come down—so far, only the periphery of the Confederate veil has been pierced, mostly in liberal cities and places that were considered border states. Even removals in those areas has sparked violence, but the southern reverence of the Confederacy, for the first time in my life, seems debatable and destructible in a way I’d never thought possible.

Still, there might not be much case for optimism. In all likelihood, the momentum to reconsider the dominance of the Lost Cause will stop at the bulwarks of Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, and deeper in the woods of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia. And resistance to the removal of statues—and implicitly, the probing of any bit of the Old South mythology—seems likely to solidify over the next few months, given its unambiguous endorsement by President Trump, and white Americans’ ongoing ambivalence about the place of such monuments.

Even if the South catches fire somehow, and every single memorial to the Confederates is defaced or moved by night to a museum, the white supremacy that those statues celebrated will endure. Racism is not solely the domain of the South, and as redlining, police brutality, and stop-and-frisk policies in the beating hearts of the North, Midwest, and West illustrate, even places without statues of men like Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest can carry the torches he lit. And as the black citizens of Charlottesville, Virginia told me, reconsidering the symbols of white supremacy is just the beginning of defeating that which plagues communities of color.

Still, it is a beginning. And if something as immovable and immutable as monuments to the Confederacy in the South can come down, maybe America can do more things that I thought were impossible.