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Of Men, Monuments and Memory

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My father is the son of Minnesota-settled German immigrants.  Garrison Keillor once said that German immigrants got lost looking for a place to settle, arrived in Minnesota and being too doggone proud to admit they were lost, settled.  That sounds about right to me.  My mother has a very different story; she is the stuff of southern aristocracy.  Some of her ancestry has been traced to the Mayflower.  Most of the older women in the family were D.A.R (Daughters of the American Revolution) having left behind The Daughters of the Confederacy when some of my grandparents generation moved north for work and found membership in that organization a hindrance.  My mom’s family once had very large cotton growing land holdings which means, of course, they were slave holders.  I grew up with cultural whiplash moving between the two sides of my family.  Both sides are rich in culture and tradition, just very different cultures and traditions.

Younger generations of my mother’s family contain noted and prominent civil rights advocates, but from the older generations I have heard and seen some very ugly racism.  I am old enough to have witnessed, in fact was born in, the truly segregated south.  The woman that cared for me as an infant while my mother worked and my father was in law school at the University of Mississippi was the daughter of a slave once owned by the family.  (My father chose Ole Miss because ALL he had in the world was GI bill benefits and that was the school where they would go the farthest.  For my mother it was a legacy.)  I have experienced the worst, save for slavery itself, the South has to offer when it comes to racial inequality.  It is not something that any decent person from the south is in any way, shape or form proud of.

But that said, my family was impoverished by the outcome of the Civil War.  The family is matriarchy because frankly all the men were killed, or rendered essentially useless, by the war.  It was up to the women to put the family back on a solid footing financially.  The family does not remember the Civil War fondly, but they do remember it proudly.  Not because of what was fought for, but because of what they have done in its wake.  The effects of the Civil War in the south cannot be underestimated.  It is a defining event.  No person of Southern heritage can possibly understand that heritage without understanding what the Civil War did to the south.  And they cannot celebrate that heritage without remembering that war, its effects, and what they have accomplished in its aftermath.

I repeat, no decent person of the south is proud of its racist past, but they are proud of themselves and what they have become.  The Confederacy and the Civil War are undeniably a part of that.  Where you may see monuments to racism and slavery, some see monuments to rebuilding, remaking and rethinking.  Where you see celebrations of the worst mankind has to offer, some see celebrations of becoming anew.  As Civil War monuments disappear throughout the south it is not always remembrances of slavery past that are being removed.  They are also markers on the road to redemption.

I have some sympathy with efforts in Alabama to preserve such monuments.  Needless to say, some of that sympathy is born in the very personal reasons I have just described.  But some of it is also based in the simple fact that history is real, and changing it is dangerous.  Slavery happened, the Confederacy was real, and the Civil War occurred.  Removing remembrances of them serves only to help us forget that which should never be forgotten.  As is often said, “Those that forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

I admit, there is a fine line here, but I am beginning to worry that we have crossed it.


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