Reckoning with History and Making Things Right
Are you at all acquainted with the acrid sensation of shame?
Something egregious has happened and you feel it in your body.
Maybe you’ve made things worse, maybe you were only watching it from afar, maybe you did nothing to help, or maybe you feel trapped and helpless by it.
Shame flies high like a banner.
It makes us quick to hide from it. We use anger or defensiveness to deflect shame too. Shame comes to both victims and perpetrators. It is our connections that tie us into eternal bonds. From them we find both goodness and harm; both shame and relief.
We are bound up one to another. Never really separated. Once our lives and histories entwine, they continue to have a life together. This mysterious entanglement lasts countless generations. Ancestors have their ways of revisiting us. Our culture plays out as more than mere echoes, but as wholly embodied stories. For all the good things that come again, we also have patterns, dramas, and intricacies that stay unresolved, hurtful, or perplexing. Sometimes incidents erupt where the violence and animosity indicate that our troubled past is deeply plaguing our present.
Two years ago, on January 6, many violent people forced their way into the Capitol Building in Washington DC. Unthinkable footage from that day still lingers with me—including a rioter celebrating victory after the breech as he we swung his large Confederate war flag in a grand Capitol Building hallway.
He was waving a retaliation banner.
For him and many others that day, this takeover event was a long-awaited reprisal in a conflict that went back more than 150 years. Too many people don’t comprehend that this type of conflict is well-rooted in white supremacy.
The Southern states who wanted to secede from the United States of America set up their own government constitution, currency, and army named themselves the Confederates States of America. Heads of seven States gathered for a meeting called the Confederate Congress just weeks before the first shots were fired in the American Civil War in 1861.
At that gathering, Alexander Stephens was appointed Vice President to President Jefferson Davis. The following month he introduced the new government in his home state of Georgia in what became known as the “Cornerstone Speech”. (add link:
Stephens clarified the reason for succession from the Union: The institution of slavery was both a scientific and God-ordained and a way of life the South deserved to preserve. He noted that Union didn’t properly contend with the practice of chattel slavery at the nation’s onset. Of the founders, he told the audience, “They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.”
He enthused on the improvement of their Confederate constitution: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Stephens underscored the values and the Southern way of life they were willing to go to war over. “With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place.”
A “supremacy complex” was a banner raised high to motivate Southern whites.
These are the roots of Southern pride and from where this nostalgia stems. Being afraid of these truths means we do not see the cultural toxins that remain. And too many do not notice it for the lethal poison it is in a democracy.
History never stays in the past. It lingers. The sour feelings of the vanquished Southern slave states stay an ongoing stench that fouls our civic life. Few lessons of love or virtue were learned. What followed the war was a cacophony of oppression through laws, lynchings, and many other reminders to former slaves and their descendants that the North’s victory wouldn’t give them an equal place in society.
After the war, Stephens served five months in jail he was almost immediately elected to US Senate for his state of Georgia. His election outraged those in the North, and he did not take office until he was elected seven years later in the House of Representatives. He had the position for nine years, and then he was elected as the governor of Georgia in 1882.
Powerful racist men with racist ideas have held sway in the South since the beginning. Enemy combatant flags continue to fly. Statues have long been valorizing the racist warriors who fought against the United States of America. They stand like menacing phantoms laying some claim to Southern culture in hopes of resurrecting inspiration. These white men honored as heroes tried to ensure their “way of life,” which necessarily included the harm and oppression of Black people.
It is only by facing our nation’s flaws and injustices in the inglorious parts of history, and now, that we can reckon with the disease of bitterness and the cancer of long-standing animosity. We are not far removed from these deadly roots. Anything that works to enshrine or glorify oppression and threaten freedom must be overcome. A new banner must fly.
A banner of truth.
In waving this banner we must exercise a muscular grace and love willing to do the hard work and continue to make things right even when the truth of history makes us feel shameful.
By Lisa Colón DeLay