“Fables of the Reconstruction / Reconstruction of the Fables,” part 1
“Maybe everyday is Saturday morning.”
—Drive-By Truckers **
My first move after becoming man of the house was to take down “Hope of the Confederacy.”
Daddy bought the painting — a limited-edition print, rather, of a work the National Archives commissioned artist G. Harvey to do in 1991 — when he and mama dropped me off to start school at Washington and Lee.
Yes, that Lee. The university is named after him in tribute to the general’s tenure as its president for five years after the Civil War. After the conflict left broken. Not bitter, though. Reflective. While school president, he put philosophy on paper, world-weary musings that included the wish that humanity would “obliterate the marks of civil strife and commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
No matter, the shops and tourist stops filled the tiny college town of Lexington, Virginia, with anything and everything connected it to Lee. and its label as “Cradle of the Confederacy.” Hotels, storefronts, road maps, historical makers, and highway signs put Lee front and center for all to see. And spend. Daddy ventured into an art gallery while bumming around town, “Hope of Confederacy” caught his eye, and he bought it.
I don’t think he bought it so much to celebrate the Confederacy — though it depicts Gen. Robert E. Lee and three men on horseback, one hoisting up the Rebel flag, the focal point, painted all vibrant in red and blue. I think daddy bought it to celebrate his son attending (and him being able to pay for) a school far beyond his reach in high school.
Daddy was a product of his time and place, as we all are. Growing up here in a harshly segregated era, the Lost Cause was mythology everyone he knew believed in. The War between the States (nay, the War of Yankee Aggression) was not about slavery. It was about states rights. Lee and fellow Southern leaders were revered legends put (literally, in statues all over the South() on a pedestal.
Though a bit diluted from daddy’s attitudes, I, too, loved the South and took pride in being Southern. I ignored its Original Sing as I embraced the white-washed version of its history mosus white kids were culturally conditioned to take as Gospel.
I knew enough about Civil War history as a curious kid growing up here to know that G. Harvey’s painting captured a scene from the Battle of the Wilderness, fought in Virginia in 1863. I learned enough about Civil War history as a history major at W&L to know that the Civil War was about slavery and the states-rights defense was a load of crap.
That’s when I began to challenge daddy on the issue.
“It might have been about states rights,” I’d counter his canned answer for what caused the war, “but there was ONE right the states wanted so bad that they started a war they lost. And lost badly, killing off a couple of generations, and ruining its economy, with fields and factories left in smoldering ashes.
Daddy wasn’t racist. Far from it, actually, taking strong stances in his lofty position in community as a bank president. It’s insane that it wasn’t until the 1990’s that these changes took place er (remember, we hosted segregated high-school proms up until about five years ago) but daddy fought against entrenched opposition to integrate Columbus Country Club as well as his bank’s board of directors. In a newspaper interview late in his career, he said that “racism is the number-one thing holding this town back.” =
At home, he led by example in showing respect for all. He explained to me how attitudes of entitled power and violent prejudice seemingly all around me were flat-out wrong. He told me to never, under no circumstances, absolutely not, use the N-word, also seemingly all around me.
So I don’t think he’d have a problem with me taking down “Hope of the Confederacy” from its prominent place in the center hallway of our home. I did it two months after he died. I did it amid the cultural reckoning in our country over a cruel, oppressive past based on race. I did it before George Floyd. But I did after Dylan Roof opened fire on all those worshippers in a Charleston church. I did after Charlottesville, when all the dark shadows surrounding an ancient, absurd White Power mentality in America were exposed in the light.
About that same time, my cousin Ben, who shares my mama-side’s South Alabama and North Mississippi roots, tossed out a Robert E. Lee portrait. A Marine and war veteran, he said it offended him by honoring traitors that took up arms against the United States. A lot of us Southerners seemed to have such time-warped things tributes in our homes, often hand-me-downs in families like mine, on daddy’s side seven-generations deep in Georgia.
I took “Hope of the Confederacy” down and slid it, facing the wall, into an ignored closet upstairs. I struggled over what to do with it next. No way I’d give it to friend or family, afraid they might actually hang it up in a place of pride. Framed all nice, pretty and in perfect condition with a ‘Certificate of Authenticity’ slapped on the back, it had to be worth good money.
So I decided to sell it.
Part 2 of 3-part series to follow in next Saturday’s Scattershot.
Much ado about nothing from one man typing high above beautiful downtown Columbus, Georgia, at Electric City HQ of the 4th floor of the Heritage Tower, Scattershot is a weekly feature composed ECL Editor Frank Etheridge. It rambles on while reflecting on the week behind.
* Reference to stellar early-era R.E.M. album
** Taken from lyrics in the song, “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife”
by the Dive-By Truckers, a band that gives me infinite inspiration