Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Romance of Losing

My husband, Leon Hale, was shot at by Hitler’s boys during fifty individual bomber missions in World War 2. “I had an easy war,” he says. “I was in an airplane.”

Most of us have a relative who fought or died at the hand of German Nazis, or one of their allies. Some of them, like my husband, are alive to witness the outrage of self-proclaimed Nazis marching in our country alongside white supremacists, the KKK and others opposed to removing Confederate war memorials.

My grandfather fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War. Family lore has him, as a boy of fourteen, shinnying up a pole to raise the Confederate flag at Ft. Sumter in South Carolina. He mourned the rest of his life for the plantation existence he’d left behind. The life of a gentleman farmer whose family owned slaves.

My Texan father, born in the 1890s, believed in segregation. It was as much a part of Houston at midcentury as the smell from the Ship Channel, or any July 4th encomium to the virtues of representative government. I would come home from college in the sixties, a year or two before he died, and try to change his mind.

He thought my convictions about equality were youthful idealism.

He was a thoughtful man who read history in his spare time, but he had been molded by his upbringing and environment. For him, segregation was a reality and a boon he didn’t question.

On Thursday nights, we often ate at The Confederate House, a popular spot where fine food was served by dignified African American waiters in white coats. Famed leaders of the Confederacy smiled down on the scene from every wall. My particular favorite hung in the entrance hall. Robert E. Lee. He looked so sad.

I loved the Confederate House. I loved the fried shrimp, and the genteel waiters. I loved the “black bottom” pie.

It took a few more years before I could see what I’d been looking at.

Today’s youth of all races don’t understand how segregation insinuated itself into our lives. It was the air passing through our lungs, saturating our blood. It was literally everywhere. Every meal, every visit to a store, or a public toilet. Every day at school. Unstated, unquestioned, rigid separation. Unforgiving, too. One black person’s stumble became the shortcomings of a race. Imagine if your white nephew’s drug addiction painted your family with the “sorry” brush, much less your race.

I never once heard anyone question it. Black schools were shabby. No one asked why. The poverty was somehow the fault of the people who dwelled in the surrounding neighborhoods. And yet, they were the people who raised us. Generations of us. My mother, me, my son. We loved these black women, respected and admired them. Our parents relied on them.

A perfect example of cognitive dissonance, if ever there was one.

My father might have known better. He’d been educated abroad, but the romance of the Old South dies hard. The romance of losing. It rides the back of those Confederate horses we see on so many statues. It mourns with the angels of sorrow in graveyards.

Honor. Chivalry. You will die for honor. Your honor as a man, your family’s honor. The honor of your womenfolk. Suicide is preferable to dishonor.

The dishonor of what made all that honor and chivalry possible, namely an institution that required people to be counted as “stock,” may not have entered my father’s mind. Did he ask himself how the attitudes that supported slavery connected to the segregation we lived under? If he did think about it, he never let me know.

Those Confederate statues in Charlottesville, and elsewhere, have no meaning except what we bring to them. To this granddaughter of a Confederate soldier they represent the South’s Defiance and Sorrow after appalling bloodshed in the name of autonomy. Renewed defiance, since most were raised well after the war ended. We have the right to be wrong, and cruel, those statues say to me—even when the rest of the civilized world has repudiated the institution we were wrong about.

My schoolteachers hardly mentioned slavery as a cause of the war. Perhaps they were too much aware of the blood ties between it and the segregation they still lived under.

But it’s easy now to feel how the statues appear to someone whose grandparents were slaves. They cause pain. Is that what you or I want? (I don't.) But maybe that’s what the demonstrators intend. To keep pain alive, to keep fear alive.

Fear has always been a weapon fundamental to Klan activities and to the rule of despots worldwide. When self-declared Nazis march beside white supremacists, and everyone is armed, they vividly evoke the bullies Hitler employed to intimidate ordinary citizens, the paramilitary S.A., or Brownshirts. Without them, he would never have attained power.

In Charlottesville, they carried swastika banners, clubs and shields, wore Hitler quotations on t-shirts. Marched with torches on Friday night while chanting “Jew will not replace me.”

Jew? Huh? How did we get from statues of Robert E. Lee to antisemitism?

The United States Army—our grandfathers, uncles, brothers—helped liberate Buchenwald, Dachau, Auschwitz, places of horror, death and sadistic suffering. Places of mass murder. Places whose sole measurement was the efficiency with which they turned white people of many beliefs into starving slaves, then corpses.

White people. People exactly like you and me.

A diabolical alliance, white rage and Nazi brutality. An un-American alliance.


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