How I got into This
For decades I harbored in the back of my office closet an archive I inherited from my father’s Alabama kin. Wills bequeathing family oil portraits; yellowed newspaper clippings about antebellum homes-turned-museums; hand-drawn genealogical charts, held together with rusty paper clips, tracing my connection to high-profile Confederates from Gen. George Pickett to L.P. Walker, the first Secretary of War of the Confederacy. I nicknamed this trove “The Pile” and for years I kept it in quarantine. If these bits and pieces told a story, I wasn’t ready to hear it.
The idea that facing history is a path to justice has been advanced by Black thinkers from James Baldwin to Ta-Nehisi Coates to Bryan Stevenson. For a long while I resisted it, at least when it came to my own family. For a long while I believed that the Civil War was over. I knew it had a huge fan base – from the hobbyists who reenact favorite battles to history buffs who debate the fine points of military strategy. When I encountered members of these fervent and possessed subcultures on the Internet, I always felt like I was walking along the edge of a tar pit. I didn’t want to get too close.
Then, after the 2016 election, the Civil War came for me, and there was nothing quaint about it. As a reinvigorated white supremacy began sweeping the country, I knew it was time to take the Confederates out of the closet.
For many white Americans the murder of George Floyd was the moment when they could no longer look away from the pervasive racism all around them. It stirred widespread protests and has led to everything from the toppling of bronze Confederate generals to the stripping of Confederate names from American military bases. These blows against the continuing veneration of the Confederacy inspired me to hope that such actions were only the beginning.
That optimism was severely jolted on January 6th, when rioters brandished the Confederate battle flag -- that most potent of racist symbols -- in the halls of the United States Capitol they had just trashed. Defeated and delusional, these marauders summoned thoughts of their predecessors, the true believers after the Civil War, for whom it was an article of faith that the South would rise again.
The pro-Confederate Lost Cause narrative was a wildly successful propaganda campaign to portray the South as the War’s moral victors. This white supremacist myth has flourished for more than 150 years, one family story at a time. In Confederates in My Closet, I challenge those stories in my own family – and in myself. These are stories of a past that is not past. The contested history they evoke underlies the political battles we are living through right now. Facing this history is one path to a more just society. That is what I hope.
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