Saturday, August 19, 2017

Confederate Reflections

I've shared this story before but each time I recall it, more details come back to me. I relive the past with greater clarity and perception. 

There are more important problems to fix than removing Confederate statues. And who really cares, anyway? it's just metal and concrete. I grew up in South Florida and they weren't any Confederate memorials around. The Florida KKK headquarters used to be in Davie, but we just learned to avoid that tiny, impoverished blip on the map. When I was 17 I went to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. I was flown up for to interview for the college's presidential scholarship. On the first day on campus I walked into the main chapel and I flinched. The tomb of Robert E. Lee was featured behind the pulpit. This is where they do service...for Jesus Christ? I cracked a joke to another student and rolled my eyes. Whatever. I don't care. I'm a city kid and they're flying me up here on their expense. I might get a full scholarship to a highly-rated liberal arts school. I should be grateful. I decided to just 'move around' the discomfort. As I walked through the campus there were other statues and symbols. I rolled my eyes. Damn, these people still aren't over it yet. Why can't these people move I have.

Everyone smiled at me, there wasn't any hostility. People were nice...almost too nice like in the first half of 'Get Out' when you start think that maybe you're being paranoid because these are just some damn pleasant nice white folks who are desperately trying to recruit black people into their company...while having Confederate symbols around. They were hospitable, aware of their privilege, a bit 'woke,' and did I mention that they were so goddamn nice? I started thinking that maybe I'm being 'angry black conspiracy brother.'

A few days later I was at a cocktail party at W&L and being chatted up by some damn nice, kind white folks. I politely excused myself and walked out onto the veranda facing the woodsy park that snaked through the school. I put on a ledge, walked down the steps, and started running; slow at first and then sprinting. I didn't know what the hell my body was doing and why I felt compelled to sprint, but I ran across the campus (and yes, when I saw that moment in 'Get Out" I had my own personal flashback). By the time I arrived at my host's dorm room I was drenched in sweat. I explained to him that I decided to go for an evening a tie and shirt.  My host student - a black guy on the football team- quipped 'when black people running like that around here they usually have a noose around their neck.' His white girlfriend came out the bedroom and asked if I was okay. I said 'yeah, just an evening jog.' My host did not crack the lynching joke again until his girlfriend left and one of his other buddies came over. My host's friend beat him to the punchline about my jog with his own variation of 'yeah, I'm surprised you didn't have someone chasing you.' With just three black men in the room the jokes about the school and their mental state became very un-PC, filled with KKK references, Confederacy puns, and jokes about 'strange fruit' that had us rolling around on the couch and laughing. It was cathartic. I wasn't crazy.

The next day I had another series of panel interviews for this scholarship. I was asked a series of brutally questions to see how honest I could be: Have I ever cheated academically? Yeah...and so did you (they laughed and nodded). Did I ever lie? I'm black in America and here so... (less laughter...polite smiles...that joke didn't go over well...I trailed off). Would I do anything to get ahead?, I wouldn't. I wish I could be a ruthless Machiavelli but there's something holding me back or holding me up, depending on how you look at things. The interview was going well until they asked about diversity. W&L's student body was 98% white. I smiled and talked about reaching out. They prodded with more questions and I snapped. It was only about 5 seconds but I blurted out 'and you can get that damn tomb out of your church! I mean what is that? What are...' Fuck...they look uncomfortable. I had almost gotten out of there smiling, gregarious, and grateful. I backtracked and explained the feeling of being surrounded by Confederate statues. They nodded. I received a letter from W&L a few weeks later. I got the presidential scholarship. Full-ride. I choose Northwestern instead but thanked W&L.

I thought it didn't matter to me and that I had moved on. But I had spent the week doing mental contortions around these objects.  Years, later I'm still not sure about the 'right answer' to every offensive statue or work of art. But I know that silence, laughing it off, or pretending like it's no big deal is probably a mistake. My reactions were deflections. If we don't have a dialogue about this, then we will continue to explode.

1 comment:

Maura said...

Very illuminating story. Thanks for sharing it. I hope your time at Northwestern was less scary and uncomfortable. You're right; nobody should remain silent about such atrocities. It's way past time we eliminated the symbols as well as the racism behind them. We've got a lengthy and difficult road ahead still, a half century after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's assassination.