Why start a blog? Why add my voice? The main reason that finally caused me to add my voice to the sea of voices is this article that I wrote this past August. How timely to be posting it on MLK day. Here you go…
I am a Southerner. I am white. I grew up going to a mostly white private school, a mostly white church, and living in a mostly, if not completely, white neighborhood in South Carolina. Today, as I live in Georgia with my white husband and four white kids, I have a Robert E. Lee framed portrait prominently hanging in my dining room. Recently, I happened to become friends with a black woman that I met at our mostly white church. Today, August 26, 2017, I had a life-changing two-hour conversation with her over coffee at a local coffee shop. I skipped small talk and went straight to the question heavy on my heart asking her what she thought about Robert E. Lee and all that is going on in America right now concerning that deadly topic…and eventually I asked her about that picture hanging in my house. Our conversation was enlightening, educational, and moving.
We can’t change the past. It is what it is.
Blacks long ago came to our country (when it wasn’t even a country yet) by force not willingly. They were treated as property and not allowed to be educated. Children at times were separated from parents. The blacks lived in small, cramped dwelling places while being yards away from the large, beautiful homes of their white owners. The American Civil War changed the scene and freed the slaves, but segregation continued to show incredulous amounts of disrespect and hatred towards the blacks in America. If you doubt that, listen to the audiobook Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family read by the black female author and former United States Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama during the time of segregation and then integration.
Now, we come to today, where Southern white people like me hang pictures of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in our dining room and then invite over a Southern black family for lunch after church. I’ve always been a bit proud of my southern heritage and the fact that my husband is related to Robert E. Lee. But, as this black family asked me about the sword that we have hanging right next to the Robert E. Lee picture, which of course, led us to talk about the Robert E. Lee picture, I had my first ever great discomfort over that picture. I thought, “Hmmm…I wonder what they think about that picture. I wonder what it means to them. And, why am I so proud of being a southerner and my husband being related to Lee? Can they even research and discover who their ancestors are?” I made it through that awkward conversation a few weeks ago. But, today during our conversation, I brought up the incident. I wanted to know what her perspective had been when she saw that picture in my home. And, boy was I surprised!
She had noticed the portrait during that Sunday lunch. She wrestled inside as to what could be my motivation for having that hanging in my house. She consoled herself with the thought that I had invited them over for lunch so I must not hate blacks. But, she was puzzled. After the lunch, she and her husband had privately discussed the presence of the Lee portrait in my home. I never knew she thought anything. She’s not confrontational. I probably never would have known her reaction to the picture except I asked her point blank about it today. My husband didn’t think that she would have thought anything either. Two ignorant white adults. Two confused black adults. Thankfully, our talk today brought clarity and understanding.
As I predicted, my friend doesn’t know the history of all her ancestors. She can’t know it even if she wanted too. The slaves were merely recorded by gender and physical characteristics. Recording names and who beget who generation after generation wasn’t a priority of the whites. Another current loss blacks suffer. However, she does know that her father’s grandfather was a slave in Georgia. He had a good relationship with his slave owner and, at some point, was given land from that owner. My friend still goes to that land for family reunions, and the slaves’ quarters are still standing. I had to wipe away tears at this point in our conversation. I have never had a talk like this before with any black person. I know many black people are descendants of slaves, but a part of me is able to keep that very impersonal since I have never had anyone tell me directly they were a descendant of slaves. Here I was face to face with a person who could point to the small, cramped slaves’ quarters her great-grandfather had slept in.
But, what can we do about that today? There is no quick fix. The black-white issue is a generational issue. Past generations made tremendous progress by ending slavery and then ending segregation. Our generation (black and white) needs to do our part to continue to eradicate racial tension. But, how do we do that? What is our part?
First, my friend said, we have to become friends.
I totally agree. We have to truly integrate and have black friends and white friends and not stay in our comfortable, familiar race bubbles.
Second, we have to talk.
We have to have calm, civilized black-white conversations like I did today. We as whites have to be educated as to how the blacks are affected today by the past of slavery, segregation, integration, white flight, and the Confederate monuments. She encouraged me to research why the Confederate monuments were put up. Eye-opening findings. Blacks need to hear the struggles we ignorant whites have as we try to make things better. When do we say black? When do we say African-American? Many of us whites don’t want to offend, but we don’t know what will offend and what won’t. And, she admitted different black people can be offended by different things. Some black people will be confrontational. Some will just go on with life but be confused by how a white person is. This isn’t an easy situation. It is very complex. But, there is hope. WE CAN MAKE THINGS BETTER!!!
Third, our generation can make things better by…take a deep breath because you whites might not like what I am about to say at all…third…I suggest we take down the Confederate monuments and the Confederate flags. Breathe!!! Keep breathing!!! Listen!!! I wanted to make sure I understood my friend correctly that it wasn’t just a small group of radical, violent, extreme blacks that wanted the monuments down.
I said, “So, are you saying all blacks would want the Confederate monuments down?”
She replied without hesitation, “Most.”
Taking down the monuments and flags is not rewriting history. It is writing the next chapter of tomorrow’s history. The Charlottesville incident was hateful and deadly. My friend and I are not supporting violence!!! Let’s choose a better way. Let’s willingly take down our beloved Lee pictures in our dining room. Let’s willingly encourage and support our public leaders to take down the Confederate flags and monuments that divide us. Or as appropriate, let’s encourage them to add additional monuments that tell the rest of the story (Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, etc.). Let’s be friends across race lines. And, most importantly, let’s listen to each other and learn from each other.
If we each do our part, the next generation will have less racial tension. Isn’t that what we should all want? To see our kids holding hands, being carefree, and loving all races. I absolutely love this picture I captured of my young daughter and her close church friend. This was taken shortly after the Charlottesville incident. They had no idea about such racial tension. They love each other. Let’s do the same.
[…] talk about your life-changing conversation, in which you have written a blog post about it (https://elizabethgraceneal.com/2018/01/15/a-black-and-white-conversation-about-robert-e-lee/). How does your conversation with the black woman change your […]