NASHVILLE — There was a time when ancestor worship was almost obligatory in the South. The tiniest rural community, hardly more than a red-dirt crossroads, had its own graveyard, and those graves were never short of flowers. Sometimes the flowers were made of faded plastic, but they were always a marker of love, a sign of remembrance, even if the flower bearers knew the dead only from family stories that recalled the best of who they had been in life.
I often remind myself of this region’s constitutional reverence for the dead because it helps me come closer to understanding a heartbreaking truth: Many of my fellow white Southerners are deeply, dangerously wrong about matters of history that by now should be abundantly, self-evidently clear.
Though my own elders never, not even once, tried to glorify the Confederacy, plenty of other people I know grew up believing a story about the past that is so patently false, it’s breathtaking. How could anyone look at the facts of what happened in the South before, during and after the Civil War and conclude that white Southerners had fought on the side of honor, that slavery wasn’t really all that bad? How is it even possible for a war story to be burnished to such a sheen that nothing remains of the filth and blood and deceptions or the true reasons for that war?
In a haunting recent essay for The Atlantic, Clint Smith recalls the many people he has met who believe such lies: “For so many of them, history isn’t the story of what actually happened; it is just the story they want to believe,” writes Dr. Smith. “It is not a public story we all share, but an intimate one, passed down like an heirloom, that shapes their sense of who they are. Confederate history is family history, history as eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.”
Let’s consider the matter of Confederate monuments. The men these statues represent — Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, among others — were traitors. They betrayed their own country because they wanted to live in a place where it was still legal for white people to own Black people.
But that isn’t the history that monument supporters mean when they scream, “History, not hate.” Their “history” is a myth, an imagined story of valor and honor and benevolence toward enslaved people. Ratified by friends and neighbors whose families taught them the same version of the past, the myth of the Lost Cause carries the whiff of ancient wisdom; never mind that it is wholly false.
For decades, even public education here avoided the truth. More or less universally in the South of my youth, lessons about the Civil War focused on battles fought and won, not on the lives of the enslaved people over whom the country was fighting. And that’s the best version of history we got, in which the textbook’s sins were merely those of omission. The worst books taught outright falsehoods.
Many of us — perhaps most of us — know better now, despite the troubled history books we learned from. As evidenced by all the Confederate statues falling across the South, there are many, many people here who are working passionately to topple racist heroes. In some cases, these statues were brought down by protesters last summer, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. In others, their removal has been the work of decades, thwarted at every turn by conservative courts and Republican legislatures determined to defend a false version of history.
In this age of Facebook echo chambers and polarized news silos and Southern “leaders” who pander to the lowest common denominator among their constituents, getting to the point where everyone understands what Black people endured in the past and what they continue to endure even now will require schoolteachers to uproot the myths that run so deep. And yet Republican legislatures across the South — though, crucially, not only in the South — have been working overtime to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Legislative attempts to restrict how children are taught about racism in schools have multiplied, according to the nonprofit news organization Chalkbeat, which tracked such efforts in 28 states. Tennessee, where I live, just passed a law banning any discussion of race that might cause a student “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress.” Laws like this one are designed to tie the hands of teachers and simultaneously appeal to the meanest elements of the Republican base.
I’ve watched this play out at close range as the Williamson County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a national organization of conservative parents, filed an official grievance with the state commissioner of education. The complaint alleges that “Wit & Wisdom,” a literacy curriculum used in more than 30 state school districts, including Williamson County, violates the new state restrictions.
The specific target of Moms for Liberty’s ire: a unit in the second-grade curriculum called “Civil Rights Heroes.” The texts singled out for objection include “Separate Is Never Equal” by Duncan Tonatiuh, the story of a Mexican American family’s successful effort to integrate California schools; “Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington” by Frances E. Ruffin; and “Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story” by Ruby Bridges, the Black woman who integrated New Orleans public schools when she was a first grader.
It’s important to note that these titles are all early readers or read-aloud stories written for young children. Nothing in them is untrue, nor is anything “anti-American” or “anti-white,” as the Moms for Liberty argue. They’re just true stories, told simply, of people contending heroically with the terrible consequences of racism.
The Moms for Liberty complaint is based on a ludicrous reading of these wonderful books. I read every book in the unit and was amazed at how carefully they all kept the unavoidable ugliness to a level that would not traumatize a child — not a Black or brown child whose ancestors may have faced far worse than the injustices recounted in these pages and not a white child whose ancestors may have sympathized with the people hurling insults at 6-year-old Ruby Bridges.
On the contrary, the books take care to point out that some white people did stand up for the rights of their Black neighbors. Indeed, the only message that could be derived from these stories is the need to treat others with dignity and to work for justice for all people. Today Ms. Bridges gives talks to schoolchildren about what happened to her as a little girl. In “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” she writes, “I tell children that Black people and white people can be friends. And most important, I tell children to be kind to each other.”
People here are already standing in defense of history against the attempts of our Republican leaders to prevent the teaching of truth, and I have faith that more and more Southerners will work to overturn these laws that bar the teaching of truth, just as they worked last summer to bring down those Confederate statues.
Because in the end, the greatest honor we can pay our ancestors isn’t flowers left beside a headstone or monuments erected in a public square. It’s communities that are stronger — kinder, more inclusive and more resilient — than the ones our forebears left us.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”
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