Son of Confederate Veterans

Jacob S. Rhyne. Private. Georgia State Guards, Cherokee Legion, Company B “Canton Infantry”

Daniel Blanton. Private Georgia State Guards, Cherokee Legion, Company E “Cherokee Volunteers”

James Herod Blanton. Private. Confederate Army, 23rd Georgia Infantry, Company E

Joseph O. Heard. Private. Confederate Army, 43rd Georgia Infantry, Company H

I am a “son” of Confederate Veterans. I am not a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, though I meet their eligibility requirements many times over. The men listed above, all of whom enlisted to fight in Georgia infantry units supporting the Confederate rebellion, are my ancestors. The top two are my great-great-great-great-grandfathers, and the bottom two are great-great-greats. They are not my only ancestors who fought within Confederate ranks, but they all enlisted, as you can see clearly in the names of Jacob Rhyne’s and Daniel Blanton’s units, from Cherokee County, Georgia. Their fathers and grandfathers moved south from Virginia and North Carolina into what became norther Georgia (sending others of my great-great-great-great grandfathers and grandmothers on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma). I have visited the town of Canton, where they lived, and driven past the cemetery of the old Sardis Baptist church where they and their families are buried. Like their grandfathers, who worked the land from Albemarle County, Virginia to Rutherford County, North Carolina, they owned modest farms and, yes, they also owned several people.

My ancestors were Confederate soldiers. While I do not hide or run from that fact, I also see no reason to celebrate their time as soldiers or the cause for which they fought. They may or may not have believed they were defending their homes from invaders. They may or may not have been philosophically committed to the perpetual extension of racial slavery (though their state and the Confederacy it joined certainly were). It would be nice, I suppose, to believe that deep down they were decent men who believed in the equality of all men, but, that, in itself, would not be reason to celebrate their fighting on the wrong side of a catastrophic war fought to save and expand the even more catastrophic institution of racial slavery. Continue reading

Heritage Not Hate

When neo-Confederates and other white nationalists discuss their display of the Confederate flag(s), they frequently claim that symbols of the Confederacy are not expressions of hate. While there are certainly displays of the Confederate flag(s) that are clearly intended as expressions of hate, I want to take the neo-Confederate/Confederate heritage argument seriously. In fact, I want to agree with them: hatred is neither a fair nor an adequate description of the CSA’s relationship to the black people. Stick with me. Continue reading

The Dear Love of Comrades

I find myself struggling for words about the murder of forty-nine people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The violence, the hate, the mechanisms, the stalemate non-conversations are all too repetitive to memorialize these individual human beings or to count as effective political action. I need words I haven’t said before–words that aren’t simply a reiteration of the language we held between ourselves and the horror at Sandy Hook or Mother Emmanuel or or or or…

 I don’t have that language now. The obscene slaughter of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Orlando should provide a karotic moment, a juncture at which speech and action can create new practices and new institutions by shaping collective will in response to collective problems. It should, but it doesn’t: the massacre of our neighbors has moved from the exigent time of kairos into the periodic time of chronos; the problem remains, but the unique urgency of the present has passed.

Real political action does not appear in mundane chronological time, and, if we cannot invoke kairos and its “fierce urgency of now” (as King phrased it), then we are left with the eschatological hope of the future to come or the moment of appearance (what Derrida calls l’avenir). L’avenir is not a future moment of the mundane chronos, not an abstract or distant hope that the future will be better than the present. L’avenir is the present moment’s participation in a future appearance that will fracture the everyday and bring about the deferred presence of Justice. It has much the same relationship to the future that Benjamin’s revolutionary history holds with the past: both reject a notion of empty time filled like a container with historical events and insist, instead, that the unending work of Justice always hangs in the balance of the present, that the past and the future take their shape from and give shape to actions taken in the present.

This week I have been thinking of a messianic future dreamed by Walt Whitman in 1860 as part of the “Calamus Cluster” in Leaves of Grass: 

I DREAM’D in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;

I dream’d that was the new City of Friends;

Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love—it led the rest;

It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,

And in all their looks and words.

Whitman has many names for this “robust love” in the Calamus Cluster: the love of friends, brotherly love, manly love, the love of comrades, even American love. This love is intimate without being private, public without being impersonal; it is bodily, embodied and accepting. This is the love Lin-Manuel Miranda spoke of in his sonnet at the Tony Awards the night after the massacre in Orlando, a love that must live now, a love whose promise is always the future.

My wife’s the reason anything gets done

She nudges me towards promise by degrees

She is a perfect symphony of one

Our son is her most beautiful reprise.

We chase the melodies that seem to find us

Until they’re finished songs and start to play

When senseless acts of tragedy remind us

That nothing here is promised, not one day.

This show is proof that history remembers

We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;

We rise and fall and light from dying embers, 

remembrances that hope and love last longer

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love 

cannot be killed or swept aside.

I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story

Now fill the world with music, love and pride.

Social Reality, History and Confederate Monuments (Part III)

LemonDrop

It is local tradition to leave lemons at a Stonewall Jackson monument. I wrote “Black Lives Matter” on this one. Someone threw it on the sidewalk and stomped it.

This spring, I wrote the following letter and sent it–with additional signatories from my local community– to the local newspaper. The paper couldn’t publish the full list of names, so I have included the letter with the full list of names here. The content of the letter is closely related to Part I and Part II in the series.

Editor, Lexington News-Gazette:

On March 21, Lexington residents gathered at Hopkin’s Green to stand against the intimidation tactics of the Ku Klux Klan’s recent flier drop. The gathering was organized by the CARE (Community Anti-Racism Education) Initiative, and we hope to see more from this group. The residents of Lexington and the surrounding community must remember that such demonstrations are only starting points and must not be ends in themselves. The man shouting slander about Martin Luther King as young black people addressed the crowd clearly demonstrated the need for continued action.

Lexington has a rich history. Our two colleges add to that history through the lives of their founders, faculty, graduates and staff. Many men and women with ties to Lexington are important for understanding the history not only of the city but also of the nation. Lexington provides the final resting place for many noteworthy figures, most prominently Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Lexington, both the city and its community, are trustees of this rich history. But Lexington, both the city and its community, are failing in their stewardship. As a result, Lexington is also failing in its responsibilities to its current residents and visitors and indirectly inviting the white-supremacist attitudes displayed in the KKK fliers.

Lexington presents a whitewashed, sanitized version of our community’s history, particularly but not exclusively our Civil War history. Too much of Lexington’s presentation of its history is still dominated by late-19th and early-20th century monuments to the Confederacy. These monuments were erected as public statements of the “Lost Cause” narrative, an explicitly white-supremacist distortion of history that turns slaveholders into heroes while ignoring the people they enslaved (or, worse, framing their bondage as benevolent and welcomed). For example, the gravesite monument to Jackson presents him as a gallant knight, frequently framed by Confederate flags, but the city fails to recognize the human beings he owned as property—Albert, Amy, Cyrus, Hetty, George and Emma—or the hundreds of thousands whose bondage he fought to preserve. Jackson’s gravesite was constructed by white supremacists as a shrine to the Confederate cause, and it remains a site that Dylan Roof (and other white nationalists) would be happy to venerate. Our recent efforts at telling Lexington’s history have not been much better: the new markers in our downtown sidewalks currently honor as many Confederate horses as they do black people.

If Lexington wants to stand against the white supremacy seen in the KKK fliers, we need to tell a more complete and more honest story of our history. Some steps in this direction are already underway, notably the removal of Confederate flags from city property and W&L’s recognition of the human property donated to the college by John Robinson. These steps are, like the recent rally, only a beginning. The downtown sidewalks and the Jackson cemetery offer opportunities to take additional steps to correct our mistakes and acknowledge that the lives of Lexington’s black residents—both past and present—matter in our history and in our community.

Sincerely,

Frederick Coye Heard, Lexington

TJ Tallie, Lexington

Sydney Bufkin, Lexington

Josh Iddings, Buena Vista

Michelle Iten, Lexington

Dan Johnson, Lexington

Stephanie Johnson, Lexington

Pieter deHart, Rockbridge County

Florentine Verhage, Lexington

Kaelin Alexander, Lexington

Benjamin Frey, Buena Vista

Caleb Dance, Lexington

Reshef Agam-Segal, Lexington

Dafi Agam-Segal, Lexington

Seth Michelson, Lexington

Annie Robinson, Lexington

Kelly Brotzman, Lexington

Genelle Gertz, Rockbridge County

Aaron Abrams, Lexington

Holly Pickett, Rockbridge County

Marisa Charley, Lexington

Rose Mary Sheldon, Lexington

Julie Philips Brown, Lexington

Fran Elrod, Lexington

Terrorism is an Anti-Speech Act

I woke up this morning (as most Americans did) to news of the terrorist bombings of Brussels’ airport and mass transit system. At the time I am writing, we still do not know who is responsible for the attack or how many people were killed and injured. As always, though, we know that the effects of this attack will reach far beyond the airport and subway, far beyond Brussels, even far beyond Europe. After all, I woke up this morning, as did most Americans, to the news of those terrorist bombings.

I am reminded this morning of the attacks in Beirut and Paris, both because of the similarities of the attacks and because one of the terrorists from Paris was apprehended only this week. After those horrific events I wrote that terrorism is a speech act, and I stand by that claim. We are all feeling the illocutionary effects of today’s violence, and the next several hours, days and months will reveal its perlocutionary consequences. At the same time, it is important for us to also see that terrorism is at one and the same time an anti-speech act, and that its anti-speech effects operate very much like the speech act itself: terrorism silences in ways we can describe as locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary.

While my mind is with the victims in Brussels–the dead, the injured, the traumatized, the displaced, the bereaved–I am also thinking this morning about the rally I attended yesterday evening to protest the recent activity of a 150-year-old terrorist organization in my small Virginia town. The Ku Klux Klan’s active presence in America is a reminder, among other things, that our present moment is not the first or only age of terrorism.

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Social Reality, History and Confederate Monuments (Part II)

This is a much belated follow up to a previous post about Confederate memorials that erase rather than preserve history. The two initial quotes are from Stanley Fish. The beginning of black history month (and only weeks after Lee-Jackson Day shared a weekend with the MLK holiday here in Virginia) seems like a fitting time to dust it off and post it. Black history is American history, and any memorial that obscures the black presence in American history steals our past from all of us. The ideas are not entirely polished (so some transitions are merely breaks), but I’ve been sitting on this too long already.

One final bit of throat-clearing: As Benjamin notes in his Theses on History, “Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge,” and “In every era, the attempt must be made to wrest tradition away from the conformism [the interests of those in power; the status quo] that is about to overpower it.” History is not an objective science recording events that occur in an empty, homogenous expanse of time. History is a struggle, and the present moment is (and is always) the crisis point that will determine the past as well as the future. On to the argument:

It is not just that anti-foundationalism replaces the components of the foundationalist world-picture with other components; instead, it denies to those components the stability and independence and even identity that is so necessary if they are to be thought of as grounds or anchors. Entities like the world, language, and the self can still be named; and value judgments having to do with validity, factuality, accuracy, and propriety can still be made; but in every case these entities and values, along with the procedures by which they are identified and marshaled, will be inextricable from the social and historical circumstances in which they do their work. (Fish, “Anti-Foundationalism”)

The objective facts and rules of calculation that [for “foundationalist” theory] are to ground interpretation and render it principled are themselves interpretive products: they are, therefore, always and already contaminated by the interested judgments they claim to transcend. (Fish, “Consequences”)

A more thoughtful, better-intentioned and intellectually serious response to the Confederate monument issue that is nonetheless closely related to the idealist/solipsist argument (“It never meant hate to me”)  takes the form of the now exceedingly common suggestion that we install explanatory plaques, etc. that will “contextualize” existing Confederate monuments. The claim is that, by contextualizing the statues, etc. and explicitly recognizing their white-supremacist origins, we will gain control over their meanings and their continued effects within our lived day-to-day environments. Once we mark it as a product of its white-supremacist times, then it ceases to be a white-supremacist component of ours. Briefly put, we will disarm the monument by showing it to be a part of a particular moment.
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Toni Morrison and Hannah Arendt as Public Intellectuals

I recently presented a version of this text at the Modern Languages Association Convention in Austin, so I thought I would also post it here. The other presenters on the panel were fantastic (particularly the paper about Adiche’s fashion sense and the gendered mind-body problem). Many thanks to the Doris Lessing Society for making it possible. The text of my presentation follows:

“Toni Morrison, Hannah Arendt, and the Collaborative Public Action of Fiction”

I want to start by thanking the Doris Lessing Society for sponsoring and Cornelius for organizing this panel on women writers as public intellectuals. This afternoon, I will talk about Hannah Arendt and Toni Morrison, perhaps an odd couple, but two writers who are intensely committed to the hard work of thinking and to doing that work in public. As I will argue shortly, both Arendt and Morrison imagine intellectual work as a necessarily communal and collaborative endeavor, a necessity that results from that fact that, as Arendt says near the beginning of The Human Condition (in a passage with definite verbal irony for the current panel) “men, not man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.” For both Arendt and Morrison, the role of the public intellectual is not Ivory Tower thinking for the public but, by contrast, responsible thinking with the public. I can push this claim a step farther: for these writers, the role of every intellectual is to think with the public, and solitary cognitive activity—however much it lights up an fMRI—does not actually qualify as thinking.

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