I didn't know the Confederate general owned slaves. I didn't even know he was part of the Confederacy.
A statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty
I have something in common with white supremacists. I once revered Robert E. Lee too.
The Lost Cause, a revisionist history movement that downplayed the evil that was American chattel slavery and turned Confederate soldiers into heroes—think Gone with the Wind—didn't only infect white Southerners. Black Southerners like me were caught in its grip as well. That's why I could relate when chief of staff John Kelly told Laura Ingraham on FOX News this week that Confederate general Robert E. Lee was "an honorable man," because I had been bathed in that myth for decades.
I loved Robert E. Lee before I knew Robert E. Lee. Even though I know the real Robert E. Lee now—the slave-owning defender of human bondage, who did so much for the horrible cause—it is still difficult to believe he was one of the architects and prime beneficiaries of one of the world's great evils. I imagine Jewish people would face a similar struggle had they, as kids, been given Hitler action figures and Hitler toy soldiers and were constantly told he fought bravely even though the odds were stacked against him.
To me, a black boy growing up in the South in the 70s and 80s, he was a great American hero, as captivating as Spider-Man and Batman. Robert E. Lee could do no wrong. He could fly. Literally. He could catch criminals in a single bound. He always righted wrongs and did it with an unmatched level of humility.
Back then, I didn't know his name was Robert E. Lee. I knew him as the General Lee. He wasn't a man. He was more. He was a car, an orange 1969 Dodge Charger with a Confederate flag emblem on his roof, and doors that couldn't open, which forced his driver to enter and exit in the coolest way possible, through open windows like NASCAR drivers at the Daytona 500. Sometimes his passengers would slide across Lee's hood as they ran—in tight blue jeans and leather boots—from bad guys to make a great escape.
Lee became so important to my family, and other black and white families throughout the South, thanks to the The Dukes of Hazzard, the TV show in which Lee starred alongside characters called Bo and Luke Duke and Uncle Jesse and Cooter. It wasn't football or church but felt as much a religious pastime as those other two Southern faiths. The show was deeply enmeshed in Southern culture, both black and white. The cutoff jeans that became known as "Daisy Dukes" would later be used in a 1993 rap song and video—Duice's "Dazzey Duks"—widely embraced by young black men and women. John Schneider, the actor who played Bo Duke, would end up in a Tyler Perry show on the Oprah network where his character had an affair with a black woman.
Lee was in the history textbooks too, which in those days in South Carolina were written by Confederate apologists. For most of the 20th century, that was true of nearly all public school students in our state and others in the region. I left high school—a nearly all-black, segregated rural high school—with the impression that abolitionists had done something wrong by trying to undermine the Southern way of living, and that men like Lee had fought valiantly and expertly to save the land upon which I was born.
I was not taught that Lee was a slaveowner; I was taught he hated slavery as much as every other God-fearing Christian white man in the South. I did not know he publicly beat some of his slaves to keep other slaves in line. I did not know he was especially harsh to black Union soldiers during the Civil War, or let his subordinates do ugly things to them, including an infamous massacre at Fort Pillow, during which 300 mostly black Union soldier died. As strange as it sounds, I didn't even associate him with the Confederacy. But I knew a story about Lee that has been told repeatedly in our region: After the war, he silently knelt by a black man in church when other white people wouldn't, to signal that it was time to move beyond the ugly and embrace people of all races. (It's disputed that that really happened or whether it was a gesture of racial harmony.) I also heard about him urging the "boys" to "furl the flag."
Lee the car was an exciting superhero. I remember the days I cherished the replicas that came in the kid's meal at Hardee's. Lee the man was a soothing myth, a man so important and honorable—that word again—schools and roads and babies were named after him and monuments and memorials were built in his honor. He was never a traitor. When I was a boy, I did not know he was one of the most important figures of the Confederacy, which enshrined a permanent form of black enslavement in its constitution because its leaders believed white people were superior and blacks should always be viewed as lesser and as servants. It was a time when my young mind wasn't certain that slavery was even the cause of the war.
In hindsight, it was a genius plan: to inculcate young black Southerners before we could know the fuller, uglier reality, to use fast cars and toy cars and a pretty girl in short-shorts and a couple of white dudes who looked like our neighbors—who dressed like us and worked on cars in dirty white T-shirts like us and farmed like us and hunted like us and prayed to the same God we did—to convince us to love and revere those who hated us so much they wanted us in chains forever. They had to know that once we grew up and learned the truth, it would still be hard to break free of those warm feelings for men who raped and murdered our great-great aunts and uncles because of where we began.
I want to tell you that their plan didn't work. But it did. It took decades to do what they did. It will take decades more to undo it.
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