My great, great, great grandfather was James Augustus Whitley, a Sergeant in the Confederate Army and a tobacco farm owner who no doubt benefited from the use of slave labor. I still have the desk that he built, his eyeglasses and his change purse. These few artifacts of his life arranged neatly in a corner of my childhood home served as a kind of historical marker, silently memorializing him, celebrating his heroism in the war, and reminding me that his story is a part of my own.
As I think about that desk I am reminded that history matters.
In our postmodern context we are want to believe that history doesn’t matter. We are gripped by the fantasy that we are pure masters of our own fate, disconnected and free to make choices and write the narrative we imagine for our lives independent of the stories that carried us into the present.
This kind of thinking isn’t helpful. Our lives, our culture, and our realities are intricately connected to the choices, ways of thinking, successes and sins of those who came before us. The contexts in which we live our lives are shaped by the forces of history.
I am a son of North Carolina, the progeny of people who believed that the color of a person’s skin determined their worth. This is a part of my heritage. It’s my past but it’s not my future.
Next month I am moving back to South Carolina from South Africa, where I have lived for over five years giving my life to see the next generation of African leaders empowered to make a difference in the world. My friends will help me carry James Augustus’ desk from my parents home into mine. I will not destroy the desk. Instead I will reimagine it. I will set it in a corner and fill it with pictures of my African friends. The faces of Luthando, Obedience, Phumelele, Joel, Noah, Lindiwe, Marlyn, and many others will stare at us from the darkly stained pine. Then when my young daughter remembers the story of her past she will see it more fully. She will know that James Augustus fought bravely. She will know that he was part of oppressing African people. And she will never remember that desk without also remembering the love for her friends. She will know what redemption looks like.
I wonder if this little desk re-imagination project could inform the current conversation regarding the statues in the South. What if the best way forward isn’t to tear down the statues, but to reimagine them? What if we invested the same energy used to destroy, to empower African-American artists to create visual art that does not forget the past but tells a more complete story?
Redemption is always about creating beauty from the ashes. History matters but the present matters more. We are responsible for writing the history that our children will remember for generations to come. Our present is their history. Let it be a history they can be proud of.
I suppose we could stop teaching them as heroic generals of the south and as monuments of a time when people believed in racism and as a result caused the south to be held back in segregation from the post-war period to the Civil Rights era. As a cautionary tale: “Just because you lose a war you get statues! Oh, and it takes a lot longer to lose prejudice and hatred.”
But once that lesson is learned, we might end up taking down the statues from the public courthouses and moving them to our battlefields or other memorials voluntarily anyway. There’s an old saying about there being a time and a place for everything, these statues have endured though both have expired. It’s time they were in a new place.
That is what I find such a shame today: folks are not interested in learning from history, whether it be family history, national history or world history. If they did they would understand so much of what is going on today.
We need to understand the past but not to allow it to dictate our present or future. Joseph a son of Jehovah