By Tammy Kurnaz
Robert E. Lee IV is a former pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem, NC. He is also a descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and an out-spoken man speaking out against racism. Recently at the MTV music awards, he said, “None of us has the ability to solve every racist problem…but I do know that we all have a light. If you shine your light, then you’re setting an example for others.
My great-great-great grandfather died of pneumonia in a prison camp in Virginia during the Civil War. He was a soldier in the Confederate army. He was from a small town outside Charlotte, NC. He left behind three children. I do not know why he joined the Confederacy; if it was because he truly believed the cause was justified, or if he was simply trying to provide for his family. I know they were not wealthy people. I do know that I come from a long line of fervent Democrats, and racism never had a place in my family.
I was raised in a small Southern Baptist church. We went to the candlelight service on Christmas eve and gathered each summer on the church grounds for a big dinner, tables overflowing with every food a kid from the South was raised on: fried chicken, potato salad, green beans, deviled eggs, cucumbers and sliced tomatoes. Oh, and the biscuits, big as a cat’s head and fluffy as a cloud. My grandmother was there with her arms full of someone’s happy, fat baby and her big black purse stuffed with caramels, pink lipstick, and tissues. I remember how pretty the songs were, even if I couldn’t carry a tune. I remember how the adults raised their hands as they sang, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” I thought they were waving at angels only they could see. I remember the Sunday sermons, how the preacher stood before our congregation on a low step to show that he didn’t think he was any better than the rest of us. He raised his tattered Bible toward the ceiling and preached on human kindness and peace.
It was the 1970’s, in a small town in North Carolina. It all could have turned political during that time. We were asked, instead, to love our brothers and our sisters. Maybe, after all, people didn’t want the racism brought to their small corner of the world. “Treat those as you would want to be treated”, we were taught.
Martin Luther King said in his “I Have A Dream” speech – “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
It was the first time I understood the power of words that formed a belief inside me. I have often found myself returning to it when I hurt to my core by the rhetoric of this New South. Maybe nostalgia is our sanctuary in sorry times.
Like many people, I watched the horror in Charlottesville, VA, with sadness and disgust. A man drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing a young woman and injuring many more. White supremacists believe they are justified in their actions, and are encouraged by their modern-day leaders who don’t hide in the dark woods anymore – they live in the political spotlight.
I don’t have much time for politics. I have a house to run and children to raise. But I recognize evil and fear and stupidity and belligerency when I see it. I know that many of the people who marched in Charlottesville were Southern men. I don’t know them. Used to be that the only thing they needed for their costume of hate was a big white sheet. Southerners should be angry to be dragged down among them, even by the vaguest association. We can say that it’s not happening, but it is.
We all see it: the statues, the hate, the Confederate flag license plates on the front bumpers of the pickup trucks. It hurts others like a grain of sand in the eye. I didn’t understand it when I was a little girl, but it finally came to me.
I do not need a statue or a flag to know that I am Southern. I can taste it in the food, feel it in my heart, and hear it in the language of my people. Maybe I am only remembering this through the eyes of a young girl, but I still believe in the best of us, in God’s grace, and in the goodness that comes from progress. The best of us are moving forward, away from the hatred of the past.
I am the descendant of a Confederate soldier. I am a Muslim. and I am here.