My story starts in Charlottesville many many decades ago. Before polls in travel magazines rated Charlottesville’s happiness factor, the place exuded charm. Being a bit more of a quiet backwater known only to a select few then it was a good thing. My father used to crow about Albemarle County’s rank as the third richest county in the country in per capita wealth. You just can’t see it he delighted in adding—long before conspicuous consumption. How he knew that fact he never said. And like what topics were taught in school, I never thought to ask just took what I was told as the gospel.
It is hard to know where Ethel, the main character in the first two books of my Apron Strings trilogy starts and Lottie, my negro–her word– childhood caregiver and family’s maid, ends. Memory tends to devolve towards fiction as facts fade into the mist of time.
Since the Lee statue controversy crawled out into the light of day and dragged with it the inherent racism of my upbringing, I’ve been trying to remember, to conjure, or to channel what Lottie/Ethel’s wisdom how might spotlight the events of this past weekend. One thought come through loud and clear, “Ain’t nothin’ new here.”
At the age of six, I lived with my family across the street from the Unitarian Church on Rugby Road in Charlottesville. The torching of a cross on the church’s front yard by a white supremacy group called the Seaboard White Citizen’s Council scared the hell out of the grown ups in my world. It had to conjure images so much more dreadful and loathsome in Lottie’s mind.
Kept from viewing the incident, I remember the disruption it brought to what little peace existed in our not so peaceful household. I wish I could say my mother had enlightened views on race relations. Like many people of her age and geography, she was a mixed bag of beliefs on the subject. While she and my father pointed fingers and lobbed righteous indignation about like tether balls, Lottie held fast to one notion; love has no color. She didn’t throw shade on the misdirected minds that burned the cross. With a quiet grace, she went about the business of her life, which gratefully included taking care of me.
Children are blessed with an uncanny sense of recognizing love when they experience it. Despite the events going on next-door Lottie’s love for me and mine never wavered. At no time did I feel adrift in a loveless world; a feeling, I can assure you, I would have recognized the feeling if had it been present. I can’t even guess at the horrors the flaming cross evoked for her but she remained steadfast in her conviction.
Despite Lottie’s shining example, I didn’t arrive into adulthood without a lot of unconscious racism. On a recent trip to Uganda, on several occasions, I found myself the only white person in a throng of Africans without fear. I hadn’t realized how my white privilege spawned such a deeply seeded dread of the other; like it was in my bones.
Up until recently, I honestly thought the statue debate just a silly political aside. With the help of a leading edge therapist who’s new psychological modality enables her clients to examine thought patterns that have a “charge” around them; I have freed myself of a lot of useless emotional baggage. The Lee statue came up in a session this past spring as an aside. I found myself vehemently reiterating my history lesson. You know the one, the fallen hero, the great leader, the reluctant slaveholder. When I looked at the intensity of the emotions surrounding my story I realized I had a lot of work to do. For me to move on in a healthy way I had to dismantle my own Southern icons that served only to make me separate from the other.
The process started by questioning my beliefs. How does Southern define me? Why was General Lee so important to me? In the process, I uncovered a fun fact. When I was going to school Virginia history was taught in the fourth grade, the eighth grade, and the tenth grade with a heavy dose in the eleventh grade under the guise of U.S. history.
I bet you can guess whose star rose around the 1850s Virginia sky. That’s right, General Lee’s. What child brought up in the children-are-seen-not-heard world questions what they are taught in school? It wasn’t until I did some independent thinking on my own and then some investigating, did I unearth the truth. What I was taught in regards to Virginia history was a myth. My fourth-grade teacher corrected us when we referred to the American Civil War as anything other than The War of Northern Aggression. I remember being told by another teacher that it was a pernicious Yankee lie that the war was about slavery. The conflict was over states rights.
For a week or two, I mourned the loss of a childhood hero as I set about redefining what it means to be Southern. Taking Lee off his pedestal allows me to appreciate maybe for the first time the true hero in my story, Lottie and her constancy in a world of anything but.