The Confederate debate in my blood: My cousin Robert E Lee

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

More than 150 years ago, its creators surely intended for it to awe. Down the wide avenue, Robert E Lee sits on a horse; a powerful stallion carved into stone as he rides into battle.

I marvel at its power and stare at Lee's uniform, Confederate insignia moulded in bronze on his lapel, in defence of slavery. 

Then I look at his face - and it looks like mine.

My cousin, General Robert E Lee led the southern Confederate States Army in a campaign against the northern Union during the American Civil War in the 1860s. The North fought to free all enslaved African Americans. They won, my cousin lost.

The inheritance of guilt

Today, the US is gripped by a debate over what Confederate monuments like my cousin's, which stands in Richmond's Monument Avenue, stand for. I carry that debate in my blood.

General Robert E Lee is part of my family. Five generations on, we still share a physical resemblance, and I wonder - and fear - what else my genes have predisposed me to be. Were there emotional or psychological traits that inclined him towards the choices that he made, towards his moral failings? Is that part of him in me?

I wonder what traditions or cultural habits might have been passed down from his generation to mine and whether the good inherent in the family I see around me could have saved him.

My parents weren't as wealthy as Lee was, with his sprawling plantation estates. I grew up in a farmhouse in a working-class neighbourhood. I went to a public school.

But I'm still acutely aware of how our ancestral wealth, gained from enslavement, may have trickled down, contributing to my comfort or education. Even the school I attended was funded primarily by the property taxes paid by a majority white community, enriched from the misdeeds of previous generations.

When it comes to the inheritance of guilt, where do you draw the line? Is there a debt owed to black Americans for the centuries of oppression by my white ancestors?

A symbol for modern-day racism

In the middle of a summer night last year, I watched the Charlottesville violence roil from the Al Jazeera newsroom in Doha on multiple screens and I felt enraged. People were using a member of my family as a reverent symbol for modern-day racism, for hate.

White supremacists had organised a rally to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E Lee. They came armed and planned for violence.

In the aftermath, one of their supporters crashed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens.

My rage intermingled with shame - that people in the US were still capable of this hatred, this vitriol, and they were using my family name to justify it. And beyond that - I felt profoundly sad - for my country because it's unable to shake its short-sighted past; and for my family, because we had to bear this relation.

There have been many Lees since him, who definitely weren't racist, and yet his perceived legacy continues to haunt our history.

Rewriting history

Eight months later, I was standing at the foot of my cousin's statue in Richmond, an hour's drive from Charlottesville.

Lee's statue wasn't put up during the Civil War or his lifetime, but after the conflict, in 1890 following the so-called Reconstruction Era.

No other country erects statues to the losing side of a civil war.

The North won the war, but put old southern leaders into place to "rehabilitate" the Union with political compromise. They, in turn, attempted to reassert notions of white supremacy.

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