Whitewashing the Civil War prevents Atlanta from moving forward
We were in the gift shop of a museum aimed at children. My five-year-old son had spent the previous few hours running through the exhibits, putting his hands on all the hands-on activities, and generally exploring a space that would become our go-to hangout in our new city.
We were transplants from the Boston area. My husband, who is black, loved Atlanta. He loved that it was such a black city, with such a rich, black history that showed in the food, the culture, the wit and warmth of the people. I am white, a native Midwesterner who had taken forever to feel at home in New England and now had to adjust to yet another new region. I remember how impressed I was by Atlanta’s natural beauty. I remember feeling pleased but wary. So far, I hadn’t encountered that thing I’d most feared when relocating to this region whose reputation preceded it: overt, unapologetic racism.
I arrived in Atlanta on high alert, ready to react to what I had been primed to expect. Even though I grew up in Kansas, a state so often misrepresented by stereotypes, I was nevertheless prepared to find the stereotypes I feared.
Still, nothing gave me pause during our first few weeks in Atlanta. Not until we found ourselves in that gift shop, and I found myself staring at a display of two wooden rulers, side by side. One, labeled “Rulers of the North,” listed the generals who fought for the Union during the Civil War; the other, labeled “Rulers of the South,” named those who fought for the Confederacy. I can’t begin to list the ways this offended me, and offends me still. In our United States of America (not the Confederate States of America), generals are not “rulers.” Also, the men listed on one ruler fought under the flag of the nation we all live in, and of which I am a proud (if often conflicted and generally critical) citizen. The other ruler named men who were at best, misguided; at worst, simply traitors. No matter their motivation, they fought to preserve a way of life that included—depended upon—holding human beings in bondage.
This was my first encounter with the false equivalency and selective amnesia at the root of what historians call the Lost Cause—a misinterpretation of the history of the Civil War, one that denies the central role of slavery and instead sees the South as the noble victim of Yankee cruelty.
There was my son’s soccer coach, a year or two later, who told me with an absolutely straight face that Abraham Lincoln was a “tyrant.” There were white neighbors on our local Facebook group, defending the Confederate flag as a symbol of regional pride, one that black people shouldn’t find offensive. The Civil War, they would argue, had nothing to do with slavery.
“It’s time for the grip of fake history to be broken, so that everyone can feel fully welcomed in this warmest of cities.”
Whitewashing the cause of the Civil War and the founding principle of the Confederacy—Georgia’s own Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, in his famous “Cornerstone Speech,” declared that the new government was founded “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition”—distorts everything that came after, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the civil rights movement. It encourages white southerners to nurse an identity of grievance; it makes it possible for white voters to claim “economic anxiety” as they cheer demagoguery. And it prevents the kind of honest reckoning that would allow the city, region, and country to move forward.
I had feared present-day racism and found less than I expected. For the most part, people welcomed my interracial family, and our social world in Atlanta was far more diverse than it had ever been in Boston. What I hadn’t understood was how much historical confusion endures even in the South’s largest, most sophisticated city and how stubbornly the fantasy of a heroic Confederacy endures.
Atlanta is a city with a thriving black middle class, new immigrants from all over the globe, a dynamic diversity few American places can match. The six years we lived there were magical for our entire family. When a new job took us to New York last year, we were sad to say goodbye; I miss it constantly.
And yet, it’s a place where a black child can walk into a children’s museum gift shop and find that those who fought for slavery—those who would have auctioned off his ancestors without any qualms—are still seen as heroes. It’s still a place where my son has to see a giant monument to the Confederacy if he wants to hike up Stone Mountain. It’s time for the grip of fake history to be broken, so that everyone can feel fully welcomed in this warmest of cities.
Kate Tuttle is president of the National Book Critics Circle.