Two summers ago I went on vacation to Colonial Williamsburg with my wife’s family. As a history teacher I was excited. The sites of the Battle of Yorktown, Jamestown, and (a fictional rebuilding) of Williamsburg itself are all in close proximity to each other. While this popular area has been built up considerably for the tourist sector I had a great week exploring history.
One morning I found myself checking out a gun display in one of the Colonial Williamsburg museums. After I did this I sat down on a bench nearby and struck up a conversation with a retired teacher from Tennessee. As we learned we were both teachers we both enjoyed talking about the importance of history for a couple of minutes. She then said something quickly, almost in passing. I do not remember the exact quote but she noted that “some people want to get rid of our history. Some people where I am from are trying to get rid of statutes of General Forrest.”
She was referencing the trend for states and communities to take down statues of confederate war heroes. Even still, if I hadn’t read an article about General Forrest a few weeks prior I probably wouldn’t have known who he was. But I had. Let me tell you a couple things about Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
During the Civil War a group of soldiers he led was responsible for the Fort Pillow Massacre where an overpowered group of mostly African-American soldiers were brutally shot down even after the battle was won. These Confederate soldiers were not particularly happy for African-Americans to haven taken up arms against them, you see. After the War, Forrest was named as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
This perfectly pleasant woman I was talking to was mistaken. Mr. Forrest deserves to be studied and remembered as an actor of hatred and a reminder of what the Civil War was fought over. But statutes and memorials to him all over the South? That is nonsense and deserves to be corrected.
Now I am a reasonably well spoken adult. Surely I could sort out how to tactfully and respectfully to explain to this women why her view was mistaken. I have a strong sense of justice and what’s right. So that’s what I did.
Except it’s not.
After a glimmer of recognition of who Forrest was in my mind I mumbled uncomfortably and said nothing. A few minutes later the conversation was over. Now there’s a lot of reasons I could use to excuse to explain my lack of action. I’m a shy introvert who does not love confrontation with people I know well, let alone people I just met. But those excuses would be just a smokescreen. I did not speak up that morning because of of my privilege.
In a great number of ways, my life is a textbook example of white privilege. I won’t go into all of the ways here but my point is this. I have NEVER spoken up much about current issues of race or racism in the past few years, either in conversation or on social media. It has felt too contentious and I have felt like taking sides would be too difficult. But mostly I haven’t spoken about these things because I haven’t had to.
My privilege insulates me from feeling strongly about these issues. It’s incredibly difficult for me to admit this but it’s true. I have opinions or thoughts about events of the past years but it does not feel near to me. Our society insures that it rarely will. Those who have lost family members or feel the reality of racism daily enjoy no such luxury.
I sincerely regret not speaking up that morning to the woman. I suspect that she was a perfectly nice and professional teacher during her career. But she harbors attitudes that allow protests like this past weekend to occur in Charlottesville. This does not mean we demonize each other. It does mean we recognize racist attitudes when we hear them and see them and call them out. I am a nerdy, WASPy, teacher with glasses. I won’t always get everything right. But I will commit to writing more and when I see racism I will do my best to speak up.