When I was a child, my grandfather and I were inseparable. We listened to records together on his stereo: Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves. We built bird houses, solved crossword puzzles, gardened, and hosted “radio shows” during which we sang and interviewed grandma and our dogs. The dogs were actually the better interview as they played and wrestled with each other.
Grandpa and I did everything together. And I loved him dearly. He was a good man, if ever there was one.
When he died, I inherited his records. Midst the ones I knew well, I found two that I didn’t recognize. There were comedy recordings, which were blatantly and offensively racist. I destroyed them.
How could I reconcile my amazing grandfather, whose love and upright values formed me…the very best of me…with these grotesque recordings?
This sent me on a journey to face racism in my own heart and mind. Eventually I started to see ways in which my skin color gave me inherent advantages others did not have. For example, the house I live in today would not have been possible to buy if I had not inherited my parents’ house, which they were able to buy at a time when people of color were being denied access to affordable mortgages.
In the name of preserving Southern heritage, some are clinging to symbols like the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate generals. Nostalgia wafts through the air for a bygone era of gentility and civility…for magnolias, cascading weeping willows, and mint juleps.
Wafting through the air with that nostalgia is the stench of slavery. We cannot ignore that an economic system was built on the backs of slaves. We cannot ignore the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow that still oppress and diminish opportunity for people of color. The structures of racism, and their deleterious effects, did not end with the Civil War or the Civil Rights Act.
When we destroy racists artifacts, whether comedy records or statues, we are affirming that we wish to be a different people. Our nostalgia for an historical figure or a beloved grandfather goes not excuse us from facing racism and its symbolic toxicity. Isn’t any nostalgia for those symbols infinitely less precious than the tearful healing and hope sparked in people of color when those symbols are taken away?
My grandfather taught me fairness, but that pristine fairness did not fully embrace people of color. The best way I know to honor the legacy of my grandfather that I still feel in my heart is to stretch his values to include more and more people, until I finally become the man he hoped I could be…and more.