November 29, 2016
The Lore and Lessons of
by Jon Luke Watts
by Jon Luke Watts
A black Confederate sympathizer's funeral
and the crucial value of nuance in social discourse
It was Oxford and August and Sunday, and as a bagpiper clad in plaid sounded his reeds, white men wearing biker jackets with Confederate flag patches on them lifted a casket containing the remains of a black man into a hearse. Making its way from First Baptist Church, the funeral procession paused in front of the Confederate statue on the Square. It was midmorning and the heat so sultry that Confederate flag stickers on car doors appeared to wave in the haze rising from the asphalt.
At the statue’s base stood an elderly man dressed in Confederate uniform and holding a sword by his side. Gazing at the procession as it moved forward, he participated in the communal singing of “Dixie.”
Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten.
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land!
Leading the envoy were four marching men dressed in Confederate grey uniforms and standing shoulder to shoulder, the middle two carrying the flags of Mississippi and the Confederacy.
I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie's Land I'll take my stand,
to live and die in Dixie.
The white hearse bearing the body of the deceased was escorted by a peculiar crew: men dressed in Confederate grey walking between two African-American women while carrying the stars and bars were followed by a contingent of thirty loyalists proudly hoisting an oversized Confederate banner.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie!
Away, away, away down south in Dixie!
A collective cheer broke out, and the singing recommenced. As the final cars passed, the statue’s guardian ceased his salute, returning his sword to its scabbard.
As Mr. Faulkner never quite said, “To understand the world, one must first understand a place like Mississippi.” Whoever attributed that quote to the worst postman Oxford ever had would have done better with “to understand the complexity of society, one must first understand a people as complex as Mississippians.” But understanding the complexity of others can be difficult.
Our most valuable inheritance as humans is conversation. It is our ability to participate in conversation with one another that separates the human from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian. “Indeed,” Michael Oakeshott notes, “it seems not improbable that it was the engagement in this conversation that gave us our present appearance, man being descended from a race of apes who sat in talk so long and so late that they wore out their tails.”
But currently, this conversation is suffering. The latest findings on political discourse suggest that Americans are more polarized than ever before. Whether you believe the culprit is social media, news media, the devolution of interpersonal discourse, or some combination of these factors, the divide is undeniable. While these forces undoubtedly exacerbate and accelerate the processes of polarization, they have a common root: lack of nuance in our appraisal of both ourselves and others.
On his first trip to the South, my friend Christopher Dowd observed that below the Mason-Dixon, the line between fact and fiction can be foggy. In Mississippi, it’s just as true that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a Delta turnpike as it is that General Grant took forty-seven summer days to subdue General Pemberton and the people of Vicksburg. The truth can be hazy. Anthony Hervey’s story is no exception. Friends of “The Black Confederate” hold that he grew up in Oxford, continued his education at the University of London, and was a lifelong sympathizer of the Confederate cause. Put another way, an internationally educated African American proudly supported a cause that had oppressed and enslaved his ancestors. People are complicated.
We all know that we are complex, but too often treat and discuss others as if they are simple. Reducing people with whom we disagree to jejune motivations fosters misunderstanding of them, and results in each side arguing against caricatures of the other. Before we can engage, convince, or empathize with people who have disparate views, we must seek to understand their intricacies and avoid assessing them based on cultural assumptions of class, race, sex, or religion. Political polarization thrives when we reduce intricate individuals to simplistic motivations and evaluate entire groups as if they were monoliths. If we expect nuance to be noticed in ourselves, we must be vigilant in seeking to recognize and engage it in others.
For over a decade, Anthony Hervey sat perched under the Square’s Confederate monument, waving a Confederate battle flag and spouting incendiary, rehearsed lines at all who would listen. He was a provocateur more interested in entertainment than critical engagement. Though his story helps us see the perils of typecasting others, it also cautions that evaluating people based on their own merits is not enough. We must view conversations primarily as an opportunity to learn, not provoke. Doing so requires that we be willing to recognize, admit, and even reconsider our assumptions.
Yes, research suggests that we consider ourselves more divided now than at any point in our nation’s history. But there is hope. Though we have tended to reduce people to their party affiliation, there are many other important topics to discuss with our fellow citizens, such as art, family, faith, and the Chicago Cubs. In the end, it will not be whether or not Robert Johnson met the devil in the Delta that defines us, but rather the extent to which we heed the lessons of Hervey, recognize nuance in our friends and fellow citizens, and engage in conversations seeking not to argue, provoke, or convince, but understand one another.
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