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How Much Should We Remember?

January 21, 2013

In a couple of weeks Barack Obama will take the oath of office as president of the United States. Many of us recall four years ago, that magical winter day when he stood in front of the Capitol and swore to do his best to reserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and so became our first African-American president.

I recently recalled a fall evening almost thirty years ago, 1984, an election year.
One of the major political parties, I forget which one, sponsored a nationally televised event that featured the usual speech-making and political posturing. The climax of the program was a Civil War medley made up of "Dixie," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and "All My Sorrows, Lord, Soon Be Over," sung by country-western artist Dottie West, whose prior contribution to my life had been her duet with Kenny Rogers, "Every Time Two Fools Collide."

The cobbling together of the anthem of the Confederacy, Julia Ward Howe’s triumphant hymn, and the classic spiritual suggested that the lines that had divided our country for so long – North/South, black/white – were finally being overcome, if not in America, then in that political party. My tears – unpremeditated, uncontrolled – said otherwise. "I wish I was in the land of cotton." The oil industry had long since displaced cotton as king in north Louisiana when I was a boy, but the old cotton festival – Holiday in Dixie – was still the cultural event of the year. All around my hometown the symbols of the Old South
remained – the statues at the courthouse, the Confederate Memorial Hospital, the Dixie Drill Team of Fair Park High School, my school, in their starched, gray Confederate uniforms.

The system of laws and customs that divided our community into parallel worlds was so successful in keeping blacks and whites apart that from the time I was born until I went to college I knew only one African-American – Annie Jones, who helped rear my dad when he was a boy. A black family lived across the road from us, but my parents would not let me play with their children. The racism that permeated my world wasn’t violent or mean. It was condescending and
patronizing. We knew how things were supposed to be. It was all divinely ordained, we were told.

Then, when I was in high school the structure of my world came crashing down, shattered into a million pieces by a single picture of the front page of the Shreveport Times. It showed a young girl being escorted to school in some Southern city and a white woman spitting on her. The woman could have been my Sunday School teacher or the mother of one of my friends. But the expression on her face was sheer hatred, and it was directed at a ten-year-old girl.

All the talk about states’ rights, the storied way of life, the romanticized tales about "the War," and this is what it came down to -- a grown woman spitting on a child. It was shameful, it was humiliating. Worst of all, it was undeniable.
Like the statue of Ozymandias, the old idol crumbled. And there it lay for twenty-five years until Dottie West appeared on the TV screen sentimentalizing, "In Dixie land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie." Without warning childhood memories came flooding back – Annie Jones, the ugly woman on the front page, the playmates I never knew, the pride and the shame. Tears of grief surprised my eyes, and I wept for an unredeemed past.

"Old times there are not forgotten." That’s the issue, isn’t it? Forgetting. I recall a bumper sticker from years ago; it pictured a long-bearded old Confederate soldier saying, "Forget? Hell no!" I’m pretty sure I would not be in favor of preserving what that old soldier wanted to preserve. But he was a right about one thing – we must not forget who we were and what we did in the name of whatever god we thought we were serving.

On the other hand, sometimes I think that our country will be better off when my
generation has made its contribution and passed from the scene, and a fresh one has come along, one without long memories and deep scars. Maybe then we can inaugurate a president without noting the color of his or her skin and pointing out that she or he is the first of his or her kind to lead our country. Let it be, dear Lord. Let it be.

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