Memory  /  First Person

Growing Up in the Shadow of the Confederacy

Memorials to the Lost Cause have always meant something sinister for the descendants of enslaved people.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The history of the statue in my hometown, unveiled on May 14, 1917, indicates such myth-making was already prevalent when it was dedicated a century ago. The entry on the day of its unveiling in the local Evening Telegram declares the Nash County monument “one of the handsomest monuments in the State of North Carolina.” Of the Confederate soldier to whom the monument is dedicated, the newspaper wrote: “And when the star of the Confederacy had finally set in agony and in tears behind the bloody horizon at Appomattox, Robert H. Ricks and his brave ‘Manly’s Battery’ were still fighting. For, this man never surrendered.” It seems certain that in Ricks, the white citizenry of Rocky Mount still saw themselves, as fighters continuing in a war and a cause.

But as intense as the indoctrination in the South was—and I imagine it much more intense in other states, since North Carolina prides itself on being the least Confederate of the Confederate states—the myths were always revealed to be lies, through the very fact of my own existence. How could I reconcile the storied bravery and defiance of a man like Ricks, when the cause he never yielded intended to continue the subjugation of my ancestors? How could the golden race of the Old South be so golden when they whipped, raped, and killed people with faces and skin like mine, and when their grey-coated defenders massacred black people and prisoners in the field? How could Old Dixie be so worth remembering when, if it had survived, I might still be working those cotton mills today?