Lessons on Charlottesville from a Deceased Grandaddy

I started today as I usually do, with a two-mile meditative walk through our local peaceful and beautiful park-like cemetery. And as has been the case for the past several days, my mind and my heart were reflecting on the sad events at Charlottesville this weekend and the international fall-out of our personal, collective, and presidential responses to the incident.  Like many, I tend to stew over the same things over and over again when faced with a societal conflict like this.  But my thoughts moved into new territory when I got a visit from the animal that to me represents my deceased father-in-law, who died seven years ago this month and who is, in fact, buried in that very cemetery.

My father-in-law was, in many ways, a remarkable man.  He came from a small Carolina town with very little, but turned himself into a truly self-made millionaire, becoming a developer during the era when our town grew from a community of perhaps 5,000 residents to one housing over 100,000.  He was someone who could most charitably be called a “character.”  Strong-willed, independent, salty-talking, he definitely had big ideas and made them happen.  But he ran things on a “my-way-or-the-byway” attitude that did not make him the easiest person to live with.  He could be domineering, unbelievably politically incorrect, and, frankly, racist at times.  But he could also be very generous, funny, and charming.  And while he might say ugly things about different races as a group, he didn’t necessarily believe that about individuals; in fact, one of the people he thought most highly of was a black man.  He was always nice to me and respected me, even when he was telling me what I was doing wrong and what I should be doing instead.  He was a complex man who might be many things to different people, but in our household, he was just Grandaddy.

So when this animal, that I don’t see that often, showed up, it made me think about Grandaddy and what he would have thought about all this.  For the  first time ever, I wondered if he would have voted for Donald Trump had he been alive.  In many ways, he had qualities I might associate with the President’s base.  He was a white Southern man, longtime conservative Republican, avid Fox News watcher.  He railed against Democrats and liberals and political correctness and yearned for a return to “the good old days.”  It struck me that he shared many characteristics with our current President.

But in the end, I don’t think he would have voted for Donald Trump.  Perhaps it would have been a case of it takes one to know one, but I think he would have judged Trump as being too crazy, too reckless, too driven by ego rather than principle.

So then I thought about how he would have reacted to the entire Charlottesville situation.  I recalled him showing me an accounting book of one of his ancestors who ran a shop in the 19th century that, along with the records about bags of sugar or wheat and horse, showed the buying and selling of slaves.  And he often told the tale of one of his ancestors who was fighting for the Confederacy who, when the war ended, was in Pennsylvania and had to walk back to his North Carolina home with no money, no food, no support from the government or either side of the armies who had been fighting.

When he told these stories, he didn’t act particularly proud of his ancestors having been slave owners or Confederate soldiers, but he didn’t seem ashamed either.  It just how things were.  But the stories were important to Grandaddy.  My father was also from a Southern white family, so I’m sure I have some ancestors who, at the very least, fought on the side of the South during the Civil War.  But those stories have never been passed down in my birth family as they were in Grandaddy’s family.

So what I think is that, while Grandaddy never did and never would have participated in any such protest, he would be angry and offended by the push to remove Confederate monuments.  I think he would have felt that people were erasing his heritage, a heritage that he could acknowledge was flawed but that was still something important to him, something that he was proud of, something that had, in some ways, shaped who he was.

So, yes, he shared attributes with the President’s base, and yes, he would have been against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.  But what I felt most strongly of all–so strongly that it brought tears to my eyes–is that he would be horrified to be conflated with the hate groups that brought violence and death to Charlottesville.  This was a man who, barely older than a teenager, worked on the Navy landing ships at the battle of Normandy, and won a medal of honor for risking his own life to drag a wounded serviceman to safety.  A man who, even at that young age, had the presence of mind to ask for the tattered flag that had flown on his ship that day when they took it down to replace with a new one, which he protected throughout the war and brought home as one of the family’s most treasured relics.  He would be outraged to be associated with neo-Nazis, having seen the damage the original Nazis had done.  This was a man who, over his life, had hired, worked with, rented to, sold houses to hundreds of black people, Hispanic people, Asian people.  He had his prejudices, but he treated people fairly and complied with all civil rights legislation.  He was a far, far cry from a white supremacist.

So my lesson from a deceased Grandaddy is that I have to be careful about lumping together people with whom I may not agree.  I think the President’s comments on Tuesday were inarticulate and inappropriate, and parts were downright unacceptable.  But part of what I think he was trying to say is true: I have to watch my tendencies to view these things as absolutes.  Not all people who opposed removing symbols of the Confederacy were evil hate-mongers.  Not everyone who showed up at the rally to protest the protesters were necessarily righteous angels.  Violence during disagreement is wrong, whether you are a white supremacist or a civil rights advocate.  And I can’t just act like everyone who believes differently than I do is automatically a racist or obviously acting out of hate.  That would just make me the same as what I say I’m resisting–I would be hating an entire group of people based on my prejudiced belief that they are haters.  Hating haters just generates more hate, and we don’t need any more of that.  We need more willingness to listen and to understand other viewpoints, more tolerance and compromise, more love.

It was funny, but thinking about Grandaddy’s responses felt like it allowed me to get more inside of President Trump’s head.  I absolutely reject the idea that people who came to speak out against hate groups are morally equivalent to the hate groups themselves.  But I felt like I could better understand at least some of what he was trying to say, and allowed me to respond to his comments not just out of anger and dismay, but with a higher level of compassion for the people and the points of view that I disagree with.  They are Americans, just as much as I am, and we have to figure out a way to work these things out without resorting to violence and antipathy.  Neo-Nazism and white supremacy has no place in our American democracy, but strongly-held and highly-emotional differences of opinion are inevitable.

Just after I reached that conclusion, I encountered the Grandaddy representative animal once again, as if to confirm that I had gotten his reactions right.  So I silently thanked Grandaddy for his wisdom and support.   Though this mental journey, I was able to move from “them” and “us” to just “us.”  And so I went home with a much lighter heart.

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