Living with Confederate Symbols

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Living with Confederate Symbols

by Franklin Forts
Southern Cultures, Vol. 8, No. 1: Spring 2002

"When General Robert E. Lee is commemorated, what do we do with the fact that he was a racist?"

Bragg Bowlin and I are talking as we sit in the living room of his home, a 1920s-era row house two blocks from the famous Monument Avenue historic district in Richmond, Virginia. The room is furnished in dark mahogany and cherry, with impressive overstuffed chairs and sofa. Antique lamps and rugs join with the heavy wood furniture to give the room a turn-of-the-century feel. In these formal surroundings, Bragg’s bare feet, blue jeans, and white T-shirt look out of place. The room’s most prominent features, however, are its numerous images of the Confederacy and antebellum South. On a bookshelf is a bust of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Above the fireplace are framed prints of figures on horseback, generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. A Confederate battle flag hangs limp in one corner of the room. But the icon of the Old South that keeps drawing my attention is a striking collection of figurines, men in minstrel-style black face. Their pitch-black faces, stark white lips, and bulging eyes are contorted and twisted into expressions meant to convey lightheartedness and contentment. Whether these are antiques, the objects of a collector’s curious fancy, or the wistful longings for the good-old days purchased by a middle-aged white southerner at a tourist shop, I do not know. I did not ask.