Harry Potter and the Confederacy

August 28th, 2018

I have lived in the American South my whole life. I was raised in Texas and learned from an early age that meant that I was surrounded by three different narratives that were to shape my life. First, I grew up knowing and being reminded that I was a Child of God. Secondly, or maybe even primarily on some days, I grew up knowing that I was a Texan. I said pledges of allegiance to two flags as a child: the American flag and the Texas flag. The pledge to the Texas flag was second in the lineup as I recall. We figured that this was because they were saving the best for last. Thirdly, I grew up knowing that I was, in some way, a child of the South. Being a southerner was a badge of honor and cause for pride. We said we were Southerners not exactly knowing what it meant to claim being southern other than that it was always said with a slight disdain for those Northerners who, if nothing else, we knew were less polite. We were taught to be proud and we were taught that there was a line that separated North and South.

There was a fourth identity that I carried. Apart from being a Child of God, a Texan, and a Southerner, I am also an African-American. Being an African-American never put me at odds with the first identity and rarely the second, but being an African-American did put me at odds with this Southern identity that I was largely being taught in predominantly white school systems and settings. It felt as if I could celebrate being Southern only to a point, because part of how we knew what it meant to be Southern was created by the division between states in the Civil War — this is how we know what it means to be part of the North and the South. After all, there are still folks in the South who call the Civil War "the War of Northern aggression."

I could not help but feel the tension of slavery that was often discussed in school, but was quickly put in the background of the discussion. There have always been people who were willing to argue that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. There have always been folks who have been willing to place the institution of slavery and Jim Crow in to the background of discussions about the South along with conversations about modern mass incarceration of African-Americans or the New Jim Crow, as it has been called. There is no question that the economic realities created by slavery are what built the old South and created much wealth and power for the nation. Wealth and power are too often created by the suffering of some to create the prospering of others. The horrors of slavery and Jim Crow need not be fully recounted here, but my sense of Southern pride could not help but be tempered by images of whipping, rape, lynching, and incarceration — the dark powers of the South.

Recently, there has been renewed attention to symbols of the Confederacy that survived its demise. The Confederate flag which is still incorporated into state flags, is flown on flag poles at homes and on trucks, is the feature of bumper stickers and tattoos... the list goes on and on. Images of and monuments to Confederate Generals are all over the South. Schools and roads among other things are named after them. I will never forget going into a country club for a business meeting in Nashville and being greeted by a massive painting of Robert E. Lee atop a grand fireplace. He was safe there. Until recently, he greeted me each time I entered a beloved church in Durham, North Carolina. And then there are the monuments to fallen Confederate Soldiers.

Confederate monuments were not erected immediately following the Civil War. Of the 700 or so that span the American South, most were erected between the 1890s and the 1950s — the Jim Crow era within American life. They were placed in city squares and in other prominent places within Southern towns and cities to represent not only memorials to fallen soldiers, but also to help people remember the Confederate cause. The United Daughters of the Confederacy raised much of the money needed for the monuments.

Let me be clear, I have no problem with the state honoring fallen soldiers in any way. I have many veterans in my family and am descendant of at least one Confederate soldier. Monuments to solders can be beautiful things which honor those who did what they felt was their duty to God and country. I do lament, however, that the honoring of fallen soldiers has been co-mingled with the preservation of the glory and memory of the Confederacy. This co-mingling of the two is also what makes it difficult to remove these monuments. A monument to a general is one thing, but monuments that are also dedicated to fallen solders and paid for by their sisters, daughters, and other relatives are hard to remove. Therein lies the power of the monument — a beautiful memorial that is also infused with a dark history. Which reminds me of Harry Potter.

J.K. Rowling has created one of the most endearing and defining franchises in modern literary history with the universe of stories within her Harry Potter mythology. As a child, I grew up with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These stories taught me about magic and power, good and evil, and the cosmic battle between them. Harry Potter has joined the ranks of these stories for a new generation of readers. I am always interested in how authors work out the struggle between good and evil. It is fascinating to see how evil works in their worlds and the methods by which evil is defeated by good. Think of Sauron’s One Ring and the ways its dark power pollutes and corrupts Middle Earth. The One Ring controls the rings of power given to dwarves, elves, and humans. The Rings of Power are beautiful things, but have dark histories and only submit to the One Ring.

One of the most fascinating aspects of J.K. Rowling’s work is the way personified evil in the form of the villain Voldemort remains alive even after pronounced defeat. [Spoilers ahead if you have not read any of the Harry Potter books or seen the films.] Voldemort is kept alive by the creation of horcruxes. A horcrux in the Potterverse is an object in which a wizard or witch hides part of their soul in order to attain immortality. The creation of a horcrux is considered to be very dark magic because one can only be created by the committing of murder. Voldemort had seven of them. Horcruxes are often beautiful things — a ring, a goblet, or a necklace imbued with a dark power and not easily destroyed unless it is destroyed beyond magical repair.

It seems to me that Confederate monuments are the horcruxes of the Confederacy. The Confederacy put the power of its tortured soul into a beautiful thing like a monument to fallen soldiers. The cause of the Confederacy still looms large when you think about these monuments. The dark power of the Confederacy, with its slave holding and subsequent Jim Crow practices, has a hold on these monuments. Read Julian Carr’s speech, delivered at the dedication of Silent Sam on the University of North Carolina’s campus, and you will see this violent power on display along with its claims of supremacy. At one point Carr says:

“The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South — When “the bottom rail was on top” all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States — Praise God.”

Immediately following this passage, Carr describes the violent beating of an African-American woman. He takes pride in doing what he calls this “pleasing duty” in front of Union troops. Again, violent power on display.

I lament that the memory of fallen soldiers was coopted by the Confederate agenda and I applaud any efforts to create memorials for these fallen soldiers that are devoid of dark history. Some suggest that we forget the Confederate origins of these monuments and only remember the soldiers. I do not believe we can forget. We have erected high places that have a kind of civil religiosity to them. These symbols affect us culturally and, I think, spiritually.

Thoughts about these monuments and their significance should raise questions for us. Does the state have the courage or the spiritual power to cast them down? What is the role of the Church as we live and worship in great proximity to many of these monuments? We must find answers to these questions together. What I do know is that while these monuments remain — while they tower over those who pass by — while they stand resolute and untouchable, they have a power, and part of the Confederacy lives.

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