A Ramble from R.E. Lee to Authenticity

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Having just finished reading Crucible of Command by William C. Davis, a biography of both Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant during the same time period, I recaptured a bizarre memory.

When I was young, every schoolchild knew the name of Robert E. Lee’s horse (Traveller) and that Lee was the son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War hero.

All I remember being mentioned about Ulysses S. Grant was that he had a drinking problem. I don’t know that we even actually studied him in history classes, even though he was a two-term President of the United States.

It took until I was in my late fifties to learn that his favorite horse’s name was Cincinnati and that his father, Jesse Grant, had as a young man lodged with the father of John Brown.

So the man who brought Lee to his knees was one degree of separation from the man who many thought caused the Civil War. That is history!

I was a bit afraid that reading a biography of Lee would introduce something about him that I could admire. I’m glad to say it didn’t. The many, many quotes from letters portray a man given to whining, a man who didn’t treat his wife very well, and a man who never seemed to question that God may not, in fact, have been on the South’s side.

His letters are full are perorations about accepting God’s will, but he didn’t seek to know what that will was and it never, ever occurred to him, before or after the war, that perhaps God’s will was for all people to be equal and free. After the war, he continued to believe and propagate the belief that formerly enslaved peoples had no right to be part of a civil society, much less vote and take their place as political equals.

For all of the devoutness expressed in his letters, there is no trace of any authentic relationships between Lee and his God.

Authenticity is what has really been on my mind lately. In the 1990s, I went to a youth conference on diversity to write about it for my newspaper column. The keynote speaker was Dr. Deborah Protherow-Stith, at the time the youngest and first female Commissioner of Public Health for the state of Massachusetts. It was Dr. Protherow-Stith who first declared youth violence, and particularly violence committed by and against young black men, to be a public health issue. It was a visionary stance; she created a whole state department around prevention of youth violence that transformed Boston.

protherow-stithDr. Protherow-Stith also talked that day about the need for authentic relationships between black and white people, and it’s something I’ve always remembered. The word “authentic” comes from the Greek through Old French and late Middle English. The Greek meaning was “principal” or “genuine.”

I heard a similar message around the same time at a Convocation of the Episcopal diocese to which I belonged. The keynote speaker, in talking about developing authentic relationships with God, told a joke about a Jewish grandmother who had taken her grandson to the beach togged out in a brand new bathing costume complete with hat. While he played at the water’s edge, a huge wave came and took him out to sea. The grandmother raised her fist to the skies and bellowed at God to return her grandson right now. Sure enough, another wave plopped the boy back on the beach at her feet. She took one look at him, raised her fist again, and bellowed, “And his new hat too!”

I was shocked when an African-American woman who has known trouble in her life told me that when she dies and goes to heaven, “God’s got some explaining to do!” We were on the phone, but I still looked around for a lightning bolt to shatter such blasphemy. God explaining God to us mere mortals?

But I pondered it in my heart.

I read Irish literature where so often the characters say “Jaysus!” all the time, and it took me awhile to understand that this wasn’t blasphemy, but the characters calling on their best friend. I began to see it as the true cry of the believer.

I listen to old Negro spirituals and was surprised one day to hear a woman sing, “Don’t worry ‘bout what your granddaddy and grandma said; God don’t mind that ignorant shit, and they was well blessed.”

The word “shit” in a Gospel song? Oh my! And the song was no less powerful and holy for that.

As I have pondered these things over the years, I have begun to see that there are certain types of white people who have no authentic relationships at all, not with their colleagues, not with people of other colors, and certainly not with their God. Their interactions are at arm’s length and seem to me arid. These people are not necessarily WASPs, but descended from ethnic groups that were not tribal. By that I mean that they were not groups that identify strongly because of being ghettoized and/or under another political entity’s subjugation.

I’m going to go far out on a limb here, and I have no statistics to back up this thought, only observation, but it has seemed to me that the lower the economic scale, the more authenticity there sometimes is between white and black people. I would put the cause as proximity. The higher up on the food chain, the more isolated one becomes from people.

I used to swim daily at a glacial pond in the town of Falmouth on Cape Cod. It was one of the few places in town where you saw white and black people mixing. I was told that many other white people wouldn’t swim there because of the “class” of people who used the pond. And yet it was a place where I had some of the most delightful encounters with people whom I would never have met otherwise until I got more involved with social justice issues in the town. Aside from the fact that you could swim for miles there without ever touching a weed, you could be yourself and be accepted. It was like a little community of its own.

I have seen the same phenomenon working in the field of human services, which are notoriously low paying and where the staff who do the really down and dirty work have mostly been black and Latino in places where I have worked. When you’re all in the same boat, you don’t worry about the color or ethnicity of the person whose turn it is to paddle; you’re just glad they’re there.

I don’t have any conclusions; I’m feeling my way here to ideas about how as a society we can build up authentic relationships between people of all stripes. How can we be genuine at all times and in all places? I welcome any thoughts on this.

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5 thoughts on “A Ramble from R.E. Lee to Authenticity

  1. Debra

    When I first moved to the US I was surprised to find out it wasn’t really a melting pot at all. At least it is that way in Austin. Not only do ethnic groups live apart from each other in certain sections fo the city but there is clearly a caste system based on colour. Bus drivers, shop keepers, child care workers, landscapers etc are nearly all people of colour and/or women. Tech jobs and the financial workers downtown are nearly all white people. It was jarring to see this. I don’t know how people are going to build connections when there is such a rigid separation based on geography and economics. Eleanor Roosevelt said it was a mistake to integrate school children before integrating neighbourhoods and I kind of think she was right.

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    • I did not know that about Eleanor Roosevelt, but she makes a very good point. So do you. Even in the little town I live in, there is a “grid” such as you describe. And I have talked to African-American youth who feel uncomfortable on the Main St. because they worry they’re going to be accused of something. Some days I do feel kind of hopeless that things will ever change for good.

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      • Debra

        Yeah I learned that from Harry Belafonte’s autobiography. She really had a brilliant mind. Imagine if she had been president …

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  2. I really hope that they’ll decide to put Eleanor on some of the ten dollar bills! But back to segregated living. From what I’ve seen moving into my third summer here in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland is one of the most integrated states in the country. It’s wonderful and new to me after having been brought up in the Berkshires and then moving to conservative southwest Florida. Here in Maryland professional people of color are the norm and not the exception. When you go to a mall you’ll see plenty of headscarves and think nothing of it. I expect it’s the proximity to the District of Columbia and access to good jobs for a diverse working group.

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