I was raised in Virginia, in the city where the confederate battle flag was created, a city steeped in the Civil War, where as a young teenager, I found a cannonball in my front yard with a metal detector. I grew up familiar with the N-word and N-jokes, with very few African-American families and no African-American friends. My high school mascot was a confederate soldier, and we waved the battle flag at football games without ever thinking a thing about it.
In fourth grade, we took Virginia History, where we learned that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, but instead over states’ rights, and that the tragic loss of the war could be attributed to the “Yankees’” overwhelming advantages in manufacturing and manpower. I was fifty years old before I stopped feeling as if the South could have, and possibly should have won. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and John S. Mosby were heroes who fought a noble, valiant fight that ended in a tragic surrender between the dignified Lee and mud-spattered Grant.
The turning point for me began when I saw the movie “Remember the Titans.” I arrived at the movie knowing only that it was about high school football, and was stunned to see the opening subtitle: “Alexandria, Virginia, 1971.” It was then that I was informed that this was about TC Williams High School, which was formed during my freshman year in high school, from my father’s old high school and another school that had been traditionally black. I watched the scenes of racial unrest and could not recall any of them; all I remembered was feeling that the combined school was an unfair powerhouse in sports, and resenting their capture of the state title. But as I reflected on the movie, it became clear to me that the racial unrest had seemed perfectly normal to me back then. There were often fights at football games between blacks and whites, and there was a racist undercurrent to our lives that represented normalized deviance.
This is my heritage, with a little history thrown in. Some facts, a lot of story, nearly all of which is based on facts, but interpreted in order to derive at different meanings. Some of the heritage is historical, some cultural, created and shaped by me as I lived it. And most importantly, with the exception of historical fact, any and all of it is subject to change, based on the emergence of new facts and intellectual and cultural progress. It is time to tell a new story.