Contested History: A Parable

I am five years old, standing on the sidewalk at a Fourth of July parade with my mother, my aunt, and my sisters. Before the parade begins, a vendor comes by with a cart full of balloons and other kitschy souvenirs. We are each allowed one. There are the twisty-tie kind, contorted into animals. There are superheroes (my usual favorite), but something else catches my eye.

“It’s a Dukes of Hazard flag,” I yell.

My mom resists my request.

“But why?” I grow impatient. She had promised.

My mom relents.

With a toothy grin and the joy of getting my way, I wave the flag of my favorite TV show vigorously, even after the parade has passed.

I am 20 years old when my mother tells me a story about her father, the grandfather I never knew. The driveway that connected the house where I grew up ends at what used to be called Rural Route 3, a state roulade that continues on ttonthe Ohio River town of Maysville, KY (a place that boasts stops on the Underground Railroad). Whereas now rural mailboxes have a red flag which notifies mail carriers whether or not there was mail, they were once decorated with a metallic American flag.

Whether out of spite, with a devilish wink, or with a sense of mission, my grandfather replaced the American flag with a Confederate one.

‘That was just Daddy.’ My mom said with a sigh, empty of judgement. Probably just missing him.

I am 22 years old in Warren, OH, talking to a man named Bob Faulkner. We are both from Mount Sterling, KY. He is a graduate of Hiram College. I will graduate from there in a semester. I am in his office, in a small corporate office. We talk about many things–his career, his education, our shared hometown, our different experiences growing up there. He is a baby boomer, and black. I am an Xer and white.

Our conversation soon draws us to what brought us together–a poem by Winchester KY native and Vanderbilt Agrarian poet Alan Tate entitled “The Swimmers.”

It is set in our shared hometown, and it tells a story from Tate’s childhood, when he and his friends stumbled upon a lynching on their way to a swimming hole.

Neither of us had read this poem until we came to Hiram. No one we knew in Mt. Sterling knew about it. It was a memorial in ink for a nameless dead man who died a horrible death–a memorial no one in that town seemed to know existed.

The whole conversation reminds me of those famous words from another Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I am 25 years old in Pretoria, South Africa, part of a student delegation from Vanderbilt Divinity School. It is only a decade since Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, a few years since the end of Apartheid. We tour the Voortrekker monument, which commemorates Afrikaner settler expansion and defeat of a regiment of Zulu with whom the Afrikaners clashed. The monument tells the story of a covenant the Afrikaners made with God that they would be ever faithful if  God would grant them victory. 

The Zulu were defeated. The Voortrekkers became the true indigenous people of South Africa, thanks be to God, the story goes.

The portrayal of Zulu and Afrikaner is predictable: violent savage vs noble settler. 

Canaanite vs Israelite.

 Protestant vs Catholic or Catholic vs. Protestant, depending on who baptized you.

At a reception with faculty of the University of Pretoria, once the hotbed of pro-apartheid intellectual justification, where we are anticipating a conversation on reconciliation, history, and identity, a professor approaches me and greets me in Afrikaans. 

I look confused.

‘Oh,’ he says. ‘I thought you were one of us.’

On our way back to our hostel, our delegation has a contentious conversation. Several of us draw comparisons between the Voortrekker monument and the depiction of American settlers and Native Americans.

One of us does not agree.

‘But we have monuments just like this.’

‘We have nothing like this.

‘America is different.’

I am 34 years old, and I am reading the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for the first time since seminary. They tell fascinating stories about the aftermath of the Babylonian Exile, how the exiles return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, continuing the covenant with the God who blessed them in the first place, and (some would say) threw them to the Babylonians as a punishment before backing the Persians who freed them.

I bristle at the part where those who were not part of the exile, who remained in their homeland, are excoriated for marrying “foreign women,” and how they are commanded to abandon them. There is no room for them or their children.

They were Canaanites and Moabites. God has no use for them in this city. They were to be expelled.

As I read, I remember another book that tells the story of an ancestor of David, the most beloved king in the Hebrew Bible, whose son Solomon would build the first temple, the one destroyed by the Babylonians:

The book of Ruth, which celebrates the Moabite woman whose family line would begat Israel’s most beloved king.

I imagine a scene left out of Ezra and Nehemiah, where expelled women, sitting around a fire outside of the city they miss, hold their children close and tell them that while this new temple may not be built for them, they have always had a part in the story. And they tell them of Ruth and Naomi, and of Solomon, another king, who married women of different hues and tribes.

We are reticent to tell the whole history. We shouldn’t be.

I am 36 years old and I am at an unremarkable restaurant in a town not terribly far from an airport. I am talking with a man who attends a church where I have just spoken. I am not the pastor at his church. Perhaps that is why he feels able to speak freely.

‘One thing that bothers me about you young pastors is that you all say ‘Hebrew Bible’ instead of ‘Old Testament.’ There’s no need to be politically correct. Call it what it is.’

I tell him that that is exactly what I am trying to do–that while Christians claim the books in this canon as prelude to their New Testament, the Jewish faith claims them as something different, and draws different meaning from them, and both of our faiths, as practiced in the 21st century, would look very different from the first writers and collectors of these texts. They are written in Hebrew, and we consider them scripture. I tell him about Ezra and Ruth and contested readings of history, and how important it is to remember that while Christians primarily see the Bible as centering on Jesus, there is so much more there, and we forget it at our own peril. Therefore, for me, ‘Hebrew Bible’ is the most precise term I feel I can use without falling into the trap of supersessionism, or laziness.

‘Well,’ he tells me, ‘I just don’t think we should have to be so PC.’

It is not the first time I have had this conversation. It will not be the last.

I am 42 years old, walking across the college campus across the street from the church I serve. It’s also where the closest coffee shop is, and it’s Monday. On my way back to my office, i notice a sticker of A familiar classical statue on a signpost, with the slogan “Protect Your Heritage”.  “IDENTITY EVROPA,” follows at the bottom, which I recognize as the name of a white identity/supremacy group.I stop and stare at it for a moment. I am, at heart, a civil libertarian. I have long believed that the way you overcome hate speech is with more speech. I am appalled by the weaponized anachronism of ‘white, European’ identity (my art historian sister would later express equal dismay!) Though I do not know it at the time, Identity Evropa will be among the groups in Charlottesville doubling down on nostalgia and anachronism to further their White Supremacist agenda.

I consider the price of speech, and the price of when we don’t tell a whole story. I think of the Renaissance statue of David, The descendent of the Moabite woman, whose descendants would self-consciously tell their own stories of exile and exclusion.

I remember flags waved, less self-consciously, and histories we must still reckon with. Nostalgia is not history, especially the weaponized kind. 

We must tell the whole history. Otherwise, we are just lying.

I tear the picture of the statue down.

*one of the joys of this summer was reconnecting with Bob Faulkner, almost 20 years after I interviewed him. Since retiring from the corporate world, he is now serving as a minister of a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)–another thing we share.

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