If we can’t face facts about the Civil War, how can we ever deal with modern issues?

September 1, 2015

You have to wonder: With all of the challenges our state and nation faces, why do we still spend so much time arguing about the Civil War? Well, there are a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that Americans have an uncanny ability to believe what they want to believe, regardless of facts. No chapter in our history has been more mythologized than the Southern rebellion that officially ended 150 years ago.

If you want to understand the facts, a good place to start is Ken Burns’ 1990 television series, The Civil War. For five consecutive nights beginning Sept. 7, Kentucky Educational Television will show a high-definition version of that acclaimed series, which has been digitally re-mastered for its 25th anniversary.

I remember when the series first aired — and a record 40 million people watched. I lived in Atlanta, where the Civil War remained an everyday presence. It seemed like the whole city was sleep-deprived that week; people stayed up night after night, mesmerized by a compelling history lesson told simply with narration, old photographs and music.

If you have time to see only one episode of The Civil War this time, make it the first one. I watched the original again this week and was impressed by how well it explained the war’s causes, which generations of myth-making tried to obfuscate.

While there were a few side issues, the Civil War was all about slavery. White supremacy was the Confederacy’s core belief. Read every state’s secession documents. Read the politicians’ speeches. There is no doubt.

The other reason the Civil War still resonates is that deep divisions of race and class in America have never gone away; they have just become more subtle and complex. And each time it feels like our national wound is healing, the scab is torn off.

A white racist slaughters black worshipers in church. A black man assassinates a white deputy sheriff. White police officers shoot unarmed black men. A black man videotapes his murder of two TV journalists. So many white people find it so easy to hate a mixed-race president with a foreign-sounding name.


A participant in a Sons of Confederate Veterans rally at the state Capitol in July takes a “selfie” with the Jefferson Davis statue. Photo by Charles Bertram.

This ugly reality has refocused attention on Confederate symbolism, which has always been racially divisive. In Kentucky, the hottest debate is over the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis placed in the Capitol rotunda in 1936.

Like most Confederate monuments, including the statue of Gen. John Hunt Morgan in front of Lexington’s old courthouse, Davis’ statue was erected decades after the war, largely at taxpayer expense, by a Confederate memorial group as part of a well-organized effort to reinterpret the South’s racist rebellion as a noble “lost cause”.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, both candidates for governor and other prominent Democrats and Republicans have called for moving Davis’ statue from its symbolic place of honor in the Capitol to a museum.

That view was endorsed Monday by 72 historians from 16 Kentucky colleges and universities, who sent a letter to Stumbo and members of the General Assembly.

“The statue is not a neutral evocation of facts, but an act of interpretation that depicts Davis as a hero with an honorable cause,” the letter said. “Virtually no respected professional historians embrace this view — a perspective that minimizes the significance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War, downplays the human suffering of millions, and endows the southern cause with a nobility it does not deserve.”

But a recent Bluegrass Poll found that 73 percent of Kentuckians think the statue should stay in the rotunda. The all-white Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission agreed by a vote of 7-2, but recommended adding a plaque with “educational context.” Myths are stubborn things.

What I find most disturbing about this debate is the willful ignorance of so many white people who insist the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. They ignore the fact that Confederate symbolism has always been a tool of racial intimidation. They remain oblivious to the pain black people feel toward veneration of Confederate heroes.

As the historians’ letter pointed out, this discussion isn’t about “erasing” or “rewriting” history; it is about making history more accurate. It is about no longer honoring people whose actions and beliefs are now considered despicable by a more enlightened and inclusive society.

With so many people so willing to ignore facts about the Civil War’s cause, it is no wonder we have trouble discussing race relations, economic justice, climate change and other issues that now threaten our future.

When willful ignorance and ideology replace facts and logic, it produces the kind of dangerous polarization that America saw in the 1860s — and that we see far too often a century and a half later.

New novel explores race, class in 1940s Central Kentucky

November 18, 2014

In his novel Pickering’s Mountain, Joseph Anthony wrote about the complexities of strip mining and economic survival in Eastern Kentucky, where he lived in the 1980s as an English professor at Hazard Community College.

The New Jersey native has lived in Lexington ever since, and he has looked for a way to use fiction to explore two of Central Kentucky’s overarching issues: race and class.

While reading microfilm copies of the Lexington Leader in the public library, Anthony found his hook. It was a small ad placed near, but not with, a “Colored Notes” column from 1948, when even the news was segregated.

bookThe ad began: “Wanted: Good family with plenty of help … ” It was placed by a farmer needing share-croppers to live in a vacant house beside him and help with his tobacco crop.

It made Anthony wonder: what might have happened if the “good family” that answered that ad was black? And that is how he begins his new novel, Wanted: Good Family (Bottom Dog Press, $18.00).

The book is masterfully written and well-grounded in Kentucky history and mannerisms. It explores issues of race, class, relationship and the potential for change that are as relevant today as they were when this story takes place more than six decades ago.

“I wanted to write about our big drama story in Lexington, race, and how things have and haven’t changed,” he said. “And I had an idea of how to write about somebody who could do terrible things and not actually be a bad person.”

The newspaper ad said interested parties should not call or write, just show up. So that is what Rudy and Nannie Johnson do. He is a World War II veteran looking for work. She cleans houses, but was a nurse’s aide at Good Samaritan Hospital until she applied to train for a better job and was branded as a “troublemaker.”

The Johnsons and their four children — Herbert, Franklin, Eleanor and Harry, all named for people occupying the White House when they were born — live with her mother and sister in cramped quarters off Georgetown Street.

Lexington had a housing shortage in the late 1940s because of veterans returning from war. Things were worse for blacks, who were only allowed to live in certain parts of town and could rarely get credit to buy a house anywhere.

joeDesperate enough to take a chance, the Johnsons pile their children into a borrowed pickup truck and drive to the next county to answer the ad. The farmer and his wife, an older couple who lost their only son in the war, are surprised to see them. But they, too, are desperate. Like all good Kentuckians, everyone tries to be polite.

“We didn’t think to say ‘whites only’,” Wilma Lawson, the farmer’s wife, explains to readers. “We figured anyone who knew our place would know that.”

Indeed, they would. James Lawson has a dark past that everyone in their county seems to know. The Johnsons, being from Lexington, are unaware. But they have their own family secrets and shame.

Everyone’s secrets come out as the book’s major characters alternate chapters of first-person narrative. Readers wonder if any of these people, black or white, can escape the ghosts and prejudices of their past.

The characters are still working through events that occurred two decades earlier, when Kentucky race relations included lynchings and black residents being run out of small towns en masse.

What makes Anthony’s book so interesting is that it doesn’t try to preach or over-simplify. It shows that racism comes in black as well as white, and that injustice can afflict the oppressors as well as the oppressed.

“I’m a much nicer person as a writer than I am as a human being, and the reason is I have to see everybody’s point of view,” Anthony said. “I have to really try to understand their dilemma.”

While racism and prejudice are no longer legal, that doesn’t mean they have disappeared. Human relations are complex and always evolving.

“The book is about change, about the possibility of change,” Anthony said. “As Rudy says, if we can’t change we’re lost, we’re done. And that’s really what I wanted to write about.”

If you go

Joseph Anthony will sign copies of his novel,Wanted: Good Family.

■ 5:30 p.m. Thursday, The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

■ 3 p.m. Dec. 13, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.

Class aims to bring Transy, neighborhood closer

April 7, 2010

Transylvania University and the North Limestone neighborhood sit side by side — and worlds apart.

Kurt Gohde, a Transy art professor, and Kremena Todorova, an English professor, are trying to do something about that. For the past three years, they have taught a class called Community Engagements Through the Arts. It’s not an art class or an English class. The dozen or so students each year have come from a variety of majors.

“The original idea was that at Transy we needed to be better neighbors to our neighbors,” Gohde said. “We don’t have a lot of windows on that side of campus — just a lot of fences.”

Both the university and the neighborhood have been there for two centuries, and both have had good times and bad. The neighborhood, one of Lexington’s most racially and economically diverse, declined in the 1950s and ’60s as residents moved to the suburbs.

But in the past decade, many young people have been attracted to the neighborhood’s rich diversity and affordable stock of old homes worth restoring — from once-elegant brick mansions to Victorian frame shotgun houses.

An active neighborhood association has worked hard to clean up the area while embracing the many poor people who live there. Three new community gardens are being planted on city-owned lots along North Limestone. Once-seedy Al’s Bar at North Limestone and East Sixth Street is now one of Lexington’s coolest places. Duncan Park has a new summer concert stage.

Still, most North Limestone residents are much different culturally and economically from their neighbors at the private liberal-arts college.

“We want the students to gain an awareness of people who are very close to them that they know so little about,” Todorova said. “We want them to learn how they can connect with people who are not like them. It’s not easy.”

The Community Engagements class started meeting at Al’s Bar, moved to a community center last year, and has met this year in a commercial building being restored at North Limestone and Loudon Avenue.

The first year, the class put together a film exploring misconceptions about the neighborhood. Last year, students organized a show of residents’ eclectic collections at Transylvania’s art gallery.

This year, students worked with residents and others to make nearly 50 colorful quilts that are on display at X Furniture, 760 North Limestone, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Sunday.

The quilts will be donated to Build A Bed, an organization trying to gather 2,000 volunteers in Frankfort on May 8 and 9 to build 500 twin-size beds and prepare “bedtime bags” with linens and toiletries for Kentucky children who need them. (For more info: www.build-a-bed.org.)

The class held five “quilting bees” this winter with neighborhood residents and other Transy students. The project’s energy was contagious: One student’s family made several quilts, as did Arturo Sandoval’s art students at the University of Kentucky and children at James Lane Allen Elementary School.

“We found that it was a great way to spend time with people and tell stories,” Gohde said. In addition to making quilts, the students interviewed residents about neighborhood history and lore.

Some students come to the class wanting to “help” the neighborhood, but that’s not the point. “We’re looking for ways to connect with and understand the neighborhood,” Todorova said. “If anything, we’re helping ourselves by educating ourselves.”

Resident Archie Turner has faithfully attended each class, as has neighborhood association president Marty Clifford, a candidate for the Urban County Council’s 1st District seat.

“It has been not only a good thing for the community but for the students,” Clifford said. “It has given everyone a different perspective. There are a lot of hidden jewels in this community that have been covered up by some of the negative things in the past.”

Student Austyn Gaffney, a sophomore from Bowling Green, said she will always remember the 98-year-old African-American lady she met who has told her stories about how the neighborhood and Lexington have changed over the decades.

“Without this class, I don’t think I would have been challenged to do that,” she said. “It’s a start toward building better relationships.”