As the biracial daughter of Jim Finney, a black civil rights lawyer descended from enslaved Virginians, and Mildred Lee, a white social worker and the great-great-great niece of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — of whom statues stand in many cities and towns, including, now infamously, Charlottesville — my American story is complicated.
About a year ago, I made a discovery that reminded me of just how complicated my family’s and our nation’s painful journeys on race and equality have been. I found two letters that my maternal grandmother, also named Mildred Lee, had written to my father. In the first, four-page, single-spaced typed letter, she laid out arguments why my dad should leave my mom and not marry her as they’d planned. Not only was marrying illegal in their respective home states of Virginia and North Carolina, in 1967, their forthcoming interracial marriage, my grandmother explained, was against the “natural order of things,” in which “black and white have their place.”
Quoting the Bible, she argued that their marriage would bring permanent disrepute, shame and irreparable damage not only to my mother’s life but also the lives of the whole family. A month later, my parents were married in a simple ceremony in New York City.In a second letter, sent less than a week before I was born, my grandmother described miscegenation as a sin and a stain that would never be made clean, quoting the Bible and invoking “the way of things.”
In the second letter, sent less than a week before I was born, my grandmother described miscegenation as a sin and a stain that would never be made clean, quoting the Bible and invoking “the way of things.”
The woman who wrote these letters sounded nothing like the loving grandmother I knew and adored growing up, who always brought presents when she visited from North Carolina, and exhaustively searched to find me a beautiful doll that exactly matched my mocha skin color. But her underlying fear and anxiety were bound up with a family tradition that placed Lee on a pedestal — figuratively, if not literally — in the way she remembered and recounted the Lee family heritage, with great pride and even a sense of superiority. I grew up with heroically framed, but demonstrably false, stories about “the general”: that he was a reluctant warrior who didn’t really want to own slaves or fight the Civil War, stories that were consistent with the 20th century revisionist narrative of the “War of Northern Aggression,” rewriting Civil War and Southern history.
I always fiercely disagreed with my grandmother’s take. I loved her, but recognized that she simply couldn’t face the truth — the dramatically different, and all too real stories of brutal tyranny, courageously endured, during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow South that I learned from my father, his family and my own experience.
No telling of Lee’s story, however complicated, can be separated from the leading role he played in a grievous chapter of American history. That part — and the decisions by Charlottesville’s city council, New Orleans’s mayor, Baltimore’s mayor and Lexington, Kentucky’s mayor to remove Confederate statues from public spaces — isn’t complicated. The general was as cruel a slave owner as any other and fought to defend a society based on the brutal enslavement of black people that, had it persisted until today, would have included me. His cause wasn’t righteous, then or now. He’s my ancestor, but as far as I’m concerned, his statues can’t come down soon enough.
The revisionist version of his story attached to the hundreds of Confederate monuments around the country (not just in the South) is part of the most effective rebranding campaign ever implemented. Like the Lee statue at the center of the tragic, deadly violence in Charlottesville on Saturday, many, if not most, of these monuments were built — not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War — but decades later, in the 20th century. They were erected to advance a dishonest history that claimed the war was about states’ rights and the preservation of a way of life, and to obscure the real cause at the root of the conflict: the perpetuation of white supremacy and economic hegemony through the enslavement and violent suppression of African Americans. It’s propaganda that has exploited fear, and sown division and hate, in a conscious effort to obscure our shared humanity for more than 150 years.
The images from Charlottesville and calls to defend Lee echo the mythology I heard from my grandmother so long ago. As Peter Cvjetanovic, a University of Nevada student who participated in the Charlottesville rally, told his local TV news station: “I do believe that the replacement of the statue will be the slow replacement of white heritage within the U.S. and the people who fought and defended and built their homeland. Robert E. Lee is a great example of that. He wasn’t a perfect man, but I want to honor and respect what he stood for during his time.”
That made me think about the post-election studies showing that cultural anxiety, fear of diversity and racial resentment superseded economic concerns for many white working-class voters in 2016. And how those feelings translate to the “othering” that denies opportunity to so many Americans, just as my family’s history coexists with very different journeys in the larger American story. These painful truths persist despite the progress that has been made in my lifetime, with policies aimed at creating a fairer system, equal access, and the opportunity for Americans to live, go to school and work side by side, and break down bigotry and stereotypes.
My mother’s relatives didn’t attend my parents’ wedding, and they met my father only a handful of times, in very awkward moments, including my college graduation. There they were, my mom, dad and grandma. They put aside years of anger, pain and resentment. Last year, when my father died, members of my mother’s family joined her, my father’s family and me at the service to pay their respects. It was a powerful moment for all of us, one that none of us could have even imagined 50 years ago when I was born.
I love my whole family and our American story because it made me who I am today. My unique family history has been messy and painful, but also inspiring. Most important, this heritage from opposite sides of the color line allowed me to bear witness that it is possible to move forward. After the tragic deaths of Heather Heyer and Virginia state troopers Berke Bates and Jay Cullen, I don’t want to see another person die because of a legacy of lies, division and fear.
If we want to move forward as Americans, we have to have an honest reckoning with our shared history. A first step is acknowledging that Lee and his legacy don’t deserve to be honored. He’s part of my history and a member of my family. But it’s time that his statues come down. It’s time to move on.
Corrections: Lee is the author’s great-great-great-great uncle, not her great-great-great-great-great uncle. New Orleans’s Lee statue was built in the 19th, not the 20th, century. Mr. Cvjetanovic’s name is Peter, not Robert.