Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Sin By Any Other Name

About the Book:

The Reverend Robert W. Lee was a little-known pastor at a church in North Carolina until the Charlottesville protests, when he went public with his denunciation of white supremacy in a captivating speech at the MTV Video Music Awards. Adulation poured in from around the country, but so did threats of violence from people who opposed the Reverend's message. Weeks later, Lee was ousted from his church in North Carolina.

In this riveting memoir, Lee narrates what it was like growing up as a Lee in the South, including an insider's view of the world of the white Christian majority. The author, now a professor at Appalachian State University, describes the widespread nostalgia for the Lost Cause, and his gradual awakening to the unspoken assumptions of white supremacy which had, almost without him knowing it, distorted his values and even his Christian faith. In particular, Lee examines how many White Christians in the South continue to be complicit in a culture of racism and injustice, and how after losing his pulpit, he was welcomed into a growing movement of activists all across the South who are charting a new course for the region. 

A Sin by Any Other Name is a love letter to the South, from the South, by a Lee—and an unforgettable call for change, hope, and renewal.

My Comments:

I read somewhere that Jesus' purpose in life was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.  In some ways, this book afflicted me, which I'm sure was the point.  Written by a descendent of General Robert E. Lee, A Sin By Any Other Name talks about how race and racism has affected the life of this twenty-six year old minister.  

While his parents held more progressive views on race than many in their community, Rob knew he was related to Robert E. Lee and accepted the statues, Confederate memorials and Confederate flags as a normal part of life.

While he had interactions with African-Americans, particularly after he transferred from the local Christian academy to the public high school, his family lived in an upper-middle class white area.  Still, when it came time for Rob, a Methodist, to be confirmed, he chose an African-American woman who worked with his mother as a sponsor and in a very loving way she opened his eyes to see some of these normal parts of life in a Southern town through her eyes.  He removed the Confederate flag that was hanging in his room because of a conversation with her.

Rob tells some stories about race relations in his hometown that, to me, sounded a lot more like things that would have happened when I was young, rather than ten years ago--but I live in New Orleans, not a small town.  

I've lived most of my life below the Mason-Dixon line but I'm not from the South, and as many people will tell you, New Orleans lacks many of the characteristics that are typically "Southern".  However, one thing New Orleans did have until relatively recently was a lot of prominent Confederate monuments.

After the Charlottesville protests, the mayor of New Orleans spearheaded a move to remove the most prominent of them, and ended up doing so in the dead of night, without notice to the public.  Suffice to say, it was a controversial move.  It is also a move that I suspect was criticized far more in the suburbs than in the city itself.  

After Charlottesville, MTV asked Rob, who had recently been hired as the pastor of a small church in a small southern town, to appear and talk about statues.  He did, and shortly thereafter, chose to resign rather than tear his church apart.  

As I said, I'm not from the South.  My parents were from Wisconsin and North Dakota and from what I know of my family tree, most of my relatives weren't even in the US at the time of the Civil War.  I don't feel connected to those who gave their lives on either side of that fight.  

I'll admit that I was surprised that the street names had lasted so long in New Orleans--the statues weren't really on my radar, but like most cities, New Orleans suffered from White Flight during the 1960's and 1970's, such that the city itself is slightly more than half African-American, while the metro area is about 34% African-American.  As people my age will say, when "they" took over, they renamed "our" schools--of course by that time "our" schools were 99% African American.  But, until Charlottesville, the only thing I'd heard about the statues was some controversy about making sure the Liberty Place monument was replaced when it was moved to do some construction.  In my White suburban world, I was unaware there was any real "movement" to remove Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee or P.T.G. Beaureguard.  I still haven't heard anything about renaming Jefferson Davis Parkway or Lee Circle.  

When the statues were the topic of the day, my general feeling was that I wasn't personally attached to them, but I knew people who were.  I thought a better idea than condemning the statues and pulling them down would be to replace them one by one with more appropriate memorials to things or people that were important to the community as a whole.

Rob Lee on the other hand, believes that pulling down those statues and others is a needed step in leading Whites away from racism.  I'm not sure.  Is pulling down those statues like lancing a boil--a painful but necessary step to drain the infection so the sore can heal, or is it like picking at a scab--disturbing the healing that has happened and perhaps causing more damage?  Honestly, I don't know.

Here in New Orleans, four monuments were affected.  Two were in prominent places; I suspect over half the population didn't know where the other two were.  One of the prominent ones was at the entrance to City Park, down from the art museum.  Outside the art museum is a sculpture garden.  Would it have been better to quietly ask the art museum to come up with a piece to put at the entrance, and then move the General to the sculpture garden?  Or was making a point necessary, even if it alienated some people and has left an ugly empty pedestal at the park entrance?  On the other hand, would the statue lovers have been any happier my idea than with what happened?  I don't know.

Rob Lee gives his age as twenty-six, which is the same age as my son.  Talk about making me feel old!  I will say that from what I've seen, people in his generation are far more open to social relationships with people of different races than is typical in my generation, and I think that's a good thing.

The book is an easy to read memoir of a man who feels called to change the way the South deals with race.

I'd like to thank the publisher for providing a review copy of the book via NetGalley. Grade:  B+

1 comment:

  1. This is really interesting. Thanks for alerting me to it. I'm going to have to check this book out. I'll share the review on Intentional Catholic too.


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