“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” -James Joyce

By Xetobyte

I am from Texas, but I can’t recall ever having called myself a Texan.

I am from the United States of America, but I rarely identify as American.

One of the high-schools I attended was named after Robert E. Lee. While it was our mascot, I’ve never claimed to be a Rebel.

I was raised without patriotism and never wanted to embrace it. My lineage and birthplace are accidents of my birth. Still, the accidental nature of the life I was born into does not exempt me from examining history.

In junior high, I had a history teacher that taught me that history was really “HIS Story”. HIS being God. There was no need to explain which one. My teacher was clearly referring to the big white spirit guy in the sky. He also said that the Civil War wasn’t actually about slavery. Then we all watched Denzel Washington get whipped in Glory.

It was a weird class. I sat in the back, next to the first friend I made at that school. In fact, it was one of my favorite classes. The middle-aged, obviously Republican, leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, church-going, married with two kids, cis white man that taught it humored me.

Recently freed from religion, but also removed from all my friends, I was just beginning to form my own opinions about the world. I wasn’t an atheist; I called myself spiritual. I hadn’t thought at all about social justice, racism, or feminism. Yet, here was a man of authority with whom I naturally disagreed. I was fundamentally averse to all of the things he used his classroom as a pulpit to teach as fact. I wasn’t eloquent, but I called him out. I disrupted his class and he let me. We actually got along all right.

That was the last classroom in which I learned much of anything about the Civil War. World War I & II were duly covered, but the textbooks’ sections on the Civil War always seemed brief. If it hadn’t been for the fact that one of my high-school history teachers was actually a Vietnam veteran, I would have been taught from a textbook that thought that the near 20 year conflict deserved no more than three paragraphs.

Looking back, I realize that my formative thoughts about our planet and its history were entirely filtered through old white people, all but one of them men. How different those classes would have been under people of color, I can only imagine.

The absurdity of the fact that many of our streets and buildings were named after Confederate figures didn’t escape me as a teenager, but it didn’t make much of an impression either. As an adult, that’s changed.

While I attended Lee High, I dated a guy not-so-distantly related to Robert E. Lee. I have family members that have bought versions of the Confederate flag to wear and display. I have a diploma from an institution that took its name from a man that led the army that took up arms against its own nation.

I’ve heard it argued that these monikers are simply patriotic nods of the head celebrating American heroes. But how can that be? I may not be a patriot, but as I understand it, a patriot does not seek to disband their country. A patriot does not attack their brethren. A patriot does not enslave their fellow citizens. If not, what exactly is the point? Lee did not fight for the United States. He fought for the Confederate States. Thankfully, he was defeated.

He is not an American hero. It is neither heroic nor patriotic to revere his name or the symbol of the resistance he led. When his name, and the names of those that fought under him, are venerated as “heritage”, we are forgetting the nightmare of history — brother against brother, humans in chains, and a new country torn apart soon after its birth.

America is a country born of high ideals, ideals it has yet to live up to. We do not mindlessly look past swastikas. We do not name buildings after Gavrilo Princip. We do not build monuments to the leaders of the Apartheid. The signs of Jim Crow are locked in museums. Roads named after Martin Luther King Jr. should not share crosswalks with roads named after General Lee.

Yet, a 2011 poll showed that 10% of Americans have positive associations with the Confederate flag and 58% feel neither positively or negatively. 48% of Americans still regurgitate the line that the Civil War was about states’ rights.

It’s been 154 years. The last Civil War veteran died in 1956, less than 60 years ago. On the line of time, the Civil War has just happened. The ink of its history is only just now drying. Have we already forgotten? Has it already faded from reality to hazy nightmare, its effects still felt, but its meaning lost?

I am not a patriot. I am a humanist. No matter how we identify, it’s time to wake up and learn the lessons of our long night’s sleep.

39 thoughts on ““History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” -James Joyce

      1. Sounds good! Now we just have to find a platform people will actually pay attention to. Not that writing for you and two other members of the choir isn’t enough…

        1. I admit, I’m laughing.

          Platforms on risers seem reserved for those that would make them pulpits.

          The voices I value are found tucked in corners. I’m always surprised when I find light shining from the darkness that is the mainstream. Even when they’re visible, the rays from there are either too dull or too short and they are entirely too rare.

          What is there to do but shout into space and hope the signal finds an ear?

          1. On that note, I’m thinking of starting a “Toad’s Great Adventure” Facebook page…’cause I never, ever learn…

  1. Great post. Patriotism is an oddity, often a distraction, and very often a terribly poor excuse. In Australia, we also don’t learn much about the destruction of the aboriginal nations. There were 900 in 1777, each with a unique language. About 20 years ago the first (yes, the first) English-Aboriginal dictionary was published. Only 30 languages were left. That’s genocide.

    1. It is insanity to me how few genocides are recognized as such. Even in this information age, most mass killings fail to make even a blip. The massacres that our recent ancestors enabled are glossed over and distorted. We cannot do better until we are honest about our past and present. Patriotism is hate-inducing and violent at worst and rose-shading and divisive at best.

        1. Sorry to butt in. Just noting that in this country (the U.S.), patriotism IS a religion. Seeing that the Baptist Hymnal includes everything from the Battle Hymn to the Star-Spangled Banner, and I spent the first three years of my ministry life standing behind a pulpit nestled between the Christian and American flags…

          1. eye twitch
            Of course, you’re right. Which is one of the reasons I listed the Christian God as a big white sky spirit. Jesus has had his melanin removed and an American flag placed in his hands. The two are one in the same in many, many circles.

            I saw a poll recently that said most Americans think it un-American to not believe in God. No doubt, many of those were thinking of the Christian God when they said that.

  2. Eloquent, broad and didactic; thank you Madalyn for your perceptive and unambiguous stance here. History, as recounted, taught and interpreted, is filtered through so many prisms, each a minor rewriting and hence shading of perspective. I am frequently struck by how it is so that academic historians, above all other disciplines it seems, invariably appear to be at odds with one another, if not on the bare bones, but certainly on the flesh of the matter – moral and ethical shadings, the psychological dynamics of key historical participants and any then extant cultural/political contextualisation. And yet this is the best of it, because of course the politicians then get to impose their own preferred ideological perspectives on the whole so as to become taught in our schools in a narrowly biased, conformist manner.

    1. History is honestly one of the underlying reasons that I pulled my daughter from public school. I imagined that I would have an abundance of time with which to add shade and depth to the lessons she was taught at school. But even so young, it was hard to get more than an idea planted periodically.

      It starts young, with songs about Columbus and legends of Founding Fathers. We learn about our culture as much from what we leave out as what we put in. Of course history is complicated and multi-faceted, but why should it be so distorted?

      The past is over. Putting it all on the table hurts only our pride, which should be the easiest sacrifice to make if it means that our children will be able to improve upon our efforts and failings. Our current system of waiting several generations, until all the wounds have scarred over, before addressing the realities of our choices is in part directly responsible for our ideological turf wars. We do not heal from poking scars. Healing only happens when we treat open wounds.

  3. My parents – who were born and raised in Wisconsin – have recently been buying into the Confederate narrative. My mom says it’s because she found out that there’s an ancestor that fought for the Confederacy, despite that most of the family fought on the Union side. While they haven’t gotten to buying rebel flags, they’ve expressed what could amount to something as “pride” on occasion.

    I finally blew up at them, saying that the Confederates were rebellious scum who wanted to own people. What they did wasn’t noble, it wasn’t dying for a good cause, it was dying so rich landowners could own human beings. The best one could hope for is calling the sacrifice of poor Southerners “tragic,” but the ones that survived didn’t see it that way.

    The South still thinks it deserves wounded pride over losing the Civil War. What Southerners do not realize that the only way to exorcise those ghosts is to learn from their mistakes instead of making excuses for them.

    1. Hear, hear!
      I have a teenage nephew that told me that the Confederate flag now represents rebelling against what the Confederates stood for. I couldn’t really convince him otherwise. I am curious to know how people like him and your parents will react to the swift action we’ve seen this week to remove it from the public eye. I know many will dig in, but how many will change their tune?

  4. Awesome post, Madalyn. Your writing seems to always bring with it a validation for me when I think about the years I spent thinking that there must be something wrong with me because I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the majority of my peers. I spent the second half of my youth in the South. The name of the school I attended was Jefferson Davis, on Jeff Davis avenue. I was a rebel, but never a Rebel.

    1. Thanks, V.
      I’ve been fortunate to be insulated from a lot of the prejudice and hate that pervades the South. I do sometimes wonder if the isolated nature of my religious upbringing in part enabled me to accept my division in thinking more readily. There are a lot of reasonable, empathetic people in the South. We just aren’t the majority. Yet.

  5. I enjoyed this personal perspective on history. I enjoy history, period. I also, know that most history dies with the common people who lived it. Historians choose a few famous people to use a symbols to create a mythology to unite the people. History is mostly, about politicians and other leaders. Great life changing events are marked by war and credit for whatever glory that war was supposed bring, is assigned to those leaders and not to those who fought and died in those wars. The experiences of those who lost loved ones in those wars is lost too and the complete insanity in thinking that killing people solves human problems is obscured by mythological glory created by historians. Once one gets beyond dates and facts, its all a matter of perspective.

    Symbols only bear the meaning that is assigned to them and that changes over time. For example, I don’t think the Confederate flag meant the same thing to those who fought under it, as it does to people today. It doesn’t symbolize the same thing that it did when I was a child, either. I do think that the Civil War was as much about state’s rights as slavery. I also, think many northern politicians didn’t care at all about freeing black people but used it as a vehicle for diminishing state power and gaining federal power. That’s why so many state’s rights people view Lincoln as a traitor. Democrats fought against abolishing slavery. Politics are never altruistic because politicians aren’t altruistic. Remember, it was the Republican party under which slavery was abolished and it is also, Republicans who historically, support state’s rights. War is never about one thing and once it is in full tilt, whatever it was about in the beginning, changes.

    I like that you don’t just accept whatever you were taught by whoever but strive to analyze and think for yourself. That is the heart of true American patriotism and the attitude that preserves freedom, no matter the current, popular mythology, the ever-changing meaning applied to symbols, and the self-serving actions of political leaders. It’s the American spirit of liberty than counts.:0) I enjoyed the read!

    1. Hello Pam.
      I agree with a lot of what you said about history and war. And yes, the Civil War was about states’ rights – the right of the state to allow its citizens to own other people. Whatever the noise around it, that was the heart of the issue. I don’t deny that it was complicated or messy. I do assert that both political parties have changed drastically since that time, though not as much as one might hope.

      The meaning of symbols can change. Just look at swastikas. They were a peaceful symbol used by a variety of people and cultures before Hitler was ever born. It is still a peaceful symbol used by some of those people. Do some ascribe more polite meanings to the Confederate flag? Sure, but in doing so they ignore the core facts.

      I have put a lot of thought and research into the matter. You seem to have done so as well. Only history can judge, eh? Thanks for stopping by.

      1. I guess, I feel that arguing over an old flag sidetracks everyone from the real issue. We really need to get a handle on our mental health care system. The Confederate flag didn’t make that young man kill and from his history, I think race became an excuse to express the madness inside of him. Anyway, I hope I didn’t offend you. I don’t mind disagreeing or being disagreed with. I’m a thinker and I like testing my ideas. I enjoyed your post.

        1. I think the flag is a heavy reminder of institutionalized racism, a form that hasn’t disappeared, it’s just become more insidious. One of the signs of this is how white shooters are treated differently than black or brown shooters, or even victims that are people of color. They are treated differently by law enforcement and the news. The whole conversation is different in the mainstream media.

          I agree completely that our mental health system needs a serious overhaul. If you look at some of my other posts here, I think you’ll see that’s true. Still, when a person on edge lives in a society that embraces prejudice, that can be the difference that causes an act of violence.

          You didn’t offend me at all. I enjoy thoughtful conversations, even when I disagree with the participants. It’s exceedingly difficult to disagree with someone on the internet without it devolving into an insult cesspool. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and doing so respectfully. Feel free to stick around. 🙂

          1. I don’t live in the south and I know that makes it different. I live in the SW and in my state, the symbols of oppression are from the rule of the Spaniards. They made slaves of the Native Americans, which is all but forgotten by history. Then they were placed in concentration camps called reservations by the U.S. government. Their suffering is great and mostly, ignored. If getting rid of all of the old symbols that represent that suffering would help, then lets tear them down but I think it needs to go deeper than that. I’m very tired of politicians using every tragedy to make themselves look like they care and then choosing to act in a way that is symbolism over substance. I’m tired of being manipulated and divided, right and left, over the suffering that continues, today. We all need to come together and stop the killing.

          2. It is much easier to tear down symbols than to tear down what they represent. Bringing down the relics is only a first step. You’re right, most people stop just as they are getting started. Even worse, the steps that arrive in front of them are ignored or actively crushed. We need to go much deeper. I think we are finally starting down that road on some issues. There is much work to be done and it most certainly needs to be done together.

          3. “Still, when a person on edge lives in a society that embraces prejudice, that can be the difference that causes an act of violence.”

            Madalyn, I concur.

            “Despite what some conservatives may wish to believe, Roof was not a lone wolf. By his own admission, he encountered the views he grew to adopt when he went online and researched what others thought, and he came to believe he was part of a movement larger than himself. He spoke in a language of symbols and codes that he knew were widely understood because they reflect a belief system that is widely shared.


  6. That photo reminded me of one of my fave Dali ones:

    Patriotism is an interesting one. To add some UK (and Spanish) context, many countries/communities are more focused on nationalism: Scotland, Wales, Catalunya, Pais Basco. In my own part of the UK, we are also pretty ‘patriotic’ and would be the most likely English county to have gone for secession in the past.

    One of our neighbours said to us, nationalism in like facist. Presumably thinking of Nazi national socialism. But, in a way she was right. Nationalism/patriotism brings out bigotry, racism, discrimination to mention just the obvious ones. And really, patriotism is about pride. But pride in what? And, isn’t pride harmful, and even sinful? Blind belief in a country because one is born there is unthinking. And exactly what are we talking about? The natural environment (what’s left of it)? The history? The culture? The government/legislation? The people? Our freedoms? (Sic).

    As an ex-pat, it’s interesting to look at one’s own country from a distance, and to live in others. It does at least broaden the mind a little.

    1. Ah, the melting clocks. It caused me a lot of confusion as a child, but I always liked it.

      So often, the refrain I hear is ‘God, family, country’, with no notice of the irony.

      I didn’t mention any world history classes. Mostly because we only skimmed the surface and barely any of the world was mentioned. It’s disgraceful. I’m always up for a documentary about other places or how other places view the USA. A nickname for our president is ‘Leader of the Free World’. I mean, come on, could we get any fuller of ourselves?

  7. Hello Madalyn,

    I think you are completely wrong. You are a patriot. A patriot loves her country enough to criticize it. Robert E. Lee in San Antonio? If so, I was a few miles and 1.5 decades away.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post – – I loved it. You may have even enticed me to expand my digital footprint and join Wattpad to read your book. I’m so glad that you homeschool and will be able to teach a balanced and complete history to your daughter. I’m still remediating mine.


    1. Hi Pascal,
      I do consider myself a patriot in a way, a patriot of the planet. (Which, of course, includes the country I was born in.) 🙂
      You weren’t far off. I was in Midland, Texas for that part of high school.
      I’m touched that you would consider joining Wattpad for me. Truth be told, I might just post it over here too. I don’t think WordPress is the best place for fiction, but I have a little internet family here and I don’t like asking them to travel unnecessarily.
      I am in the middle of planning our homeschool year right now. I’ve been loving it.
      Thanks for stopping by.

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