I am a direct descendant of the Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee.
Lee's blood runs in my veins.
My great-great-great-great-great grandfather taught me this:
Never was I more aware of my notable ancestry than when I read Sterling Brown's poem "He Was a Man" (1932).
The poem ends every stanza with a variation of the sentence, "He was a man, and they laid him down." By the end of the poem, the sentence becomes, "He was a man, an' we laid him down."
"They" becomes "we" in the poem, because while the narrator watches from afar the unethical public lynching of a black man who shot a white man in self-defense, he realizes that it is he who is responsible for the treatment of the black man. It is his fault, just as well as it is the fault of every spectator in the crowd who makes no move to stop the scene from occurring. For the era, the scene is commonplace. In fact, Brown describes the burning of the man's body as a barbecue, and "people come from miles around/ To enjoy a holiday there..."
When people treat injustice and racism as commonplace, the norm shifts. When what is normal shifts, what is right and what is wrong do not necessarily follow the trend. Veritably, minimal knowledge about American history tells us this.
So while I sit here with the knowledge that Robert E. Lee's blood runs in my veins, I realize that like the narrator of that poem, Lee was a spectator in an encompassing slave-holding American South. He agreed with the crowd's point of view, because it was his norm, too. If slavery continued to be the norm after the War, perhaps in respect to civil rights we would have different views today about right and wrong.
What my bloodline teaches me is that it takes people like Ulysses S. Grant and Martin Luther King Jr. to condemn the norm. Those few people who are willing to stop the lynching in a world full of lynchers change the course of history, because they are the ones who distinguish for the crowd what is normal versus what is right.
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I find this epiphany significant for me today. Right now, Americans make history for a future that will condemn the fault of people who remained silent during a Donald Trump presidency riddled with hate, discrimination, and corruption. Surrounded in a Missouri city that supports his rhetoric, I experience alienation in the face of this norm. I can differentiate that what is right is being kind to immigrants, caring about the environment, and being open to what others have to say, no matter their beliefs. He is not my president, and his norm is not right.