The Confederate debate in my blood: My cousin Robert E Lee

A personal story of owning and learning from a legacy associated with modern interpretations of racism in the US.

More than 150 years ago, its creators surely intended for it to awe. Down the wide avenue, Robert E Lee sits on a horse; a powerful stallion carved into stone as he rides into battle.

I marvel at its power and stare at Lee’s uniform, Confederate insignia moulded in bronze on his lapel, in defence of slavery. 

Then I look at his face – and it looks like mine.

My cousin, General Robert E Lee led the southern Confederate States Army in a campaign against the northern Union during the American Civil War in the 1860s. The North fought to free all enslaved African Americans. They won, my cousin lost.

The inheritance of guilt

Today, the US is gripped by a debate over what Confederate monuments like my cousin’s, which stands in Richmond’s Monument Avenue, stand for. I carry that debate in my blood.

General Robert E Lee is part of my family. Five generations on, we still share a physical resemblance, and I wonder – and fear – what else my genes have predisposed me to be. Were there emotional or psychological traits that inclined him towards the choices that he made, towards his moral failings? Is that part of him in me?

I wonder what traditions or cultural habits might have been passed down from his generation to mine and whether the good inherent in the family I see around me could have saved him.

James Gannon with the statue of General Robert E Lee, in Richmond, Virginia [Al Jazeera]

My parents weren’t as wealthy as Lee was, with his sprawling plantation estates. I grew up in a farmhouse in a working-class neighbourhood. I went to a public school.

But I’m still acutely aware of how our ancestral wealth, gained from enslavement, may have trickled down, contributing to my comfort or education. Even the school I attended was funded primarily by the property taxes paid by a majority white community, enriched from the misdeeds of previous generations.

When it comes to the inheritance of guilt, where do you draw the line? Is there a debt owed to black Americans for the centuries of oppression by my white ancestors?

A symbol for modern-day racism

In the middle of a summer night last year, I watched the Charlottesville violence roil from the Al Jazeera newsroom in Doha on multiple screens and I felt enraged. People were using a member of my family as a reverent symbol for modern-day racism, for hate.


White supremacists had organised a rally to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E Lee. They came armed and planned for violence.

In the aftermath, one of their supporters crashed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens.

My rage intermingled with shame – that people in the US were still capable of this hatred, this vitriol, and they were using my family name to justify it. And beyond that – I felt profoundly sad – for my country because it’s unable to shake its short-sighted past; and for my family, because we had to bear this relation.

There have been many Lees since him, who definitely weren’t racist, and yet his perceived legacy continues to haunt our history.



statues were an attempt to reshape a narrative, to emphasise the noble qualities of its ‘heroes’ and diminish their atrocities.”]

Rewriting history

Eight months later, I was standing at the foot of my cousin’s statue in Richmond, an hour’s drive from Charlottesville.

Lee’s statue wasn’t put up during the Civil War or his lifetime, but after the conflict, in 1890 following the so-called Reconstruction Era.


No other country erects statues to the losing side of a civil war.

The North won the war, but put old southern leaders into place to “rehabilitate” the Union with political compromise. They, in turn, attempted to reassert notions of white supremacy.

The monuments to Confederate “heroes” were paid for by groups that sought to sanitise the Civil War and American history of the horrors of slavery. The statues were an attempt to reshape a narrative, to emphasise the noble qualities of these leaders and diminish their atrocities.

This wasn’t “never again” historical evidence, like plantation slave dwellings. This was the rewriting of history.

At the dedication of my cousin’s monument in Richmond, the flag of the defeated Confederate Army was flown, a military-style band played battle songs. At its unveiling, white supremacists called abolitionists “fanatical and unconstitutional”.

Then local and state governments established laws to restrict the civil rights of African Americans, violence against them was rampant. In rebuilding the south that was obliterated by the war, blacks were to be given “40 acres and a mule” – a military order never fulfilled.

This was a chance for true equality – or at least the pursuit of it. For a moment, almost possible, this dream of freedom was dashed by broken promises.

A sign on the statue of Robert E Lee calls for the park to be renamed for Heather Heyer, who was killed at a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 [Reuters]

‘White wealth has flourished through unearned racial advantage’

The statues erected in the place of that dream were – and are – a physical manifestation of a culture unrepentant of its racism, a belief system carved in stone.

From childhood, I knew I was a Lee. Growing up in Virginia, all the kids I grew up with thought that was really cool. Later in life, I realised it wasn’t quite so. Throughout my life, I’ve had to resolve this past sense of admiration with the reality of history.

After the violence in Charlottesville, I realised my voice as a Lee descendant could add legitimacy to the movement to remove the statues and monuments. But I knew I first had to try and understand the true legacy of slavery.

When I began this journey, I thought it would end with an understanding of how removing my cousin’s statue would help right racial injustice in America.

Instead, through making the film A Moral Debt, I met individuals of all different shades – scholars, activists, artists, mothers, sons – who helped me understand that although doing so might provide a superficial manifestation of change, it would do little to address the underlying causes or right the wrongs of the past.

Not being a racist is not enough ... I've lived a life of privilege that is a result of our nation's racist past.

James Gannon

The US is meant to be a place where each person has an equal chance at a life of dignity and opportunity.

Though the enslaved were freed after the Civil War, little was done to equalise their position, and for decades after, through the Black Codes to Jim Crow to redlining, the law was used to institutionalise their oppression – a codified basis for ongoing widespread violence and personal racism.


Through all of this, one fact is undeniable: white wealth has flourished through unearned racial advantage, while the wealth of black people in the US has failed to grow.

Duke University’s Professor Sandy Darity told me that in the aftermath of the Civil War, blacks owned less than one percent of American wealth; the comparable measure today is two percent.

So the question remains: What debt is owed? Like all white Americans today, I played no role in pre-Civil War institutionalised slavery, nor the other explicit institutions of oppression that followed.

But not being a racist is not enough.

I acknowledge that, separate from any wealth passed on through my family, I’ve lived a life of privilege that is a result of our nation’s racist past.

I’ve been treated with less suspicion by authorities, I’ve lived in neighbourhoods that benefited from preferential development and investment for whites. Blacks face discrimination in job opportunities, harsher treatment in the criminal justice system and underservice in healthcare.

To acknowledge that the US built its economy and stature with the uncompensated labour of African Americans is to acknowledge a debt.

Taking down a racist statue is a step in the right direction, but to truly make inroads towards equality, much greater action is required.

America would not be the wealthiest country on earth without the toil of enslaved African Americans.

James Gannon

As European nations look to recognise the misdeeds of their colonial past, so too should the US issue an apology for the centuries of institutionalised enslavement and oppression.

Beyond this, we must look to making amends for the wrongs of the past and levelling the playing field. America would not be the wealthiest country on earth without the toil of enslaved African Americans. Reparations for these contributions and the oppression suffered since are the only moral way to repay that debt.

‘Confederate monuments are an obstacle to moving forward’

My cousin Robert E Lee didn’t want statues like the ones in Richmond or Charlottesville to be put up in the first place.

Before his death in 1870, in deriding efforts to create a Gettysburg memorial to the war’s bloodiest battle, he wrote, “I think it wiser, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

He didn’t want to dwell on the horrors of the war and the past; he didn’t want all of that blood to have been spilled for nothing. Even though he was on the losing side, he wanted to make something of the sacrifice, even if it was just to move on.

Here, my cousin and I have perhaps found some common ground.

Gannon and members of The People’s New Black Panther Party’s defence arm, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. The party has a message of separation and do not want to live with white America [Al Jazeera]

More than 150 years later, I agree with Lee. These kinds of monuments are an obstacle to moving forward and addressing the roots of racial oppression and inequality in our country.

It’s exceedingly difficult to judge the past and our family members who inhabited it. We have to acknowledge we’re viewing them through the lens of our own experience. But that also doesn’t preclude our moral judgement, for which we bear a personal responsibility.

In 2015, as the killer of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina draped himself in a Confederate flag, it was, for me, a reminder of how much the image of my ancestor had been used as a crutch to keep racial hatred alive today.

In 2017, as I watched as statues in his image were torn down around the country, I felt a kinship with those tugging the ropes.

Now, I know that’s what he too would have wanted.

Source : Al Jazeera


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