Imagine a visitor from another planet, say Mars, is touring the Southern states and is in modern day Virginia. The Martian makes its way to Jamestown, which he finds both interesting, and puzzling. It has familiarized itself with 200 years of Southern history, from 1619-1819. The Martian decides that it will approach a number of Southerners, Black and white, to see if it can find answers to its questions. Intuitively, the Martian shape shifts into an 18-year-old European male. He has a guidebook in his hand.
In a parking lot, the Martian approaches a white Southerner in front of his white pickup truck. The Martian spies a gunrack in the back, and a Confederate flag hangs from the back of the window of the truck like a curtain.
“Excuse me,” the Martian says in a slight, unrecognizable accent, to the trucker. “I’m from out of town. I find Southern history fascinating, though I admit I don’t know much.” The Martian pauses. “Who was Robert E. Lee?” the Martian continues.
The trucker, who’s great great grandfather distinguished himself in serving the South during the War of Northern Aggression, proclaims passionately in a menacing Southern drawl, “He was the greatest General of the Confederacy!”
The Martian nods, not in agreement, but in acknowledgment of the statement.
Hours later the Martian returns to its hotel, having talked with a number of white Southerners. During the walk back to the hotel it feels the awesome history of the South, and its paradoxes: gentility and brutality, side by side. It had paused on Confederate Way, pondering this. In its hotel room, the Martian turns on the television. There’s spirited debates about Confederate monuments, that they didn’t belong, that they never should have been erected, that they belong, that they are part of something “great.” Despite this, as political officials worked to have them removed, people took to the streets and desecrated them or tore them down. The Martian had seen a number of them throughout its trip in the South thus far. There’s also spirited protests, from both Black and white people, around police brutality, and the meaningfulness of Black lives.
The next day the Martian plans to talk to some Black Southerners, about #BlackLivesMatter, and Confederate monuments. Its view are informed by various news reports, including the nonstop coverage on CNN.
In a mall named after a five-star general, Douglas MacArthur, the Martian approaches a very attractive middle-aged Black woman. “Excuse me,” it says, in that unrecognizable accent. “I’m from out of town, studying Southern history, which I find fascinating. On the television there’s a lot of talk about Robert E. Lee, about removing a monument dedicated to him. Who was he?”
The Black woman looks around before she exclaims in a melodious Southern drawl, “A traitor to the Union!” She looks around again before she continues, “When Southern States broke away from the Union, they founded the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy started a bloody Civil War that lasted more than four years because they wanted Black people to remain slaves! Truth be told, we’re still fighting this war!”
“The War of Northern Aggression?” the Martian asks.
The Black woman chuckles. “That’s what some white Southerners call the American Civil War.”
“And all these Confederate Monuments?”
“Obviously the South won the war!” the Black woman says, more as a fact than facetiously.
“That’s what I thought!” For some reason, the Martian believes it can confide in this woman, so it quickly shape shifts to its true form, and then back to the 18-year-old European male, and it tells her that it’s not from earth, but from Mars. The Black woman doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. “On Mars, our generals who have won wars against other planets have monuments honoring their great deeds!”
“Believe it or not,” the Black woman continues, “the South actually lost the Civil War. You wouldn’t know that from all the monuments honoring people who wanted to keep Black people in slavery, who fought for that! If the South had won, right now I’d probably be on one of the plantations as a slave, and not at liberty to talk to you.”
“How did they get away with this? Monuments for losers? For traitors, as you said?” The Martian poses these questions rhetorically, because the Martin knows there is no reasonable explanation. Americans haven’t answered these questions in 155 years.
The Black woman shrugs her shoulders. “It’s a long story! More than one hundred years of history since the Civil War ended, and more than two hundred years before the Civil War began.”
The Martian is shaking its head. “And we had heard on Mars that America is the greatest nation in human history.”
“That’s what we like to tell people, but ask some Black folk. They’ll tell you otherwise.” The Black woman pauses. She knows that there is so much in between. “There are times in America’s history when her people show greatness, and then there are times when the very same people are ugly, so ugly they are unrecognizable. I’m just trying to be fair. I love my country! My father served in the Second World War, and a great uncle served in the First World War. We won those wars. Black people also fought in the Civil War! They have no monuments for them in the South, not that I know of!”
The Martian asks the Black woman if it can take a selfie with her. She agrees. The Martian extends its arm and snaps a photo. They are both smiling. It decides to post it on the Instagram account, OutofthisWorld, it has created. It does, and it tags it #BlackLivesMatter!