Robert W. Lee on America’s Original Sin: Racism

01.23.2018 Arts & Culture
Alexsis Ballard
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For those of you who have not rallied, marched, protested, or spoken for equality yet, the time has come. We, as Americans, have a serious problem to fix. And the answer starts with us. With every thought of every day, we need to be the change we want to see. In August of 2017 we saw violence erupt surrounding the removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. Being made an ‘idol of white supremacy and hate’, the General’s fourth generation great nephew agrees the statue should have been removed a long time ago.

Rob, 25, has his Masters of Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School, has spoken on The View, MTV’s Video Music Awards, NPR and CBS, has written for countless prominent publications and has a book deal with Penguin Publishers. (Be on the lookout for a very exciting book exploring the relationship between millennials and the church, titled Stained-Glass Millennials in 2019.)

After announcing his support of the Black Lives Matter movement at the VMA’s this past year, Reverend Lee came home to North Carolina with a much-displeased church board. However, before allowing them to vote on whether or not he could stay at the church, Rob chose not to stand with those who did not denounce racism, and resigned.

In an August 20 interview with NPR, Reverend Lee states, “As someone who can say that this [white supremacy, racism and idolization of General Lee] is wrong, then it’s worth every ounce of strength I have. It’s worth my life. It’s worth my dignity. It’s worth everything I’ve got to redeem this situation.”

It is this, his history, courage and unwavering opinions that is needed to reach a post-racism society today. We caught up with Reverend Lee to discuss his views on white supremacy and how we can acknowledge our past, learn from it, and move forward as a country.

So Rob, jumping right in, where do you think the monumental race problem in America stems from?

The race problem in America stems from America’s original sin, which is white supremacy and the enslavement of black and brown bodies. Though these concepts were not new to the world at the time of America’s birth, it was from that birth that we have always known these realities. Also, unlike the apartheid in South Africa, we never had a truth and reconciliation commission after the Civil Rights Movement. We have never fully addressed these issues so there has never been an opportunity for us to redeem our past for the hopes and dreams of the unfolding future. We have to continually seek atonement for the realities our nation was founded upon. In addition to leaders like William Wilberforce in England and Martin Luther King Jr. in the States, countless sung and unsung heroes have stood up to slavery, racism, white supremacy and white privilege by making their time and place more beautiful. They did this by speaking truth and justice for equality’s sake.

Is racism passed down? How is hatred and bigotry bred?

Racism is most certainly passed down. It is pernicious and subversive because it’s a taught sin in my opinion, rather than an inherent sin. It’s true, if you look at children, that they see the world much differently than we adults do in terms over race. We could learn a lot from children — they’re seeing the world in a pure way, an unbridled way. We have the potential to end [racism] by seeking to have difficult conversations with those who are racist or benefit from systems of racism. All white people are benefiting right now from inherently racist systems, and that must be addressed if we want to move forward.

Can you tell me about the reaction and subsequent response to your speech at the 2017 VMA’s, when you realized your views were not entirely shared by your peers and congregation at the church you were a pastor at?

I consider that moment on August 27th, 2017 to be a defining moment in my life. The MTV VMA’s changed my life forever. Speaking up and saying that black lives mattered cost me my job, and even friends. I didn’t say it to cause controversy, but because, as a pastor, I truly believe to God, that black lives do matter. And until we acknowledge that reality, we can’t say that all lives matter. This is a hard reality for us to face as white folk, but ultimately we need to live up to it and understand that what matters to God, should matter to us, and we need to make sure the two line up.

As a pastor and as a person, how has this exposure via radio shows, talk shows and interviews challenged you?

It challenges me to be a better white person. It’s challenged me to address the issues of our time and speak up, regardless of the consequences. On a personal note, it’s made me really tired. It’s hard to do all this work and traveling. But it pales in comparison to the reality of what persons of color experience in their daily lives. I’m lucky to be doing this work because I find inspiration daily in people who are working for change in their own special ways.

As a descendant of General Robert E. Lee, how have you dealt with that history? Why is it important you speak out?

I deal with my history by speaking truth to power and hoping for a brighter tomorrow filled with love and grace. I know this may seem like flowery language but I have the audacious hope to believe that there is power in the words we speak and the way we conduct ourselves now, in spite of the lineage we may have. We have hope because we continue to work for progress and change.

I understand a lady whose ancestors used to be the slaves to your ancestors approached you. Can you tell me more about that?

I had just finished an interview with NPR when a lady reached out to my email saying her name was Melissa Lee and she is a descendant of enslaved persons under the Lee household. The interaction was a redeeming moment for both of us because we cried together and spoke of our hopes for reconciliation in spite of our pasts. That’s the beauty of the time we live in; we can make amends for the past by speaking truth about the future. It’s a beautiful testament to the power of love and forgiveness in spite of a heinous and awful past.

What is your opinion of President Trump’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia when he blamed both sides?

Simply and directly, Trump would have been better to keep his mouth shut rather than open his mouth and prove again his ignorance to the issues of racial equality in our country. There are not many sides to this issue as the President said. There is a right side and a wrong side, and we must decide where we will lay our claim. I can only hope that the President will seek atonement for the sins of not listening to the oppressed.

Contrary to outright violence, a common form of racism is micro-aggression, which breeds denial in recognizing racism within one’s own self. What do you think of that?

Micro-aggressions are the beginning of matters like Charlottesville. Had Richard Spencer and other white supremacists been corrected at their first micro-aggression, they might not have caused this mess. It’s our job as white folk to correct the racist joke or micro-aggression in our workplace and community. Then, and only then, will we have peace and tranquility.

How can we, as a nation, move forward through racism and come together to become a post-racism society?

We do so through conversation and action on racist policies. We act on our instinct to be people of racial reconciliation. These actions we take will help us move forward together. I don’t know if we’ll see post-racism in our time, but by God, we have to work for it!

How do you propose we remember dark histories without commemoration?

We do so by telling the truth about slavery and its pernicious power. We tell the truth about Jim Crow and white supremacy, for the sake of our future. We remember by speaking our truth about race and our hope for reconciliation whether we are black or white. A removal of an object doesn’t change history at all. In fact, it contextualizes history. It gives us the opportunity to say, as Europe said in response to WWII and the Holocaust, that we can never let this happen again. We aren’t changing history, we’re seeking to be people who say history matters, but not all of it should be celebrated.

Can there be any middle ground to resolving racism and white supremacy without the theological context?

We have to work together, not as people who have faith or do not have faith, but as people of goodwill everywhere. There is certainly something important in theological reflection, but I know plenty of good atheists who want to see the system changed as well. We just have to work together in spite of our differences and the monikers that hold us back.

Do you have a favorite quote or passage?

I love the saying from the black church tradition, “God has not brought us this far to leave us here alone.” That is the greatest and surest hope we have. We are not alone in this movement of love and justice (which go hand in hand). We are not alone because we have God and each other to change our deep-seeded perceptions and racist thoughts.

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