Life of the Mind~ Reading The Great Wide World

A masterful change of key

In fewer than 1000 words, Holley pulled me in by my superficial laughter, shone a light on my ironic distance, and confronted me with the full, ongoing horror that lies behind my laughter’s cause.

A while ago, my partner and I were in the car, and he mentioned “that one Confederate statue, the really bizarre one.” I didn’t know what he meant, so I searched weird confederate statue, and this WaPo piece from 2015 came up:

The ‘terrifying’ Confederate statue some Tennesseeans want to hide” by Peter Holley

I highly recommend reading the article now, if you want to take a minute. Take this journey with me.

It’s a fascinating piece, for its structure and execution as much as for its subject matter. The hook is simple: “‘[This is] an offensive display of hatred'” is a common description for statues of Confederate figures, but “‘This thing has a mouth like a circular saw'”? Less so. Holley juxtaposes the horror of the statue’s subject with the absurdity of its execution:

It is a 25-foot-tall homage to a slave-trading Confederate Army and Ku Klux Klan leader, and it features Forrest atop a golden steed that looks like it was ripped from a merry-go-round for giants.

The next paragraph is a masterpiece of understatement:

Regardless of where you stand on Confederate issues, the statue is a sight to behold.

I laughed at the header image. I laughed at the “‘circular saw'” and the “merry-go-round for giants.” I laughed at the wry understatement. Amid all that, I exclaimed* at the “Ku Klux Klan leader” fact, sure, but I still wasn’t prepared for what was to come.

After touching on the very real horror of what Forrest did and who he was, Holley turns back to the absurd (“There’s also the matter of the aesthetics”). I laughed at the unfavorable comparison to “‘statues of cartoon characters located inside cartoon shows,'” I laughed at the “‘expression that one makes after sitting on a thumb tack,'” and I laughed really hard at the close-up image of the statue’s face.

At this point, the article takes a turn:

Adding to the oddity is the fact that the statue was designed by the late sculptor and attorney Jack Kershaw, who represented James Earl Ray, the man convicted of murdering the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.


At the statue’s unveiling, in 1998


“He’s crying, ‘Follow me!’” Kershaw is quoted as saying.

W H A T?? Where. Where could a Confederate official and Klansman possibly want to lead us? How could it be anywhere good? How is someone advocating this in/after 1998? Mr. Kershaw, what in the name of all that is decent are you trying to—

“Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery,” [Kershaw] once told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.

Oh. I see.

The businessman on whose land this statue rests has some thoughts about the campaign for its removal:

“The No. 1 thing that disturbs me about the whole situation is, what about the 70,000 people that come here to study Civil War history every year?” he told the paper.

That’s the No. 1 thing that disturbs him about the whole situation. He looked at the situation, all of it, and decided that was the worst part.

“You’re taking away one of the reasons they’re coming to Nashville. They do support the restaurant industry, the lodging industry — and how many blacks work in those industries, work [as] tour guides and what have you?”

“blacks.” Of course. To use a technical term, that’s what we might consider a “red flag.” In fairness, this man’s economy of language is admirable; “what have you” here stands in for the far wordier “other jobs I have never had to do and cannot imagine anyone like me doing.”

Here is the very next sentence:

Dorris — who called slavery a form of “social security” for African Americans, “a cradle-to-the-grave proposition” — told WPLN that he’s not racist.

It was at about this point that I said out loud, “HOW? HOW DOES IT KEEP GETTING WORSE?”

Dorris has said the quality of Kershaw’s sculpting work is not great. But the statue should remain in view, he said, because of what it stands for.

It kept getting worse.

“As an artist, mediocre,” Dorris said to WPLN about Kershaw. “As a thinker, he was way ahead of his time.”

I have nothing. Nothing to say about this. What can you say about this? I have nothing.

And finally:

As for Dorris himself, he once told WPLN: “I’ve been accused of being racist. Now if I was racist, why have I got so many blacks working for me?”

That’s it. That’s the last paragraph of this piece that started out — well, if not lightheartedly, then as lightheartedly as a piece involving the continued glorification of the Confederacy can start out. In fewer than 1000 words, Holley pulled me in by my superficial laughter, shone a light on that ironic distance I can afford as a white woman from California, and confronted me with the full, ongoing horror that lies behind my laughter’s cause.

* I hope I was only surprised that a statue of a KKK leader is still on public display (outside of the context that a museum would provide); I dearly hope I was not surprised that a Confederate official was a KKK leader. More on my white, Californian naïvete in a moment.

** There’s that white, Californian naïvete.

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