Learning to see other perspectives

By: Leon Smith - Contributing Columnist

When the Sept. 6, 2017 issue of the Record came, the first thing I saw was the headline “Should it stay or should it go? Former resident wants Confederate statue removed.” Although it was news I might have expected, I read the article with great alarm. People other places were demonstrating against Confederate statues, but not in Anson. Not here.

That statue was a bronze monument, like the ones guarding country courthouses all over the northeast, except it honored a Confederate soldier. As a 6-year-old, I knew there was something Southern about this soldier, but I never dreamed it would ever anger anyone. I looked up to him from time to time as he stood at parade rest, but never read the inscriptions on the granite. I think Daddy told me he stood for men who had died in the Civil War.

In the Record article Stanley Clemons presented a very different view: “…the monument was built so they could commemorate the white soldiers who fought in the Civil War to keep slavery in the south.”

Such was never my understanding at all. I needed to listen to Mr. Clemons, because I needed to understand his side of the story. I got his telephone number from Natalie Davis at the paper, but did not make the call right away. I dreaded reaching out, even though I knew it was the right thing to do — because knowing what’s right and doing it are two very different things.

“Yeah, what if he shouts at you, what if he calls you a racist,” bad Leon said to me. “Or what if, by intonation or phrasing, he indicates he thinks you’re a racist?” the negative voice continued. “That would stop the conversation cold.”

But I knew what the Lord said to do if you have a disagreement with your neighbor. He said to go see him and talk about it, face to face. And on the other hand — and if you think somebody has something against you — do the same thing: go to your neighbor and talk face to face.

Well, I couldn’t go face to face, but I could make the call. “I’m going to hear what this man has to say,” I said to my alter ego. “His words were ‘I am curious whether the community was going to take a stand to take it down,’” I remembered. “He did not say he was lobbying to take it down.” Then I prayed to the Lord for courage, and dialed the number in Atlanta.

When he picked up the phone, Stanley Clemons said “Hello” in a voice deep and with precise diction. I told him I had read about the Confederate monument in the Anson Record and I wanted to hear his side of the story. He got his notes together and we began to talk.

He and “Allan,” his brother, had talked about the widespread demonstrations over Confederate statues. He had not really paid much attention to the monument while he lived in Anson County in the ’50s and ’60s. Googling the topic, he learned that memorial was dedicated to the memory of Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. “I found the monument was dedicated in 1906,” he said, “But I doubt there were any African-Americans at the ceremony.”

He left Anson County in the middle ’60s to attend Howard University, then stayed in D.C. to serve as a hearing officer for the District of Columbia Board of Parole. After 17 years, he wearied of playing God, of being right all the time, and having so much unilateral influence over other folks’ lives. So, he retired and moved to Atlanta.

I thought I understood what he meant by “playing God” in the Board of Parole, so I took a chance with a loaded term. “Very little is as simple as black and white,” I said. “There is gray, but also yellow, and red, and green, and orange.” He chuckled.

“I sent a follow-up email to the paper,” he said.

“Could I have a copy?”

“Of course.”

The email demanded some explanation. For example, he said his father, Paul, who farmed 172 acres near Lilesville, was “a shrewd farmer who ‘didn’t take no tea fa da fever.’”

I called to ask him about the phrase, to learn that his father toughed out his fevers — shunning the tea which less hardy souls took as a cure.

Concerning the Anson Confederate statue, Stanley wrote: “I can appreciate the fact that many people view the statue as part of American history and is symbolic, not of her racist past, but of how far we have come.”

Later he said, “I contacted the paper because, although I no longer reside in Anson County, I still consider Anson County as home and am concerned as to whether or the community is awake and aware.”

Then he wrote “… I am aware of the bravery that the Confederate soldiers must have demonstrated in dying for their cause…But now, more than ever, when I gaze upon that statue, I’m acutely aware of the ‘cause.’”

On the phone, I did not think to ask him about the racist past, but I did ask him what “the cause” meant. Stanley said that to the African-American community, “the cause” means the continuation of slavery. Now I could see what troubled Stanley about the Confederate statue: it reminded him of slavery.

“I have never thought of the statue that way,” I told him. “And I despise slavery, even hating the word.

“I do not believe any of my family ever owned slaves,” I continued, “and if I found out they did, I would be very sorry.”

We talked about the fact that slavery can be more than bodily bondage. I believe that the black men and women who wrote songs like “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” “Down to the River to Pray” and “You Must Be Pure and Holy” were free at a deeper level than folks who mistreated them. Blessedly, we do not support physical slavery any more. But mental freedom requires effort to make ourselves aware. And in the hour of conversations we had, two expatriate men who call Anson County home began to do that. He told me his mother stressed that. “Be Aware,” Sallie said.

He called my attention to the phrase with which he ended his email: “Stay woke.” I understood that one. In at least an hour of conversations, Stanley Clemons and Leon Smith were trying hard to “stay woke.”

We had points of disagreement, but it did not hinder our conversation because we realize there are valid viewpoints other than our own. In my case, I told Stanley that I want to keep the Confederate statue, because it honors soldiers who died defending their land against soldiers in blue who were ruining the crops, burning the barns, taking the horses, and terrifying women and old folks. But I will never look at it the same way, knowing that, to Stanley, the monument connotes slavery.

In his email, Stanley wrote: “So if we were to let that lone soldier stand at attention as he looks out onto Greene Street, why not provide him some company in bronze.” He suggested names like Martin Luther King and T.W. Bennett, principal of his high school.

Going through the process of talking at length with someone different from yourself may be very rewarding. It was for me. I can illustrate the process through a true story that happened to me during the time Stanley and I were talking on the phone .

On Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017, coming into a restaurant with my wife, I saw a little girl standing 10 feet away. She was toddling around near her mother, but clearly intent on making her way on her own, which she did with her little arms stretched out like a high-wire artist.

“Hey-ee,“ I said, stretching the word into two syllables.

Her little Afro bounced as she started toddling toward me, not speaking, but smiling broadly as she came.

“Hey-ee,” I said as she came closer.

She kept coming, right up to me and held out her hands. As a stranger, and a white guy, I was nervous about picking her up, but when I took her by her tiny hands, she smiled up at me. Then she looked around at her mom and smiled at her.

When I looked around, I saw a lot of people looking on, and every one of them was smiling too.

I asked her mother did she usually do this.

“No,” she said. “This is the first time I have ever seen her go to a stranger.”

“How innocent,” Stanley said when he heard the story.

I told him I had prayed that this baby would never see some of the things we have seen. But that is not the point. This baby made the first move. Someone has to do this; to talk about complex issues and at least grow to appreciate the other fellow’s view.

Should it stay or should it go? I ask you to “stay woke” and take someone different from you to stand in front of that statue…and listen to one another. Do the process; the outcome will take care of itself.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.

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Leon Smith

Contributing Columnist