I was about to write something else, about literature, which has often meant more to me than life. But life, not mine but that of the my adopted nation, has gotten in the way. Events.
It started a while back, the debate, now an attack with a fatality, over the removal of Confederate monuments. I have no dog in this fight. I was born and grew up in a society marked by black slavery, but not this one. I can ruminate about that one and its unresolved agenda, but in this one I live close to the margin.
Not my very loved late friend Jamie, erudite and sensitive. He hated the Confederacy and had the unkindest things to say about Robert E Lee. And his opinions counted because, as I said, he was not at the margin but at the very center. You see, Jamie, who called himself a cracker, was a Son of the Confederacy, enrolled by his maternal grandmother and a source of his irritation.
I imagine he'd be in favor of removing the monuments, but he died (may he rest in peace in a Heaven where everyone gets a Martin guitar at the Gates) before this had become such a hot issue. I, his Cuban buddy, never had passionate feelings about the Civil War and its aftermath, seeing it from a cultural distance with a mixture of curiosity and fright that leaves room for decadent esthetics.
The Confederate Flag? Looks good. As did General Lee himself in his uniform. Jefferson Davis doesn't cross my radar; to me, he's just a name. The war itself was a horror. And so was the aftermath. The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth; birth of a nation indeed! I caught its late terrible act: Jim Crow. It wasn't pretty. And from my vantage point, why did those white people, faces distorted with hate, loathe Negroes, to use the polite word from those days, with such intensity? I still don't understand.
Ah yes, they lost the war. This marked the South. Tuning in to esthetics, I think without that loss there would've never been a Faulkner. I'm not saying great literature is worth great bloodshed in the same manner that Paris is worth a mass, but William Faulkner inherited the bloodshed and the loss and the sin (a lapsed but unreconstructed Catholic, I sense a great sense of sin in the South). In the same way we all inherit that horror movie we call history.
Which reminds me of the time a (famous but I won't name him) black writer told me, "I'm glad we had slavery because without slavery we wouldn't have Mingus." A boutade, as was his custom, but perhaps all esthetics are decadent.
Mine would leave those monuments be. How many heroic statues are free of sin? I grew up surrounded by them; like American Southerners, we Latin Americans love statuary. I never thought of them as anything but embellishment of the urban scape. However, I'm still in awe of Antonio Maceo, indifferent about Máximo Gómez for no good reason, and have very complicated feelings about the very complicated José Martí, to name the most important heroes of Cuban independence who towered over the city parks of my childhood.
But bringing it all back to my second home, should we knock down Jefferson's Palladian monument in Washington? Talk about a slave owner who knew better! Tom Jefferson was a fascinating creature, but then I'm fascinated by complicated characters, particularly if they're aesthetes.
I'm not black, nor am I a native-born American. Mine is an immigrant's perspective, a peculiar immigrant at that, and should be taken with a grain of fleur de sel. One of my favorite statues is the one of El Cid outside the Hispanic Society in Upper Manhattan, that wonderful museum of Spanish art. El Cid Campeador was the hero of Spain's national epic poem, where he acts nobly but also like a rascal, particularly in cheating a pair of Jewish moneylenders. Another complicated character, but aren't we all?
Where I'm not ambiguous is about Nazi imagery. How could anyone who calls him or herself a patriot allow the Nazi flag to fly next to them, never mind carry one, when Americans were killed fighting those sons of bitches in war? How could Southerners allow it to fly next to their beloved battle flag? Whatever righteousness there is in Southern pride is defiled by contact with that hateful image. Northerner or Southerner, Gentile or Jew, black or white, anyone who flies that flag is a traitor and the punishment for traitors is clearly spelled out and terminal. Fuck that shit.