Photo: Good Morning America/Twitter
“We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.” —bell hooks, Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism
In February 1979, under the headline “A Cavalry Commander Who Became a Hero,” reporter Hugh Walker took to the opinion page of the Tennessean newspaper in an effort to explain the controversy surrounding Nathan Bedford Forrest. A bronze bust of the Confederate general and Grand Wizard of the KKK had been in place for just over three months, situated on the second floor of the capitol building in Nashville after a five-year fundraising effort led by the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
On November 6, 1978, the day the bust began its 42-year stay on the downtown Nashville street that would eventually be renamed in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., a group of Black residents gathered in protest. “The unveiling of the bust fits into much of the mood of the nation — anti-black and ultraconservative,” said the Reverend Kelly Miller Smith, pastor of Nashville’s First Baptist Church. Opposition continued into the New Year, but although the bust was the site of the resistance, it wasn’t the sole cause for outrage. Yes, the protesters, including the renowned civil-rights activist Kwame Lillard, knew of Forrest’s record as a slave owner, a slave trader, and a man willing to give his life to ensure that Black people never had freedom and autonomy in their own lives. But above qualms with the literal interpretation of the statue — that it was a piece of art designed to honor a man who had committed many dishonorable acts — the group took issue with the symbolism attached to Forrest’s likeness. They argued that installing the bust reflected the racism already infecting the city, from high levels of Black unemployment to the appointment of Grace Sandfur, president of the Nashville chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to the position of administrative assistant with the state’s Department of Conservation. And they believed that the refusal of elected officials to condemn all racism, including the celebration of Forrest in this fixed manner, would only lead to more “Klan-like” activities.
So, with the power of his pen and employment at Nashville’s largest daily newspaper, Walker did what he felt needed to be done. Even while admitting “there can be little doubt that, to many people, Forrest symbolized the Klan,” Walker mentioned nothing of the deeper stakes of the ongoing capitol protests. Instead, he sought to smooth the rough edges of Forrest’s legacy, presenting the Klansman as just a man, flawed and complicated as we all are. “Praise for Forrest’s military ability is plentiful,” Walker wrote, “but perhaps the most significant quotation is from his adversary, Gen. U.S. Grant, who wrote in his memoirs: ‘Neither army could present a more effective officer.’”
It’s a fascinating piece of work, splashed across two pages, unabashed in its “both sides” intent. Still, I can only imagine what Forrest’s reputational rehab would have looked like if he’d still been alive in ’79 — if, instead of a newspaper article, Walker could have sat directly across from Forrest in a sun-drenched living room for a staged interview to air on one of the country’s most-watched morning shows.
Following Morgan Wallen’s interview on Friday with Michael Strahan on ABC’s flagship morning news show, Good Morning America, there has been much discussion about the strength of Wallen’s answers to Strahan’s probes, about the validity of his excuse that he dropped the N-word in February because, when he’s with his friends, “we just — we say dumb stuff together.” For some, this admission of ignorance, whether real or feigned, will be enough, and for Wallen’s most strident fans, it was completely unnecessary. They’ve been riding with Wallen since the video first leaked; they’ve been further emboldened by the belief that their feckless leader was the latest victim of a nonexistent cancel culture. Wallen can sell out shows today and put out new music today. Thanks to a lack of anti-racist leadership at the Country Music Association, he can collect a few trophies lauding his work as the most beloved artist in country music. And now he can rest easy after appearing to have sat in the hot seat on the very network that will air the CMA Awards later this fall.
But this interview was not for the fans. It was for everyone else: for all of the people left wondering whether Wallen has actually “done the work,” for those rightfully questioning whether six and a half months is a little too soon for the official comeback that now seems imminent. Following a string of social–media posts featuring a smiling, singing Wallen alongside a slew of Sympathetic Black People, the meeting with Strahan is but the final stop on a redemption tour that will usher Wallen back to the front of country music’s biggest stages. And for that, the interview served its purpose. No one can claim to be Wallen’s judge, jury, or Jesus; thus, allowing Wallen to “speak his truth” acts as an effective shield against further rebuke. (For who among us can know the true condition of his heart … or liver?)
Perhaps more significant, the interview also illuminated the weight of Wallen’s decision to seek counsel and compassion outside the industry that gave him his start. Having Strahan, a Black man, hold Wallen to task about his use of the N-word may best align with an effort to prove that Wallen isn’t looking for an easy way out of his PR nightmare. But because Strahan’s knowledge of country music’s racist inner workings is limited, he offered up questions that did little more than allow Wallen to restate, for a national audience, much of what he covered in his February 10 apology video: He was with friends, he was intoxicated, he has heard from Black people about their personal experiences with racism. Still, there was no follow-up on Wallen’s statements from his February video, in which he said that the kindness he had received from those who supported him during his darkest hour “really inspired me to dig deeper on how to do something about this,” and that while he “didn’t want to add to any division,” the prior week was a lesson that “sometimes we can do just that, without even knowing.”
Forrest and Wallen’s transgressions may vary in severity, but like Walker’s ode to a “misunderstood” Forrest, Strahan’s interview with Wallen keeps the focus on the individual and away from the larger issues. Strahan’s question about whether Wallen believed “there is a race problem in country music overall” should’ve been the first. It should’ve superseded the six minutes of back-and-forth about Wallen’s substance-abuse problems and stated cluelessness about a word that any man born and raised in Tennessee knows well —this is the state joined the Confederate States of America in 1861 and, just over 100 years later, passed a law requiring each sitting governor to recognize three separate days honoring the Confederacy and its staunchest defenders: Robert E. Lee Day on January 19, Confederate Memorial Day on June 3, and Nathan Bedford Forrest Day on July 13.
But that question is saved for last, and with only seconds to spare, Wallen offers up another pitiful response that does more to highlight the work still required of — and left undone by — the genre’s biggest star than anything else in the interview. His statement that he “[hasn’t] really sat and thought about” the racism that undergirds every corner of this industry isn’t an aw-shucks oversight from a man who has had half a year to think about this very thing. It’s a slap in the face to every person who begged him to. And now, when those people point to Wallen’s CMA eligibility as reflective of the industry’s historical aversion to valuing and respecting Black people and their concerns; or they bring up the fact that Wallen’s “playful” use of the N-word is emblematic of a toxic country-music culture that demands, and receives, full industry capitulation; or they decry the racial vitriol Mickey Guyton continues to receive for both speaking out against racism in country music and being upheld, as she was during Wallen’s interview, as the symbol of woke outrage, they will be stopped short. And they will be reminded that Wallen has Black advisers, that he gave money to the Black Music Action Coalition, that the 28-year-old is young and remorseful and a man flawed and complicated, as we all are.
Early on Friday morning, July 23, Forrest’s bust was finally removed from the Tennessee State Capitol — after last year’s 9-2 vote by Tennessee’s State Capitol Commission and a 25-1 vote by the Tennessee Historical Commission in March — harnessed and lifted gently by crane so that it may be unharmed en route to its new home in the Tennessee State Museum. Naturally, there are some who disagree with the move, including Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, who tweeted, “The left will move on to the next figure or monument and demand that we again kneel at the altar of political correctness,” and promised that “more fights are coming.” This is undoubtedly true, and as long as truth is on the line, any war McNally foreshadows is worth waging. A fight of this sort is the hopeful culmination of the removal of Forrest’s bust, as relocating it to the museum, and presenting it with the complete context of Forrest’s life and impact, challenges our softened fiction with harsh reality. It also leads to the deeper, fuller conversations that make resolution possible — unlike what we saw from Wallen and Strahan yesterday.