That White Boy Nathan Bedford Forrest Could Jump
One of the more difficult subjects in my Black Confederates book has been trying to understand why some African Americans identify with this myth. There are a range of perspectives from folks like H.K. Edgerton, Karen Cooper, and Nelson Winbush and they cannot be reduced to one simple interpretation.
Then there is Al Arnold, who recently published a personal reflection about his great-great-grandfather, Turner Hall, who he believes worked as a camp slave for both Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee. Robert E. Lee’s Orderly: A Modern Black Man’s Confederate Journey is at times a rambling and at other times insightful account of how Arnold came to embrace Confederate heritage.
The book is very light on history. Other than a couple of newspaper accounts published in the 1930s and 40s Arnold offers no proof that his ancestor was associated with Lee or Jackson. He accepts without question the claims contained in these articles. The more you read, however, the clearer it becomes that Arnold is not really interested in his ancestor or even the history of the Civil War and the Confederacy beyond its instrumental value of encouraging racial reconciliation today.
Here is how he comes to terms with Forrest:
After doing my homework on Forrest, this is what I have concluded, and this is what I have conveyed to my family. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was like the one White boy back in the neighborhood that really could jump. You know, the one we grew up with that ll the brothers were friends with because, at the end of the day, he could whip your butt. The Larry Bird of basketball. All the brothers in my neighborhood loved the Lakers and the 76ers. Magic Johnson and Julius Irving (Dr. J) were doing some new things on the court that young Black boys dreamed of doing. However, there was still one dirty White boy always standing in the way. Larry Bird was that man on the court. [p. 69]
Arnold has something in common with other African Americans who identify and embrace the black Confederate narrative as a tool of reconciliation and as a means to find a common past that transcends the color line. For Arnold every Confederate general, including Forrest, can be redeemed. Arnold learns to respect the man who traded black bodies, murdered them on the battlefield, and lynched them after the war.
And if Hall and Forrest could find common ground then the descendants of slaves and Confederate soldiers can do so today.