Published by Convergent Books on April 2, 2019
Genres: Non-Fiction, Biography
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A descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee chronicles his story of growing up with the South's most honored name, and the moments that forced him to confront the privilege, racism, and subversion of human dignity that came with it.
In this riveting memoir, Lee narrates what it was like growing up as a Lee in the South, including an insider's view of the world of the white Christian majority. The author, now a professor at Appalachian State University, describes the widespread nostalgia for the Lost Cause, and his gradual awakening to the unspoken assumptions of white supremacy which had, almost without him knowing it, distorted his values and even his Christian faith. In particular, Lee examines how many White Christians in the South continue to be complicit in a culture of racism and injustice, and how after losing his pulpit, he was welcomed into a growing movement of activists all across the South who are charting a new course for the region. A Sin by Any Other Name is a love letter to the South, from the South, by a Lee--and an unforgettable call for change, hope, and renewal.
On April 2nd 1865, Confederate forces suffered a crushing defeat as the Union army took Richmond, Virginia—the Confederate capital. General Robert E. Lee sent an urgent telegram to President Jefferson Davis: “I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight.”
On April 2nd, 2019—one hundred and fifty-four years to the day later—Robert W. Lee is stepping forward with the same message: “I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position.”
The Confederacy fell in its most outward form on that day in 1865. General Lee would surrender on April 9 at Appomattox Courthouse. Factions survived through the end of the year and President Johnson declared the war to be over on August 20, 1866. But the tensions and the worldview that created the war remained.
The racism and the inequality and the hatred would continue on through the end of the 1800s, through Reconstruction and Jim Crow. It would press back against the Civil Rights movement. It would survive through the generations and be a part of the South’s legacy. A legacy that Robert W. Lee—namesake and descendent of the famed general—carried throughout his life.
A Sin by Any Other Name is Rob Lee’s story. It intertwines his own personal memoir with a larger story of the heritage of the South—both of which come to a head with the Charlottesville riots in 2017. Lee’s story is compelling and personal. His story is full of dichotomy. While his parents are progressive, he has a Black nanny who feels that it’s improper to eat at the same table as him. While he grows up with the ideas of equality, he still keeps a Confederate flag and a photo of “Uncle Bob” at his bedside.
Lee is confronted with the uncomfortable fact that his last name makes his famous for something he isn’t sure he believes in. It’s an intriguing war between belief and legacy, an attempt to reconcile one’s famous ancestry with their controversial life. It ultimately leads to the realization that the man he—and most of the people he knew—idolized was also “an idol of white supremacy…an idol of nationalism and of bigotry and of hate and of racism.”
Rob’s story might have ended there. He goes to college, then seminary, then settles into a small church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. From there, it could have been obscurity. Lee had long been a columnist and written a book (Stained Glass Millennials), but was really just another face in the crowd. Perhaps he had finally escaped the siren song of his famous last name.
August 11, 2017. A white supremacist rally turned deadly. Their stated goal had been to unite the American white nationalist movement and oppose the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Lee Park. And suddenly everyone was interested in what his namesake had to say about it.
Charlottesville and Robert E. Lee gave Rob Lee a platform. What man determined for evil, God used for good. He brings beauty from ashes. Lee begin to use that platform and his famous name to speak up and to speak out. This book is a result of that.
A Sin by Any Other Name is well-written and thoughtful. The refrain that kept reverberating in my head was “This is only the beginning.” As the book ends, you’re left wondering what’s next—which, I’m sure Rob is asking himself the same. It doesn’t seem finished. It’s not complete.
I don’t fault Lee for grabbing his moment and taking his platform. Now is the time to use your voice and act, to stand up for the oppressed and the marginalized. I think this would have been a better book ten or twenty years from now. You haven’t done much yet, Rob. (Says the pastor/blogger who has never been invited to the VMAs or preached at MLK’s church.)
But I don’t mean that as a criticism. It’s an encouragement. This is just the beginning, my friend. You have so many more chapters left to live and write. Redeem the name of Rob Lee. There are other things I wish this book had done that it didn’t. I wish it had focused less on Rob and more on the issues of racism and inequality in the South. I wish it had been more substantive. But it wasn’t meant to be any of those things. And maybe one day those books will come. Because this is a story that—for both better and worse—isn’t finished by a long shot.