“…to separate and destroy families and friends… to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world” – Confederate General Robert E. Lee, excerpt from a letter to his wife (1862)
History remembers Confederate Army General Robert Edward Lee and his defeat at Gettysburg to Ulysses Simpson Grant as the beginning of the end of the Civil War, and with it the collapse of African chattel slavery which had established and secured America’s economic floor and framework for more than 300 years. The branches of Lee’s family tree sprawl in twists and turns across centuries, from the red clay hills of the Custis-Lee plantation at Arlington, Virginia, to California’s Pacific coast.
Wendy Wilkinson Rincón is cousin to General Lee – a chance discovery of kinship by marriage on her father’s side, after the deaths of his parents, the elder Wilkinsons.
Following the May 2020 open execution of black unarmed George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a nation infirmed is again a nation inflamed. Some, calling for legislative removal of statues and monuments to the Confederacy, have grown impatient. Protests have escalated to toppling stony likenesses of slaveowners, including Gen. Lee, and dragging them away – a mood perhaps anticipated by the man himself:
“I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
Gen. Robert E. Lee, Republican Vindicator – September 3, 1869
Pointing to a game-hunting style of American policing, and the State-sponsored murders of Floyd, then Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Rincón says, “The police brutality that we’ve all seen on TV, it’s real.” The look of detachment and daring in Chauvin’s countenance as he took Floyd’s life in daylight on video in the presence of many witnesses, “I’ve seen that look in my own home growing up.” Social media and repetitious news cycles are triggering for her, bringing old memories and rage to the surface.
When the Watts Riots happened in the summer of 1965, Rincón’s father was a new patrolman with the Los Angeles Police Department. “He was there,” says Rincón, “and I believe [that experience] impacted his thinking about a community he would spend the next 27 years policing.” He had a difficult childhood, and was raised by a difficult mother. Even before her birth, her father’s life and lineage had set up boundaries and expectations about what she might eventually do and say, what she might think and feel – who she might become.
Rincón, 50, grew up in Huntington Beach. Orange County. She says the region, once Reagan country and still predominantly white, is “known for skin heads and its ties to white supremacy.” She moved about knowing she was safe in her white skin. In fact, “I never thought about the color of my skin. I didn’t have to.”
She remembers a day in elementary school, offering matter-of-factly, “My dad says we’re WASPs.” What followed was a blank registry across her teacher’s face, and an awkward silence. Rincón says she felt shame, instinctively, as her teacher, who was also white, walked away, but she didn’t know why. A young person’s open utterance and superficial white pride, emulated in ignorance, had upset the tidy racism of white propriety in a Huntington Beach school cocooned in the dominant whiteness of Orange County. Looking back, until she was nearly a teen, Rincón says, “I don’t think I realized my dad’s influence on my life.”
In the early 80s, just as crack cocaine had been introduced to communities of color across the country, Rincón’s father was promoted to narcotics. “He could have had much deeper insight and understanding about systemic poverty and generational cycles of welfare dependence, but chose not to, and to this day, I haven’t learned whatever lessons he was trying to teach me.” Her father, now 78, retired from the LAPD a narcotics detective in 1990.
Rincón first learned about the Lee kinship before a class trip to Washington DC, with a side trip to nearby Arlington National Cemetery. There, a history teacher, one of her favorites who knew of the kinship, arranged for her participation in the wreath-laying ceremony at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on what she recalls was a cold, misty morning. “At the time, it was a neat little anecdote,” says Rincón, “but I remember thinking that Union soldiers buried on his property was well deserved.” She was 14-years-old in the 8th grade. “It was a solemn moment that has stayed with me for 36 years.”
General Robert E. Lee considered himself a man of faith, and left us with many eloquent words about Christian discipline. “My chief concern is to try to be an humble, earnest Christian,” he said, but his words didn’t align with his actions. No surprise to Rincón, who says, “The Bible was written by white men for white men, and for the white women who support them, to rationalize their abhorrent behaviors and justify [mis]treatment of others.” She considers herself a spiritual person, not religious.
In 1856, Lee wrote in a letter to his wife, that while slavery in America was “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race,” it was the “painful discipline…necessary for their instruction.” In one documented case, Lee extended the captivity of enslaved people that had been promised freedom. When they tried to escape, they were captured, striped, bound, and lashed 50 times under his orders to “Lay it on well.”
And this is the reality of the man that Lee was, says Rincón: “A racist that fought to keep black people enslaved and in violent bondage, and he helped to put in place systemic racial policies that have continued for generations.” Eric Foner, Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, said that even after the war, Lee didn’t support citizenship for blacks, and shrugged at violence instigated by whites on blacks during the Reconstruction Era. Throughout American history, the pace of positive social change has happened according to what some might begrudgingly allow, and what others in desperation have to accept.
“I was expressly forbidden from dating black boys,” she says. Her entire extended family made this clear, not just her dad. “Misogyny runs deep in my family, but I [pushed] against the norms. I wasn’t going to just swallow my opinions, my emotions.”
She married Pablo “Paul” Antonio Rincón, a first-generation Colombian, the fifth child of six kids born to immigrants. “I’ve said for years that Paul was as dark as I dared to bring home. I was only partially kidding,” she says. Her father warned Paul one summer to avoid getting darker. I don’t want the neighbors to start talking, he’d say, jokingly—in sincerity. “I was raised in blatant racism at home. In some ways, me being with Paul was an act of rebellion,” says Rincón. Wendy and Paul, 52, have been together for more than thirty years now.
“I wear my biracial marriage as a badge of honor because of the insight it has given me,” she says. Still, in spite of the discomfort of that atmosphere, the language and the “jokes” growing up, she’d subconsciously adopted, as her own, that racist worldview that she’d always known.
“I will always have to work to undo the racist bias that I have, conscious or not.” That, added to a heightened awareness that her brown kids experience an inequitable world – different from her own.
Their son Grant, 23, is in college studying political and computer sciences. He’s dark like his father. Their daughter Sydney, 18, is a senior in high school. Though half Columbian, she’s fair and passes for white. She revealed her bi-sexuality during Pride 2019. “Because I’m bisexual, I can pass as straight,” she says. While Sydney acknowledges the privilege of her two-way “pass” as white and heterosexual, she also knows that a person unable to blend in, for whatever reason, will remain on the outside, excluded. Considering her intersectional identities, and activism that has over time changed policies and created laws, she says, “My entire existence would be illegal in every which way. I am a biracial, bisexual, opinionated woman. I’m a walking contradiction of everything Lee stood for.”
In mothering at the intersection of race, sexuality, and gender, Rincón contends with open hatred in an increasingly adversarial society. “I fear for how they will be treated if ever pulled over by police. And let’s be honest: they are only brown. Black mothers carry a fear that I can’t imagine.” She says some family members and friends downplay her worries as overly dramatic, “but it’s easy for them, isn’t it?”
According to her daughter, Rincón has made significant departures from the ways in which she was raised—actively and financially supporting initiatives that
prioritize black and brown people, women’s rights, and the LGBTQ community. She organizes for change and gets involved in local government campaigns. Given her genealogy steeped in white supremist ideology, the family often marvels at the person she became. Sydney follows in her mother’s footsteps, speaking passionately before crowds about what matters to her, and to so many underrepresented others. Considering herself, reflected in her daughter, Rincón remarks, “Damn. I’m so proud of my girl.”
When asked about the toppling of confederate monuments, Gen. Lee and others, Rincón said “We can look throughout history and think, ‘There’s the moment of change!’, only to see it slip away.” It’s well past time to seize these opportunities. She says she’s “long believed that statues of the Confederacy had no place in a fair, equal, and just society.” She rejects the preservation, reverence, and symbolism of white patriarchal dominion—proud, elevated, celebrated, and impenetrable in masses of stone and metal. “We absolutely cannot claim to have moved beyond racism when the very symbols are in front of our eyes.”
Rincón says bystanders are complicit, even in a homogenous community like Huntington Beach, so she’s tried to live her life fighting for what’s possible going forward, not backward. There’s humanity and abhorrence on Gen. Lee’s color line. There’s a pride and a shame in his legacy. “Lee is a relic and a racist on the wrong side of history. I chose to be on the right side,” she says, proud to be nothing like him. It didn’t come easy.