Back in 2015, there was an uptick in news stories about the Confederate battle flag. Reporters interviewed a wide variety of activists, politicians and members of the public. On the one hand there were those who see the flag as a symbol of hate and oppression. Given the flag’s frequent appearances at White Supremacists and Neo-Nazi rallies, it’s easy to support this perspective. Then there are those who view the flag as a historical touchstone that symbolizes a much more benign cultural and regional identity. I’m considerably less sympathetic to this view. At least both sides seem to agree it represents “something” important.
My personal perspective aside, this kind of division is why America is hard. Tolerance is a double-edged sword. This is why democracy and freedom are not easily wrought. Accordingly, a little vexillological vitriol is probably good for the American soul. It forces us to confront why we value what we do.
I was reminded of the battle flag controversy by a recently published article in the journal, Socius. Authored by Charles Seguin and David Rigby, of the Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, respectively, the study reexamines the history of lynching in the United States from 1883 to 1941.
Their study documents that lynching was neither exclusively a Southern nor was it strictly a white perpetrator-black victim phenomenon. While those modalities were certainly dominant, Southern racial prejudice was hardly the lone motivator.
To this point, I remember a story from my late father-in-law, whose Maine family was Roman Catholic. His parents recounted the well-documented presence of the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Maine politics. The Klan was influential in the state Republican party but perhaps more notably they were the spearhead for a wave of regional anti-Catholic demonstrations, cross-burnings and idiocy that only a bunch of hooded rats could think wise.
As to more modern concerns, the Pacific Northwest, specifically, the area around Spokane, Washington and into western Idaho have become the American epicenter of right-wing hate groups. As Nicholas Geranios reporting for the Seattle Times notes, “White nationalism has been on the rise across the U.S., but it has particular resonance along the Idaho-Washington border, where the Aryans espoused hate and violence for years.”
All this goes to a simple point: Collective memory (like that of an individual) can be very selective. In the case of the Southern regional reputation, I take deep umbrage at what is unexamined and accepted as true about my people and our culture. William Faulkner once suggested that the South is not so much a “geographical place” as an “emotional idea.” He was likely correct. Unfortunately, the “emotional idea” far too many people hold isn’t positive. We are routinely demonized, lampooned and marginalized as somehow innately inferior. More importantly, we are seen as singular in this ugliness, rather than just another place among many where a few bad people live and bad things happen.
This ugliness is so ubiquitous that giving a film character a Southern accent often serves as a kind of shorthand to indicate dimwittedness.
One need only read a newspaper, watch a movie or access most any nationally broadcast program to validate my assertion. Commentators casually joke about “backward,” “ignorant,” and “violent” Southerners. They say these bigoted and hurtful things as though they were axiomatically true.
In graduate school I had a professor — a big pontificating blowhard — tell me that “he’d never go [to the South].” He said it like he was begging off a boat trip to Leper Island. One day he started that same diatribe in class. I sat quietly while he disparaged my people and my culture. He carried on about the “culture of bigotry and intolerance” that was “woven into the fabric of the South.”
My response to Dr. Bigfoot was calm and to the point, “Don’t you think that kind of talk evidences its own bigotry?” Class let out early. This was my only B in graduate school. (Note to my Twitter tweeps – I realize I told this story a week or two ago).
Inasmuch as a white man can, I understand the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. I see what it did to my own hometown and how it continues to impact it today. I acknowledge the personal and social costs of racism but trading one kind of intolerance for another is hardly progress.
This goes to broader point: Caricaturing Southerners as a bunch of shoeless, indolent, snaggletooth, overall-clad, inbreeders is perfectly acceptable in modern America. In fact, this ugliness is so ubiquitous that giving a film character a Southern accent often serves as a kind of shorthand to indicate dimwittedness.
Not that he’s any great sage, but the comedian, Jeff Foxworthy, famously notes that rednecks are everywhere. Having lived in other places, I can attest to the truth in his observation. My neighbor in New York with his loud snowmobile and my neighbor in Georgia with his loud motorcycle were basically the same guy — a pretty good guy at times, but one with certain rough-hewn proclivities.
I can also attest to the ethnic self-segregation still found in many Northeastern urban centers — but that’s apparently okay because it’s their shared cultural history and they apparently like it that way.
Then again, people in other parts of the country can’t claim to have given birth to rock and roll, jazz, blues, and country music. They can’t imagine that we have a strong literary tradition or diverse culinary history; or that the arts, architecture and design flourish here. They find it unimaginable that we have hip urban centers and cosmopolitan cities – as well as verdant countrysides, farms and undespoiled wildlife. A lot great stuff and many wonderful people share my Southern origins.
Maybe the real seat of the problem lies in the fact that we have a unique, varied and rich cultural identity that doesn’t fit with so many preconceived notions. The South isn’t In the Heat of the Night. It’s not Gone With the Wind. It’s not Deliverance. It’s not just Martin Luther King, Jr. or Lester Maddox. It’s Elvis and Ru Paul. Lum and Abner and Mary McCormic. It’s Bill Clinton and Jimmy Swaggart. It’s Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. It’s Randy Moberg and Howard Finster. It’s Johnny Cash and R.E.M. It’s an endless cotton field and Cape Kennedy.
Just so you yankees (anyone not from the South) know, we let you underestimate us. We do this because it is advantageous. It keeps your guard down. The media portrays us as buffoons. We play into that. When one of us turns a particularly neat trick, your prejudices make you think THAT ONE must be the exception – and they get treated like a unicorn. As the Ozark anthropologist, Vance Randolph, once wrote, “We always lie to strangers.” It’s amazing what you people are willing to believe.
The South may seem simple and monolithic to the uninitiated, but nothing could be farther from the truth. If you don’t want to share in it, don’t come here, but don’t bad mouth it, either. And lastly, I want to make one thing perfectly clear — the next Northerner who seriously asks me whether Arkansans wear shoes might just experience that well-theorized Southern culture of violence.