Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Southern Pride

Longwood - Natchez, MS
Having been born and largely raised in the South, there are days that I miss being there greatly: any time a friend posts pictures of magnolias in bloom, whenever anyone mentions Texas or Carolina barbecue (on which I am blissfully neutral), the last week or so leading up to Mardi Gras, and of course, every time I have to scrape ice or snow from my windshield.

On a trip many years ago, I introduced my wife to the South by touring much of my college stomping grounds - from my alma mater in Hattiesburg, Mississippi to Biloxi and on down to New Orleans. I proposed to her in Natchez, overlooking the river at sunset. We toured several historic sites and plantations, including Beauvoir (the post-war home of Jefferson Davis) and Oak Alley. At Longwood, a tour guide explained that the owner began the construction in 1859 but that the work was never completed because of the Civil War - an event she spoke of very much as if one were describing the Huns invading the Balkans. The Union had destroyed this man's life and dreams; she of course did not mention that his wealth (and the mansion itself) were made possible only by the unpaid and physically demanding labor of his many slaves.

More recent events have made it evident that the South is experiencing a cultural shift, however. In 2001, the state of Georgia removed the image of the "stainless banner" (the second flag of the Confederate States of America, most often known simply as "the confederate flag") from its state flag. Two years ago, the state of South Carolina stopped flying the confederate flag separately in front of the capitol and other government buildings. That same year, I took my daughters to New Orleans and we toured Oak Alley again to find that not only had they reconstructed the slave quarters, but that the content of the tour had changed as well. No longer did it focus only on the owners, but on the work and resourcefulness of the slaves that built it. And just last week, the city of New Orleans removed several statues of confederate figures, most notably the statue of Robert E. Lee atop a 60 foot pedestal in the center of Lee Circle. 

Not everyone is happy about the change. Mississippi state representative Karl Oliver expressed his outrage in a racially charged Facebook post:
"The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, "leadership" of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State."
A few hundred people "liked" the rant (including two other Republican state representatives and Mississippi Highway Patrol spokesman Tony Dunn) before it was deleted - an ironic twist, given that the GOP considers itself "the party of Lincoln." But while Mr. Oliver's comments are certainly incriminating, I don't mean to imply that all Republicans, Southerners, or even CSA monument supporters are racists or support violence. It is worth noting that other state officials, both Republican and Democrat, quickly condemned his words.

Still, the removal of these monuments remains controversial. Some consider it the ultimate genuflection to the power of political correctness and a revision of history; others consider it more than a century overdue. As one might expect, the division runs closely along both racial and generational lines.

As someone who has lived in and loves the South, and as someone who strongly opposes the continued veneration of the Confederacy, please allow me to address those who may argue in opposition. I have no interest in arguing over "the War of Northern Aggression". I've heard people argue that the rebellion was not over slavery, although this cause is clearly the most prominent in the charters and constitutions of the confederate states. I've heard them claim they are not racists, and indeed, many of them are not, but the flag is inseparable from the concept of racial superiority. I've heard them speak of Robert E.Lee as some sort of hero against an oppressive government, all but ignoring the oppression of slavery.  Rehashing all of the usual arguments is hardly worthwhile; all that I ask is... why?

Of all that the South can take pride in, why do so many choose to correlate Southern identity with the flag of an aggressor against our mutual country? Why take pride in a "nation" that no longer exists? Why hoist the flag of the enemy that more American soldiers died fighting than against the Nazis in the second world war? Is it just to indicate one is prone to rebel? Given that we rebelled against England, does not the American flag imply enough rebel spirit?

Why continue to present the South by symbols of her darkest hour? We are not opposed to the USA, as the flag suggests - anyone who has lived in the former CSA will know that southerners are quite patriotic. Simply put, it does not represent who we are. Instead of controversy, let us proclaim our contributions.

Modern music, for example, would simply not exist as it does now if it were not for the South. "American" music: country, zydeco, bluegrass, jazz, blues, and rock and roll, were all born in the South (especially in Mississippi and Louisiana). Great authors, such as Faulkner and (Harper) Lee, should be celebrated over the ignorant, which have sadly become our stereotype. Why not lift up our best, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks, instead of glorifying the culture that made their sacrifices necessary?

From my perspective, it is quite easy to be a proud Southerner, but we simply can't be defined by a military failure. The removal of these statues aren't an effort to deny history, but rather a sign that we have finally accepted it. As the mayor of New Orleans recently said, "the Confederacy lost and we are better for it."

Yes, the stainless banner is part of our history, but our heritage is far greater.

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