I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity, specifically about Southern identity, and even more specifically about my own identity as a Southerner. As I’ve blogged about previously, I’m originally from Eastern Kentucky (Olive Hill, in Carter County to be precise), spent the majority of my 20s in Chapel Hill, NC, and since then have been living in rural Tennessee. I have effectively never lived outside the South, except for a brief period during a failed PhD bid at the University of Maryland at College Park.
For those of you that know me as a librarian, you’ve probably seen me speak at one of the dozen or so talks I do a year…at state conferences, consortial gatherings, national and international conferences. Keynotes. Invited talks about technology and change and the near future of libraries; these are the mainstays of my career as someone who stands on a stage and entertains and educates. Sometimes before these talks, or sometimes after, the organizing committee will very kindly take me to lunch or dinner, and we’ll talk about the job and technology and the future. Almost without fail, if this talk is not in The South, I will get asked “Where are you from?”, meaning, usually, where I was born. When I say Kentucky, I normally expand to say what I said above…then NC, then mostly TN. Always The South, always Dixie. Invariably this provokes the response “Oh! Well, you don’t sound Southern…”
This is a code, a way of telling me what their expectations of the South are…backwards, uneducated, unsophisticated. I have a fairly neutral accent for the South, not a slow drawl, nor the mumbled vowels of some. The biggest tell in my accent is that I lengthen the long I’s in my speech, and if you are expecting Foghorn Leghorn, you may be disappointed. Every time someone says it, I realize a bit more the way the rest of the country views the South.
And now there is the Flag. The Flag that has mattered in the South for 150 years, paraded across media screens. The flag that once hung in my teenage bedroom, not because of pride or race or considered speech, but just because it was an object that belonged to my Uncle, who died too soon and I idolized as a ghost. When the Flag hung in my bedroom I wasn’t thinking about its history, the legacy of hate and violence, the considered hatred for others that it was coded to communicate. It was an omnipresent object, as benign as a Starbucks sign, and through its overwhelming numbers we were numbed to it. The privilege of the poor white South, to have a totem.
Today I sat in a restaurant with my wife and daughter, and through the window I could see a truck pull to a stop across the way, in another parking lot. Mounted on the bumper of this truck were two 8 foot poles, one flying the Confederate Flag and the other the Gadsden Flag. As I watched, the boys in the truck (not men, not yet, but soon to be) parked and got out, standing proudly beside their banners. Then there were two, then three trucks, all with a single pole, all with the Flag announcing their arrival. Then four. Then five, gathered in a neat circle on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the parking lot of a strip mall. I looked around, and there we sat, among the 5 or 6 other families enjoying their meal. Every other face in the restaurant was Black. I couldn’t explain to my daughter why I was watching outside, what I was looking for, why I was suddenly not listening to her story. I cannot imagine, simply cannot, what those other fathers and mothers must have been thinking. The boys drove away, off to practice their braggadocio in another place. Nothing happened. Except it did.
Tonight I am sad, and angry. At the stupid boys, yes, playing at understanding and “heritage” and culture. But mostly I am sad and angry at my past self, who came to understand the hate and racism of my South much later in life than I should have. It is the definition of racial privilege that I was able to be a white man in the South, and not have the Flag be a slap to my face every time I saw it. I am ashamed of the teenage me, who was unaware of the hidden, coded speech of having the Flag in my bedroom. That was almost 30 years ago, and I am ashamed of the ignorance and privilege. Long after I took the flag down, I came to realize that those that held it up as a symbol were, almost without exception, horrible human beings. But I still refused to see it as a symbol of the South, refused to accept what it symbolized and indicated to the non-privileged.
Because that is not my South. My South is sweet tea & juleps, fried chicken & barbecue, honeysuckle & wild blackberries, banjo & mountain dulcimer. Hot summer days with feet in the creek, and my great-uncles at the kitchen counter burning off their moonshine jars to see whose is the best. Boiling sorghum and skimming the foam to taste, like the Earth’s own cotton candy.
But my South is a lie.
It’s a fiction that I’ve told myself, and it’s a fiction that is built upon the foundation of the privilege that I have too long accepted. It’s a lie that I can’t tell myself anymore, and a lie that I can’t tell to my daughter. The hidden costs of this lie, of my privilege, are a history of pain and horror that I get to avoid because of the color of my skin. I can’t lie to myself any longer about my South. What I can do is say true things about the history of racial hatred, fear, and segregation that built this land where we live to myself, to my daughter, and to others. I can say true things about this place that I love, and I can ask others who want a better place than the one we inherited to do the same.
It is time for the South to get past this totem, to throw away their banner. The flag of the confederacy is a symbol that no one should glorify, because its history is one of bigotry and terror. To those that are flying it now out of fear and hate, you will lose. It will fade, history has turned and will continue to turn, and hate will die out as more and more voices rise to say that we will not accept it. The Confederate Flag should fade into history, just as the slow march of the present into history is grinding away at inequalities that seemed as if they might last forever. No State should fly it, no government should have it as a part of their flag, it needs to be removed as a totem of racism, slavery, and terror.
My South may be a lie that privilege has told me, but I refuse to let those that hate continue to tell those lies. Instead I will read and talk about the truth of our history, and I will hope that you do the same.