We’ve heard much about Southern pride and Southern heritage in 2015. I’m a Southern** transplant who is getting close to being able to say she’s lived longer in the North than she did in the South. Still, when you’re born and bred in the South, and most of your relatives live in the South, the South stays in your blood, no matter how long you’ve lived up North. Like almost all Southerners, I’m proud of my roots. That doesn’t mean that, like almost all Southerners, I don’t also have ambivalent feelings about the South. It’s a region of our country that is complicated, that poses problems for men and women with strong hearts and minds.
Nobody, but nobody was more proud to be a Southerner than my father. If he’d had his way, he probably never would’ve traveled above the Mason Dixon line or west of the Mississippi River (the main reason he did both was to visit his wayward children who insisted on living all over this country). He would’ve been content just to travel the South and the rest of the world. He complained bitterly about such things as the loss of Southern accents and the loss of Southern manners, both of which he blamed on a. television and b. the influx of people moving into the South from other areas of the country.
And yet, my father stopped flying the Confederate flag over thirty years ago. He liked to quote the Confederate general who, after the South lost the war, said something to the affect about its being time to fold the flag and put it away. My sister tells me he described himself to her as having been a “Confederate dunderhead”. He’d been influenced by the Southern mythos growing up. But he was also a historian and a reader. The more he read, the more he came to realize that the U.S. Civil War (which, by the way, I never heard him or any of our relatives refer to as “the war between the states”. As a matter of fact, since he was a world historian, he’d often ask the question, “Which Civil War?” when people jumped right in talking about “The Civil War”) was a travesty, that the South should be ashamed, not proud of its role in supporting slavery, in fighting against freedom for all. He was a man who visited Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and told me, “Here’s this old man — he was an ancient 50-something at the time — who grew up in the Jim Crow South, and you don’t know how offended I was by the ‘Whites Only’ signs I saw.’”
In other words, he was someone who educated himself. When presented with new information contradicting all he’d once held dear, he didn’t cling to the old ways. He boldly took a broader point of view when he found his old views to be wrong, especially when he discovered how offensive they were. He did what we’re all meant to do over a course of a lifetime: he changed. By the time he died, his favorite president was Abraham Lincoln. And, yet, he was still a proud Southerner.
If my father could do that, every Southerner can. Southern pride doesn’t have to focus on the U.S. Civil War, which, along with the institution of slavery, is a shameful legacy. I find nothing to be proud of when I think of my forebears who owned slaves and fought in that war. I don’t feel a need to honor those forebears (especially since I’ve heard, in good old Southern fashion, hilarious stories of how stupid some of them were. One was out west, walked into a saloon, made all the men there salute the Confederate flag at gun point. When he turned to leave, he allegedly said, “Now, I know y’all are too gentlemanly to shoot me in the back as I walk out.” My father liked to relate his resemblance to a sieve when they were done with him.) These forebears of mine were probably as racist as they come. My guess is if I met any of them today, I’d think they were class A jerks. I wouldn’t honor them. I’d have nothing to do with them. Why would I want to honor such people?
And, yes, since statistics would tell us I probably had forebears from many different social classes, I’m sure they didn’t all own slaves. Only the wealthy owned plantations. Still. Think about it. Those who don’t own McMansions and huge, expensive SUVs today are often striving to do so, finding nothing wrong with such ambition, even though owning such things may be harming other people as well as our planet. My guess is that my forebears who didn’t own plantations and slaves were envious of those who did, were striving in this new land of possibility, to get where those people were. They probably found nothing wrong with slavery. After all, if they were opposed to slavery, they would have fought for the North not the South, the way some brave souls did.
The United States as a whole should be proud of its Civil War because it was a war fought to end slavery, and slavery did end. Name another country in the world that fought a war over the atrocious practice of owning fellow human beings for economic gain. Without that war, slavery would inevitably have ended in this country, but it might have taken much longer. Many wars have been fought for far less noble causes. We should come together over this pride, not remain divided.
I’m not proud of the South’s role in the U.S. Civil War, but I’m damn proud of how far the South has come since the U.S. Civil Rights movement. I may not be proud of my forebears who fought in the U.S. Civil War, but I’m very proud of people like my father. And the South is full of them, people who were living in the South during the Civil Rights movement and who were changed by it. Because we Southerners haven’t spent the last sixty years sitting around ignoring our own racial divide while pointing our fingers at some other region of the country, talking about how racist it is, the South, which still has a long way to go, has made bigger and better strides than the North (Martin Luther King, Jr. actually predicted this would happen, that true integration would come more quickly to the South than to the North). If I’m going to be proud of my history, what I’m proud of are those Southerners who didn’t resist civil rights, who fought for it, who came to loathe blatantly racist neighbors, who stood up for and marched with people of color. And this is recent history. These people are still alive. These are the people, black and white, of whom we Southerners need to be proud. Look how far the region has come. The first elected black governor in the United States was from the South (Douglas Wilder, Virginia).
So, the U.S. Civil War is a blot on the Southern landscape, not its Emerald City, like some believe, but there’s so much more to instill pride. The focus of Southern pride should be on those parts of its heritage. First of all, contrary to the Pilgrim myth, the first colonies in this country were founded in the South, in Virginia, before anyone even knew Plymouth Rock existed. (Yes, there were slaves, but there were slaves in New England in the early years as well. Slavery is a sad legacy of our entire country’s history.) I’ve always been proud of the fact that the first colonies were in the South.
The first public universities, founded as public universities, were Southern institutions of higher learning (The University of North Carolina and the University of Georgia) that didn’t merely give lip service to the notion that anyone should be able to get a college education but, rather, began to make it possible to do so (granted, “anyone”, in those days, didn’t include people of color or women, but still, it was a start). The wealthy elite would no longer be the only ones to become doctors and lawyers and professors once such universities were established and other states started building them. Education is the key to equality, and the South helped lead the way to that equality. This is something of which I’m very proud.
Let’s talk about music. Where would rock ’n’ roll be if it weren’t for Southern roots music? As far as that goes, where would jazz be, and folk, and country and gospel? Our Southern ancestors brought their fiddles and their pipes and their drums and their voices from England and Scotland and Ireland and France and Spain and Africa and harmonized in ways that are still being imitated by pop stars of today. The early South was a place rich with different cultures, as it still is today, and I would argue one thing that helped bridge the gaps among cultures was musical improvisation, the sharing of art.
I’m also proud of Southern gentility, Southern manners. Yes, the South is losing some of that the way everyone seems to be losing it, but I’d still say that when I travel in the South, I seem to meet more people eager to make me feel welcome and eager not to offend others. They want to get along, which is why I’m appalled by Southerners who insist on flying their Confederate flags. They don’t seem like true Southerners to me, because a true Southerner would remove something that’s offensive to others. Let me put it this way. I love frogs. I’ve collected frog figurines since I was a pre-schooler. They remind me of my father, whom I loved dearly and who loved to buy frogs to add to my collection. But if the Ku Klux Klan were to adopt frogs as their mascots? You’d better believe I wouldn’t be caught dead flying a flag with a frog on it from my front porch. I’d pack away all my little frog figurines and stop wearing frog jewelry in public. That’s the Southern way (or, at least, it’s the Southern way I was taught by my genteel Southern relatives).
Southerners are also just a hell of a lot of fun. I’ve always enjoyed thinking about the fact that while the Puritans were busy spying on their neighbors, seeking witches, Southerners were busy making moonshine and music and sitting around telling great stories. Even the slaves, who had absolutely no reason to be joyous at all, spent time making music and telling great stories. As a child, I remember feeling sorry for all the kids I read about in books who were from the North or the Midwest who always seemed to have all these chores to do, and they were never allowed to have any fun unless the chores were done. It wasn’t that we Southern children didn’t have to do things like help with dishes or clean our rooms or mop a porch, but these tasks weren’t made odious by being called “chores”. We just did what we were asked to do when asked to do it, and then we were out the door, playing down at the creek or riding our bikes all over the place. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the North gave us the moralizing Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the South gave us laugh-out-loud Mark Twain and Bret Harte.
Speaking of which, Southerners are great storytellers. There’s nothing I’d rather do than sit on a front porch with a bunch of Southerners reminiscing and telling stories, each interrupting to “set the record straight”. You’ll most likely laugh until you “pee your pants”, as we Southerners say. Somewhere, hidden deep inside these stories is the truth, but, really, who cares? The more entertaining and hilarious, the better.
So, yes I can talk about many reasons I’m proud to be a Southerner. I was extremely proud this year when the first white-cop-shoots-unarmed-black-man-in-the-back episode to go viral and was dealt with by the cop losing his job and being charged with murder came out of the South (North Charleston). This is not to say I don’t believe white cops are shooting innocent blacks in the South and getting away with it, but I was happy to see the first example of how such incidents should justly be handled coming out of the South. I was also proud of the South when people of all races and creeds joined hands together to form a band of unity across a bridge after the terrible news of a white terrorist attack on a black Bible study (Charleston).
So,who needs that old Confederate flag? Let’s take it down and fly a flag of unity.
** Note: when I say “Southern”, I really mean Virginia, which is where the majority of my American relatives are from, and North Carolina where I was born and raised. The South is a large region, and I know nothing about, say, Mississippi or Arkansas, two states where I’ve never been.