Monday, December 20, 2010

The Persistence of Memory

A few years ago I was traveling around a small pig-farming town in Bavaria. It was a weekend and the town was strangely deserted - there was a festival in the nearby town of Rothenburg (centered, awesomely, around the legendary chugging of a very large mug of beer), and I suspect that most of the small town's 1000 or so residents were over there. Anyway, this small town had a small memorial tucked away on one of its picturesque lanes. It was a plaque, about as tall as me, with a list of names. I don't read German, but I could tell that it was commemorating the German dead in both world wars. Which made me, as a Jew, feel... well, sort of uncomfortable. I don't begrudge the German regulars their courage in death, but I had to remember that these names were of people who were fighting, essentially, to maintain their country's right to kill people like me. How much respect could I pay such a memorial? And what should I think about people who remember fondly those who would, if alive, want to see me gassed to death?

Back home in Raleigh, there's a memorial at the end of Hillsborough Street where it dead-ends into Salisbury Street at the State Capitol. It is a tall, thin structure with a soldier on top, and in large letters, plainly visible to the cars across Salisbury waiting to turn, is written the following inscription: "To Our Confederate Dead." And now, each time I pass that memorial, I wonder if Raleigh's African-American population feels the way I felt at that memorial in Germany.

150 years ago, the Civil War began. On December 20, 1860, the state of South Carolina passed its secession declaration. Four days later, the denizens of the Palmetto State explained their reasons for doing so:
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.
It is difficult for a serious student of history to deny that the direct cause of the Civil War was slavery, and the threat of its dissolution by the nascent Republican Party and its leader, Abraham Lincoln. You can claim that it was "states' rights," but it was the states' rights to allow slavery that was in question. You can claim that it was about economics, but the South's economy was based on slavery. There's just no way around it. You can claim - correctly - that the average Confederate soldier didn't give a rat's ass about slavery (only 25% of those who fought for the South came from slaveholding families), but they were led and encouraged by plantation owners and defenders of slavery.

Which puts the modern white Southerner in a tight spot. White Southerners, by and large, abhor racism and are disgusted by the idea of slavery, but have to deal with the fact that their ancestors fought and died for that very cause. Even folks like me who had nary an ancestor in the US during the Civil War but who grew up south of the Potomac have to deal with the fact that we call home a region of the country that once fought a war to keep the black man in chains, and then spent 100 years trying to reforge those chains out of laws and intimidation. And the decision that faces us is this: do we confront our history or try to rewrite it, ignore it, and hope it'll go away?

Unfortunately, anyone who has spent a lot of time down here knows which option we chose.

Southern food is famous for recipes born of necessity. Dishes like jambalaya and fried chicken arose out of the need to create good-tasting food out of whatever there was lying around, creating beauty from the unlikely, inconvenient situation of poverty. Cuisine, however, is not the only field where the Southern ability to make the best out of a bad situation surfaces. Today, of all days, a story broke which demonstrates this. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour got caught trying to sugarcoat the White Citizens' Councils that sprung up across the South in response to integration. Barbour credits the Citizens' Council of his hometown of Yazoo City for - of all things - ensuring that school integration was done peacefully. Never mind that this integration occurred in - wait for it - 1970, no doubt having been delayed by the actions of those very Citizens' Councils.

Barbour responded via a spokesperson, who claimed in an interview with TPM's Eric Kleefeld that Barbour isn't a racist. And you know what? I believe him. I'm sure that Barbour is as non-racist as possible. But like an old-time Cajun cook, Barbour is trying to make something delicious out of a less-than-desirable list of ingredients.

And Barbour is hardly alone - witness the South Carolinians holding a "Secession Ball" this evening, complete with period costumes and a re-enactment of the signing of the Ordinance of Secession. (No word on if black attendants would be required to wear shackles.) And if you aren't familiar with the "Lost Cause" mythology, the ability of Southerners to talk about the Civil War without once mentioning slavery - well, you just don't know enough Southerners.

The question, though, is why dp this? Why do we Southerners feel the need to turn the negative parts of our history into something good? My guess is that it's a pride thing - we don't want to admit that those who came before us did something wrong, that the region of the country that we love so much might be responsible for something so unequivocally awful. So we whitewash it. We pretend it wasn't that bad. Like Barbour, we tell stories of mixed-race crowds idly listening to Martin Luther King in small Southern towns, conveniently ignoring the tensions of the era.

The truly sad part is that we don't need to do this. Because racism isn't contained completely in the South, and it never has been. Malcolm X's autobiography is filled with awful instances of racial violence; Malcolm X grew up in Michigan. The swimming pool crowd who reacted to a group of black kids like they were diseased called Pennsylvania home. The region of the country most famous now for crazy white separatists isn't the South - it's North Idaho. And the state legislator who made national headlines for comparing a bill he didn't like to a black baby wasn't Southern - he was from Utah.

And the truth is that we don't need the Civil War and the mythology of the noble rebel to feel Southern pride. We don't need to ignore the things our grandfathers did during the civil rights era. The South is the region that gave the world the blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll; jambalaya, gumbo, barbecue (with vinegar-based sauce, thank you very much), fried chicken, and collard greens; William Faulkner and Alice Walker; Jerry Rice and Bobby Jones; Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, and Robert Johnson; Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Martin Luther King; and an extremely useful second-person plural pronoun that is sorely lacking in mainstream English. And that's just scratching the surface. No other region has had anywhere near as much influence on American culture as the South. To all those non-Southerners who look at Southerners as a bunch of ignorant rednecks - until your region of the country produces a nowhere-near-exhaustive list like that, y'all can shut the hell up.

The difference between the two memorials, the one in Bavaria and the one in Raleigh, is that the Bavarians don't pretend like their fight was the good fight. They have learned how to honor their dead without honoring their cause. We can do the same. We can memorialize our Confederate dead without justifying their rebellion. We don't need to pretend like the stance of Southern state governments during secession and segregation was benign concern for "states' rights." Rather, we can stand up on all of our region's other contributions to America, and be justifiably proud.

150 years ago today, the Confederate States of America was born. It is long past time to put it to bed.

1 comment:

Matthew B. Novak said...

I like how you list the style of music and then the musicians, as if they're two different sets of contributions... ;-)

But you're right about the word "y'all". It is one of the things I am most proud to have adopted from my time in Virginia. I use it all the time.