Road Trip IX, Days 17-22, Dallas to North Georgia: Crossing the South While Reading U.S. History

If I had titled this post, “The Confederates Actually Won,” I wonder how many of my white readers would be shocked?

I’m a Southerner born and bred—a Tarheel, as many of y’all know. But by true Southern standards, I’m also not. My mom was born and raised in LA, my dad born in Germany and raised in a weird immigrant/Quaker/Jewish/freethinking mishmash in Philadelphia and LA. They created their own mishmash of Quaker education/ back-to-the-land farm life/ world travel for me to grow up in. So…not REALLY a Southerner.

Our first night in one of the original 7 states of the Confederacy: Texas…in the wonderfully-named Possum Kingdom State Park

Except when I’m not in the South. Starting with college, up north, that’s when the nostalgia kicked in–and living now in the northwest, it still kicks. I find myself longing for the soul food my mom never cooked; when I speak to a fellow Southerner, my vowels lengthen on words like, “I’m fine.”

And that’s not even to mention the great passion The Mate and I share for the Carolina Tarheels.

But now we’re here, crossing the Lower South on our way to NC. And I’m reading These Truths by Jill Lepore.

Even thicker than it looks.

Hold that thought for a sec. First I have to give a shout-out to Dallas, or rather, to the Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff, where we spent three days with friends. This part of Texas is really into Mardi Gras.

Masked dinner! Not pictured: dinner (jambalaya, cheese grits & greens, etc…)

Maybe it always was, maybe the influx of New Orleans refugees from Hurricane Katrina played a role, but whatever–laissez les bon temps roulez!

Really fun parade, despite near-freezing temps

I was touched and heartened by the mix of races and ethnicities out celebrating together.

“Old” Texas lives…

…with “New” Texas!

And don’t forget Pomeranian Texas! (These guys were part of a whole group of “Recycled Poms”!!)

With my friend, I also walked the Fun Run (note to self: Fun Runs really are fun when you’re not racing! Who knew?). These adorable girls spontaneously danced in front of the start line when their favorite song came on…

They had great moves!

And then there was this little guy, along the course:

Why, indeed? Love it!!!

But the day after we left oh-so-cool Oak Cliff, we found ourselves in Vicksburg. Not often drawn to historical attractions on our road trips, we decided to pay our respects to the Vicksburg National Military Park–site of the Union’s 18-month campaign to capture this all-important center of control over the Mississippi River.

Monument to fallen Confederate soldiers–both sides have many monuments, but I only captured this one’s image

In the past, such a reminder of the viciousness of the Civil War (nearly 4,000 men died on these hills and vales, with thousands more wounded, captured or missing) would just reawaken all the complexity of my feelings about being Southern. As I’ve written in the past, I’m very conflicted. One of my songs tries to express that conflict:

If my old neighbors have their way, I’ll be burning down in Hell

But just ’cause I’m a sinner–it’s nothing personal.

They hate everything I stand for, but I know who they are

So don’t you ridicule their accent when they talk about hellfire.

But, as I mentioned, I’ve been reading Jill Lepore’s book. Let’s get back to that, shall we? It’s a comprehensive history of this country. I have a Master’s in U.S. History, and I’ve taught it to teenagers. These Truths both reminded me of things I knew, and taught me things I didn’t.

Things I knew: 

–The Supreme Court–of the whole country!–ruled in Dred Scott, 1857, that “a black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.”

–The Radical Republicans’ compromise with the ex-Confederates to end Reconstruction left millions of Southern Blacks at the mercy of Southern Whites..who showed none. (Radical Republicans were NORTHERNERS.)

–The Supreme Court–of the whole country!– in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, ruled that “separate but equal” was constitutional.

–Following the Great Migration of Black Southerners to the North and West to escape Southern terrorism, NORTHERN real estate laws and other restrictions trapped them into segregated neighborhoods

Things I didn’t know, or at least didn’t know enough:

–The People’s Party (the most successful third party in US history), “rested on a deep and abiding commitment to exclude from full citizenship anyone from or descended from anyone from Africa or Asia.” (p. 343)

–“By one estimate, someone in the South was hanged or burned alive every four days” in the first few years of the 20th century (p. 369)

–The 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg included none of the Black soldiers who had fought there. (p. 389)

–The enlightened Woodrow Wilson? “…like other Progressives, Wilson not only failed to offer an remedy of racial inequality; he endorsed it…’Mr. Wilson bears the discreditable distinction of being the first President of the United States, since Emancipation, who openly condoned and vindicated prejudice against the Negro.'” (James Weldon Johnson, quoted on p. 389)

.Given that the entire country ended up committing itself, legally, to the values the Confederacy fought for, Lepore concludes, “the Confederacy had lost the war, but it had won the peace.” (p. 360)

LOOKING AT OUR COUNTRY TODAY, I CAN’T HELP BUT AGREE. 

But then we spent a day and a night in Alabama, at Oak Mountain State Park, near Birmingham.

Lake Tranquility, with blooming maple

Can’t get more Southern than that. We rented a cabin.

You can just barely make out our cabin & car in the trees.

It came with our very own ducks on the doorstep.

Got any bread you’re not using?

We went for a hike. The winter woods were starkly beautiful.

Steep ridges!

The rocks were craggy.

Me trying to show how steep the drop is

The crags were rocky.

You get the idea.

And my soul was full. Because, as my song goes,

It’s another song about the South, y’all–

trying to sort my feelings out, once and for all.

How can someone feel so in and out of place?
That sweet, sunny South where I first saw the light,

if she’s my ol’ Mama, I’m a teenager in flight:

do I want to hug her neck, or slap her face?

I am a Southerner, even if I’m not. I get it. People love their culture. That Confederate statue, above? When you zero in on it, you see the soldiers’ suffering. You understand.

Notice the dead man at lower right. Not too glorious.

I hate the white supremacy the South stood for, and I hate that a lot of the South still stands for that. But I also know that our WHOLE COUNTRY stands for exactly the same–de facto. So I guess it’s my whole country I want to hug and slap at the same time.

 

 

 

Road Trip VI, Days 20-23, Monroe, Louisiana to Cumberland Island National Seashore: Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know

Piney hills. Black-water cypress swamps. Real, deciduous oaks that understand they’re supposed to grow new leaves every year. Maples starting their spring blush. Redbuds already blushing hard. Spanish moss. Magnolias.

We headin’ HOME. Or I am, anyway. But this journey was the idea of my Californian Mate, so he can hardly complain.

But the scenery is already leading to some arguments interesting discussions. I’m a western chauvinist with a deep strain of southeastern nostalgia–an uncomfortable combination. Makes me tetchy. I can claim–and do–that northwestern forests are more dramatic, beautiful, and walkable than those in, say, my home state of North Carolina…but you can’t. The Mate walks into this trap constantly.

Him: “Those pines are a such a weird shade of green.”
Me: “Well, at least they have more individuality than our firs.”
Him: “These wintertime hardwoods make the forest look dead!”
Me: “But at least you can see through it this time of year! And look at the size of that hickory!”

I’ve come to think of these southeastern forests as the ultimate glass-half-full-vs.-empty scenario. I can choose to see a scrubby, scratchy, inhospitable tangle of poison ivy, smilax and honeysuckle…or I can see heritage: my daily walk to school; summer blackberrying; finding a safe spot to pee in the woods during a run. Or, in literary daydreams, Scout Finch and Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie.

 

I know my bipolar attitude is the result of too much history. I can’t see cotton fields without thinking about James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; can’t see big magnolias without thinking of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit.” The South is soaked in more misery per acre than any other region in our country.

Usually, I’ll admit, I see those scruffy, history-laden woods and and think how lucky I am to live diagonally across the continent from here, in forests where nothing wants to bite me or make me itchy, or make me think of slavery, share cropping and the KKK.

These woods aren't dead--they're just getting their beauty sleep.

These woods aren’t dead–they’re just getting their beauty sleep.

But if anyone else says that to me? Nuh-uh, honey.

BTW: I’ll write about our discovery of Cumberland Island in my next post. Right now I just have to give a little shout-out to our friends Raven and Chickadee (a.k.a. Eric and Laurel) for steering us to Oak Mountain State Park via their travel blog, Ravenandchickadee.com. This largest of Alabama’s state parks offers miles of steep, winding trails in wild-feeling woods an astonishing ten miles south of its largest city, Birmingham. We didn’t get enough time there and look forward to staying longer some day. In Alabama!

Oak Mountain, Alabama? This western scary snob says, "Pretty pretty!"

Oak Mountain, Alabama? This western scenery snob says, “Pretty pretty!”

Memories of Martin–and Coretta Too

One of my earliest memories is holding hands and swaying with a bunch of strangers, singing “We Shall Overcome.” I was probably five, and, from later figuring, that was probably at a 1967 demonstration by Duke University faculty (which my Dad was) and students and local activists in support of the Duke maintenance workers.

From that age on, I knew Dr. King as a man to listen to. When he was murdered (I remember my mother crying), I knew he was a man to revere. Only more recently have I started thinking more about the woman beside the man–Coretta Scott King.

Coretta in 1964 (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Coretta in 1964 (Courtesy Wikimedia)

I haven’t yet seen the movie “Selma,” but I will, and I’m grateful to its makers for reminding a new generation that The Movement was–and is–a long, long, LONG series of struggles. And it wasn’t only about one man.

In honor of the Martin Luther King holiday, I’d like to share this song I wrote about his wife, two years ago. I haven’t gotten around to recording it yet, so you’ll just have to imagine the tune…but I hope the lyrics speak for themselves. 

Coretta

 

Every city in this land got a street named for your man;

We celebrate his birthday, we sing and hold hands.

But sometimes I wonder if we’d ever be here

If you hadn’t stood beside him for all of those years.

All of those years…imagine the tears.

Coretta Scott King, your name hardly appears.

 

Lovely young soprano, Alabama to Ohio:

Your music could’ve carried you even further, you know.

But Martin sweeps you off your feet, or you sweep him,

And you’re swept into the movement, sink or swim.

Sink or swim…opposition is grim.

Montgomery Bus Boycott is the first big win.

 

Martin’s filling up the jails, says that love will never fail

And you’re right there with him, center of the gale.

But your four little children can’t be left alone

And Martin says their mama needs to stay at home.

Stay at home, keep the children calm.

Thank the Lord you are out when your house gets bombed.

 

Klan don’t need to wait for dark; Selma’s like their personal park.

Cross the Pettus Bridge to face Sheriff Clark.

On that Bloody Sunday you can hear the cries

With your hands in the laundry and your eyes on the prize.

Eyes on the prize…when a martyr dies

Best step aside, feel the power rise.

 

Martin goes to Memphis town; hand of hate cuts him down.

Now they’re looking to you to lead ’em to high ground.

You’re still in shock, you don’t know what to feel

But just like Martin, you’re made of steel.

Made of steel…Lord, this is real:

41 year-old widow of a slain ideal.

 

So you take up Martin’s cross, learn to be a movement boss

And you march and you rally and you pay the cost.

You tell your fellow women to embrace their role:

“If you want to save the nation, you must become its soul.”

Become its soul…it took its toll.

But Coretta, look around, we’re approaching the goal.

 

 For over thirteen thousand days, you walked those weary ways

Speaking out against the war, supporting the gays.

For the poor and persecuted you carried the flame

And never got a monument. Ain’t it a shame?

Ain’t it a shame? No one’s to blame.

But Coretta Scott King, we remember your name.

Ain’t it a shame? No one’s to blame.

But Coretta Scott King, we remember your name.

G. Wing, March 2013

The Selma March (Courtesy Wikimedia)

The Selma March (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Have you seen “Selma”? Care to share your impressions? Or your own memories of Martin, or Coretta? Let’s take time to remember.