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.
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.
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.
Maybe it always was, maybe the influx of New Orleans refugees from Hurricane Katrina played a role, but whatever–laissez les bon temps roulez!
I was touched and heartened by the mix of races and ethnicities out celebrating together.
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…
And then there was this little guy, along the course:
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.
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.
Can’t get more Southern than that. We rented a cabin.
It came with our very own ducks on the doorstep.
We went for a hike. The winter woods were starkly beautiful.
The rocks were craggy.
The crags were rocky.
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.
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.