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.

 

 

 

Fighting the Empathy Dearth: How Do We Feel What Has Not Been Ours To Feel?

Even a blind Republican could see that Brett Kavanaugh was lying last week…about his drinking history, at the very least. The sight so many powerful men choosing to ignore this professedly devout Christian’s breaking of the 9th Commandment filled me, like so many others, with disgust.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford swearing in (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

But the root of their hypocrisy and misogyny is something more basic, and more troubling…a dearth of empathy. These men simply cannot see life through a woman’s eyes.

This may sound shocking, but guys–I understand. As a white person, I’ve been struggling for some time now to see our world, country, daily life for goodness’ sake! from the perspective of a person of color.

Empathy is HARD.

Empathy requires humility: “How much in the past have I unwittingly been part of the white supremacist structure?”

Empathy requires focus: “Imagine how Philando Castile’s family is feeling right now, as the President–ooh, shiny! Gotta revise my to-do list. Do I need to get milk?…wait, where was I? Oh yeah, Philando Castile…”

Empathy requires commitment: “I’m going to read this book/listen to this podcast/have this conversation even though it’s going to make me horribly uncomfortable about being white.”

And empathy requires change. What kind of change? Depends. Which means empathy also requires acceptance. Which brings us back to humility.

Not the dominant trait of white male Senators. It hasn’t had to be. What kind of humiliation have they ever experienced? I’m not talking about work performance or being rejected by a girl on the dance floor. When have they ever been humbled, brought low, much less threatened, because of their race and gender?

Individually, it appears possible to infuse empathy by trapping a lone white male Senator in an elevator. But there isn’t a big enough elevator for all the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, and if there were more than one in there at a time, they’d just maintain eye contact with each other.

Out of ideas, out of elevators, I’m back to this: Empathy is hard, and I’m going to stick to my own work in that department. If you’re white and working on your own work, please read on.

I owe these excerpts to several women, who have passed them along: first, author Iris Graville. Second, author Heidi Barr, whose post Listen to Black Women Iris re-blogged. Third, and most importantly, author/teacher Layla F. Saad, whose post I Need to Talk to Spiritual White Women was listed as a resource on Heidi’s blog.

Layla F. Saad, photo by Anter Blackbird on Saad’s blog

This passage from Layla Saad struck me especially as I think about the empathy dearth. Notice how many times she uses the word “imagine.”

…I am a black muslim woman. I carry within me both the experience from my own lifetime of racism and discrimination, and the collective trauma of belonging to a people who were slaves for centuries.

Last year… I remember reading about the witch burnings. And how, as women and modern day witches and priestesses, we carry this trauma of being burned with us even today. And how that fear holds us back from speaking up and being seen in our full wild mystic power. I see many women in the spiritual community who understand just how much of a trauma this is for women, and who are doing the deep work of healing the witch wound and reclaiming their right to be here in their full authentic presence.

But can you imagine how it is for people of colour?

Can you imagine the trauma we carry from centuries of slavery, police brutality, discrimination and racial hatred?

The witch burnings happened at one period of time and yet we still remember. Imagine how it is for black people and people of colour. The hateful treatment against us never ended. It just went underground. And now it is resurfacing, emboldened by leaders like Donald Trump and others like him.

This weekend the KKK marched without their hoods. Do you understand what that means?

Can you imagine if a powerful group rose up in the western country you live in who wanted to burn women as witches, and they were seen as being legitimised by the country’s president? That sounds ridiculous right? And yet an angry mob of KKK white supremacists just marched with burning torches screaming racist and anti-semitic slogans in Charlottesville USA this weekend. And Donald Trump and others have said too little, too late.

Can I imagine how it is for Black folks in this country? Not fully…but it is my responsibility to try. Can men imagine how it is for women in this country? Not fully…but it is their responsibility to try.

Anecdotes, personal stories…those seem to work better. Here’s one from Saad:

The house I grew up in, in Wales, was right next to a children’s park.

My brother and I would go there everyday by ourselves, especially when the weather was good, to play on the swings and slides. We loved that park.

But one day, when I was about 6 or 7 years old, a new boy started coming to play at the park.

And the first time I saw him, he sneered at me and told me that my skin was the colour of poop.

My face still feels red just thinking about it. I felt so ashamed. I couldn’t say a thing. All I felt was the shame of being in the skin that I was in. Of not being white like everyone else. I ran straight home with tears in my eyes.

After that day I refused to go to the park anymore without my mum. I never told her what happened. I felt too ashamed to even say it to her. I believed that everyone must be laughing at me and people who looked like me, because our skin looked like the colour of poop. I took that shame and buried it deep inside myself. I internalised this idea that I was other. That I was in some way, wrong. And that I was less than. And most damaging of all, that I did not deserve to be seen, because you know, my skin was the colour of poop. I recognise how ridiculous that sounds now, but as a 7 year old I took it as total truth.

As I make my way forward into this week, I will continue the work of empathy, creating my own “elevator moments” through reading and listening…and pondering the question, “How can we help someone feel what has not been theirs to feel?”