Like many Southerners, I wince when I see the memes on the internet about the Confederate flag from Lost Cause supporters who Just. Won’t. Let it go. However, I cringe almost as much when I read commentary by many of those condemning folks who feel compelled to fly the Battle Flag of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in protest against what they see as an assault on their Southern heritage. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but at times, it feels as though the enmity is not directed only at perceived Southern redneckitude, but at all Southerners. (On a side note, non-Southerners need to understand that there is a world of difference in degree among “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” “crackers,” and other subspecies of the kingdom Southernus Humanicus. But I digress, as I am wont to do.)
I have ancestors who fought in the Civil War, and I understand the complexity of the issues and the emotional reaction of those who see the flag as honoring the sacrifice of soldiers. I also believe that the Confederates committed treason against the United States of America, even though the federal government lacked the bureaucracy necessary to have pursued trials effectively or efficiently. It’s entirely possible that while a lack of prosecution of the Confederate leadership helped the nation heal more quickly from the massive psychic wounds inflicted by the war, it also enabled the cult of the Old South to rise and grow.
Nevertheless, the battle flag belongs in a museum, and the spokespersons selected for national airtime have done quite an excellent job on CNN, Fox, etc., in proving, with their guest commentary, why that flag belongs in a museum and not flying over a statehouse. While I share the distaste many feel for the effort to defend the Lost Cause, I find the hysteria knocking any and everything Southern verging on ridiculous. There is much to be learned from recent events about what it means to be Southern. It’s not about pickup trucks, moonshine, shotguns, and the Confederate flag–not by a long shot.
The devastating shootings at Emanual AME Church in Charleston provided a lesson for the entire United States in how a city should cope with tragedies involving racial hate crimes, and the victims of this tragedy did so in a uniquely Southern fashion. There was no rioting or looting in Charleston. Demonstrations of Christian love and emotional restraint ruled the behavior of the victims, to the astonishment of the entire country outside of the Deep South. The families of the victims went to the jailhouse and gave public forgiveness to the shooter.
Restraint of high emotion coupled with intense pressure to do the right thing prevailed at the state level. Three South Carolina state leaders locked arms and forced the legislature to take down the flag, then proceeded to hold a dignified and respectful ceremony to do exactly that. Well, dignified & respectful except for the yahoos who started singing “Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey, Goodbye” at the end–not a display of Southern restraint there by any means, but a painfully public lack of class.
Likewise, the residents of Chattanooga, reeling from the shooting deaths of five Marines by a young Muslim man characterized by his Tennessee high school teachers and classmates as a typical All-American kid, are responding with similar restraint in the midst of unimaginable grief. For those who like to engage in Southerner-bashing, there are few targets as rife with examples lending themselves to stereotypical “Southern hillbillies” as East Tennessee. (I say that with love, as I have relatives outside of Knoxville.)
Here’s the thing: racism is by no means limited to the South. I lived in central Massachusetts for ten years and worked in public schools there for six of those years. I did my school administration internship in the Dorchester area of Boston and spent quite a bit of time in “Southie” (South Boston) during my charter school leader fellowship year. I dealt with a Confederate flag school disruption issue, racism, and homophobia while I was an assistant principal in an almost 100% white rural/suburban high school in Connecticut. It’s just as racist in New England as anywhere I have ever been in the Deep South. I love both regions, but it pains me that so many people believe that racism is largely limited to the region where I was born and raised. It’s not, and to pretend that it is doesn’t advance the cause of racial equality.
The behavior of the residents of Charleston, the families of the shooting victims, and Gov. Haley and Sens. Graham and Scott demonstrates the best of what I love about the South. It evokes the Atlanta civil rights-era slogan, “The City Too Busy to Hate.” It’s about doing the right thing, without a lot of fanfare and attention-seeking, and without violence. I don’t know what the eventual resolution will be in Chattanooga, but I’ll bet you cash money it won’t involve riots or looting.
I saw a meme this morning that I really liked a lot. It read simply, “If you want to be proud of being Southern, serve some sweet tea, enjoy some shrimp and grits, and show good manners. It’s not good manners to display symbols that make your neighbors think you hate them.” Good manners–a deceptively simple concept, and a very, very Southern one. Southern, indeed.