Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nostalgia, Blackberry Picking, and the Confederate Flag

I grew up with the Confederate flag, “Dixie,” shrimp and grits, antebellum homes, Civil War artifacts and all of the things that fuel the sweet nostalgic sense of what it means to be Southern. My family descended from plantation folks, so my childhood was steeped in the romance of Old South life. I grew up on property that was once a plantation. The “Big House” and the old cotton gin house, still occupied by family members, represent historic monuments to our heritage.  I drank deeply of rhetoric about a more tranquil time when society was not plagued by minority issues.

Years ago, I was riding with an African American co-worker down Folly Road, on James Island. As we approached the Wappoo Cut Bridge, we were treated to a beautiful view of the estate of Mr. Willie Mcleod, an ancient Southern gentleman who resided at his family’s plantation for well over 100 years. The back yard of his antique home opened to a huge field. The scene was framed with live oaks and six, tiny buildings that once functioned as slave’s quarters. My friend looked as if she were going to be ill. She said, “Why do they leave those horrible slave houses up? My stomach hurts every time I see them.” At the time, I was truly shocked that a sight so pleasant to my eyes could cause such a visceral negative reaction in another.

I have memories of a perfect, Tom Sawyeresque childhood on the sea islands of South Carolina. However, the recollections have been cherry picked, censored and sanitized to such a degree as to no longer resemble actual experiences. Old fellas like myself, will often reflect on the idyllic experiences of youth. But, ask young people who are currently in the midst of actual youthful experiences, and their descriptions of these will be anything but idyllic.  This is because the stories we tell “about” life are different from what we experience when we are in the process of living life. The trouble with nostalgia is that it is rooted in fantasy. Many of my stories about getting into trouble as a kid are hysterically funny. However, the reality of these experiences was often painful and sometimes scarring. Nostalgia about the Old South is no different. 

My wife and I went blackberry picking last weekend. It was humid and over 90 degrees outside. Insects feasted on us as briers tore at our arms and legs. Sweat poured into our eyes and soaked our clothes. After less than an hour in this oppressive environment, we called it quits. While picking, my wife, who is biracial, commented, “Can you imagine what it must have been like to pick cotton?" I responded, "Like this, except someone would probably be standing over us with a whip and we would be working as long as there was enough light to see!” 

I imagine that most white, Southern people don’t spend much time thinking about such things. We rarely allow ourselves to consider the realities of slavery. A subsection of the American populous was systematically tortured, degraded, raped, and murdered. The modern family dog enjoys more protection from harm under the law than did a slave prior to the Civil War.  There is nothing romantic about the atrocities inflicted on living, non-fictitious, human beings under the Southern plantation system. Rationalizations about loyal slaves and kindly masters only work when one imagines oneself as the master and when one denies objective reality. In a country so grounded in the knowledge that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental human needs, the enslavement of sentient beings was a clear and obvious abomination. Slaves were real people whose life experiences were vivid and valid and relevant. 

I am proud of my Southern manners, my accent, and my Lowcountry culture. I am proud of my family’s accomplishments. But, as a moral person, the only response I could possibly have to symbols of a regime that supported the institution of slavery is revulsion and shame.

For Germans in the early 20th century, the swastika was a symbol of German pride. The dialogue that captured German hearts and minds at that time revolved around embracing German culture and heritage. The horrors visited on Jews by the Nazi regime should overshadow any nostalgic sense a modern German might experience from the display of a swastika. What kind of person would be so insensitive as to suggest that the swastika be displayed anywhere other than a museum?

Likewise, the horrors visited on African Americans by the plantation system in the American South should overshadow any nostalgic sense a modern Southerner might experience from the display of a Confederate flag. What kind of person would be so insensitive as to suggest that the Confederate flag be displayed anywhere other than a museum?

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