“Accidental racists” should search for southern pride beyond the flag

Posted April 9th, 2013 by
Category: Living consequences, Popular Culture, Race and Ethnicity Tags: , , , ,

Growing up in Nashville, Tenn., my sister and I spent hours on end listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter, Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks, and other female country artists of the 1990s. With this soundtrack I came to believe all country music was about falling in love, getting treated badly by men, hating other women, and finding revenge. As a child I had no idea how many people in America associate country music with “Southern Pride” and the complex issues of race, history and identity that term entails. I only knew Confederate flags were bad. One of my best friends from elementary school, the daughter of a prominent African-American author and songwriter, told me the flags meant people wanted to bring slavery back. Naturally I henceforth regarded it with revulsion and fear.

When Brad Paisley begins his song “Accidental Racist” by saying his confederate flag t-shirt only means he’s a Skynyrd fan, I can’t help noticing how he disproves his entire point in the following verses of the song. He calls himself “a proud rebel son” and “a white man livin’ in the southland” and admits how he is unable to understand southern history from a black perspective. He understands how the confederate flag is offensive and yet still brandishes it across his chest out of a sense of pride in a past he knows was at least partially wrong.

Some lines in the Brad Paisley/LL Cool J collaboration are worthy of some praise for their apparent thoughtful consideration of how to remember the past whilst “caught between southern pride and southern blame.” Paisley is not proud of everything past generations of done, and he knows the nation is still “paying for mistakes that a bunch of folks made long before we came.” But despite this acceptance of the past as imperfect, both Paisley and LL Cool J express a disturbing desire to let bygones be bygones, sweep history under the rug, and attempt to solve the problems of today without engaging with the traces of the trade. Brad Paisley’s aversion to “walking on eggshells” reminds me of statements I’ve heard white southerners make when they don’t want to talk about slavery because they feel they can’t express opinions they know to be offensive or hurtful. For these people, avoiding the eggshells is an excuse for ignoring the issue all together.

Like Paisley and Cool J, “I just want to make things right,” which is why I study the history of the slave trade and work at the Tracing Center. I am a southerner with a strong sense of pride towards my region and my identity, but I refuse to let the Confederate flag be the symbol of that pride. I am proud of bluegrass music, Harper Lee, Alex Haley, Ray Charles Mardi Gras, and cornbread. I am proud of the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement and less proud of how long it took us to get there. If our shame is located in our history, our pride can be found in how we engage with the traces of that history today. I therefore wholeheartedly disagree with the “Accidental Racist” verse, “the past is the past, you feel me,” and encourage country music fans everywhere to think critically about the problems in this song (aside from its melody and tempo, which are also worthy of criticism).


A sad and sorry continuity: the North in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Posted November 16th, 2012 by
Category: History, Popular Culture Tags: , , , , , ,

U.S. House of Representatives passes 13th amendment, abolishing slavery, by two votesI’m one of the jaded ones now.

So it surprised me not to find Fernando Wood rearing his pro-slavery head again, this time as a Democratic Congressman from New York. Here he was on the big screen in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, showing up in 1865 as a vocal opponent in Congress to the passage of the 13th amendment. I knew of him from four years earlier, when in 1861, as mayor of New York City, on the heels of South Carolina’s secession, he proposed that the city should also secede from the Union. He was well aware that New York’s economy was inextricably tied to slavery.

Once you know about the North’s complicity in slavery and racism you see the through-line almost everywhere you look. The winter-spring of 1865 that is the subject of Lincoln thus becomes just one more chapter.

In the popular, white, non-southern imagination, we put Lincoln on a pedestal, but we subconsciously put ourselves on that pedestal too, because he is our symbol of northern determination to end slavery. That was us. The good guys.

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A slave trading family on NBC’s “The Office”

Posted October 8th, 2012 by
Category: Popular Culture Tags: , , ,

DeWolf family treeWhen I sat down this weekend to watch last Thursday’s episode of “The Office,” I was quite surprised to discover that the plot largely revolved around the revelation that Andy Bernard, like me, is descended from slave traders.

As you might imagine, as someone who has wrestled with this family legacy, and who cares a great deal about seeing the public to terms with the legacy of slavery, I had mixed feelings watching this subject being addressed in a half-hour comedy show.

What did “The Office” get right?

What do I think the show got right about Andy’s suspicion that he was descended from slave owners, and his eventual discovery that his family were slave traders? Mostly the incredible awkwardness and uncertainty, for Andy, his family, and for everyone else witnessing the process of uncovering the truth about complicity in slavery.

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“Polly want a derogatory term for a melanin-challenged Euro-American?”

Posted May 18th, 2012 by
Category: Popular Culture, Public History

CrackerThe origin of the word “cracker” was never important to me.1 Growing up in Vermont, my only relationship to the word was something we put in soup or ate with cheese. I was vaguely aware that it was a pejorative term of southerners, but I never gave it much thought.

That all changed a few years ago when I started working for the Tracing Center. I was trying to think of an interesting introductory activity for a teacher workshop – I wanted something that would ground people in the content of slavery and get them comfortable with the idea of talking about difficult subjects. I chose four words – “slave”, “master”, “cracker”, and “quadroon” – and each person was given one word to respond to in writing. They were to write down whatever came to mind about the word and then we went around in a circle and shared responses. I’ve done this activity multiple times hence and have found it a great way to start a discussion. However, I always run into the same problem … people will ask about the origin of the word “cracker”?

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  1. The title of this blog post comes from www.vendio.com. []

Racial myth and miscegenation on “The Simpsons”

Posted March 18th, 2010 by
Category: Popular Culture Tags: , , , ,

James DeWolf Perry is a regular guest contributor. He appears in the film Traces of the Trade and is the Tracing Center’s director of research. This entry originally appeared on James’ own blog, The Living Consequences, on February 21, and the opinions expressed are his own.

On tonight’s episode of “The Simpsons,” Lisa Simpson explores her family’s historical connection to slavery and presents the results at school for Black History Month.

This was fascinating for me to watch, as my own family’s powerful connection to slavery has taken up much of my time and energy over the last decade. Being a direct descendant of the leading slave trader in U.S. history, I think I can also relate to Lisa’s worry that her family tree sometimes seems dominated by scoundrels.

Disappointingly, however, this episode perpetuates some of the most common stereotypes that dominate public perceptions about the connections of American families to the nation’s history of slavery. For, immediately after learning that the Simpson family had a connection to slavery, we hear that this story involves Simpson ancestors living in the South, and that they were, in fact, anti-slavery and risked everything they had to take part in the Underground Railroad.

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