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).
I’m having one of those: “I wish I had said” moments. I’m thinking about what I would have said more bluntly than I did, to tie together: Susan Bodnar talking about poor/working class whites not getting enough love (my word) in our culture, as well as talking about their racism; host Alicia Menendez asking why they aren’t covered much on TV; and then Morley Winograd talking about the film Lincoln showing how far we’ve come as a society.
I half-said what I wanted on the show at that point; here’s the more I’d say:
This weekend, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien debuted the fifth installment of her provocative series, Black in America. This time, in “Who is Black in America?”, O’Brien explores the nuances of racial self-identification in the United States, as well as the pressures put on individuals by the ways others categorize them.
The episode raises such difficult questions as whether there is a separate bi-racial identity in this country, or whether those of mixed black and white ancestry may, or must, self-identify simply as “black.” (For more, see Cheryl Contee’s essay at Jack & Jill Politics.)
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 is cross-posted from James’ own blog, The Living Consequences, and the opinions expressed are his own.
Today is the first anniversary of remarks by actor and activist Edward James Olmos at the United Nations about the idea of race as a social fiction.
I posted about these remarks at the time, but I want to use this occasion as an excuse to highlight once again what Olmos had to say that day, and I’m even going to take the unusual step for me of embedding the video of his remarks here.
The reason I’m doing this is that I’ve never heard this idea expressed with more power and conviction. Each time I see this, I’m reminded of just how powerful the myth of race is, and how important it is for those in the public eye to speak the plain truth that the emperor has no clothes: