“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).

Confederate flag hung in old N.C. State Capitol

Posted March 29th, 2013 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , ,

Confederate flag at old N.C. State Capitol

Update: The A.P. is reporting, several hours after its story was first published, that the Confederate flag will be taken down this weekend.

The Associated Press is reporting this afternoon that a Confederate battle flag has been hanging in the House chamber in the old North Carolina State Capitol since last week.

The flag is hanging as part of an historical display, according to State Historic Sites Director Keith Hardison, and should be viewed in that context. Hardison, who is also a Civil War re-enactor, has close ties to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which has led efforts throughout the South to rehabilitate the image of the Confederate flag as a symbol of southern heritage.

The Confederate flag is controversial because it invokes the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow for some, while others believe it symbolizes their southern heritage. Historian David Goldfield, author of Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (2002), acknowledges both perspectives but argues that the flag cannot be divorced from its racist past:

The history of the Confederate battle flag, how it was designed and formulated, how it has been used through the years, clearly states that it is a flag of white supremacy.

I know current Sons of Confederate Veterans would dispute that, saying ‘Hey, I’m not a racist.’ But the fact remains that the battle flag was used by a country that had as its foundation the protection and extension of human bondage.

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Historical myths and coded slave quilts on the Underground Railroad

Posted March 29th, 2013 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , , , ,

"Women's Quilts as Art"Historian Paul Finkelman writes at The Root about the discovery of a sixth-grade reading comprehension test, online from the Massachusetts Department of Education, which reiterates the old myth that coded quilts were used to warn runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad.

This old legend, about coded messages in quilts which told escaped slaves of safe houses and routes to freedom, is common in the United States. Historians agree, however, that there is no truth to these detailed assertions; as Finkelman puts it, this myth has long been known to be “totally fabricated.” Nevertheless, the story of coded slave quilts has frequently been written about as truth, and the story often appears in the interpretation of slavery for the public at historic sites.

This is an appealing myth for many Americans, blending as it does the horrors of slavery with the bravery of the enslaved, who are seeking their own freedom; in some versions of the story, the quilts are even made and displayed by progressive white southerners, doing their part to fight the injustice of their society.

At the Tracing Center, we believe strongly in the importance of separating truth from fiction in conveying the history of slavery to the general public. Myths like that of the slave quilt never contribute to a better understanding of this history or its legacy today, and often exist precisely because they serve to obscure historical realities that would otherwise challenge comforting notions that keep us from deeper understanding of our heritage and its consequences.

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The history of lynching across the United States

Posted January 8th, 2013 by
Category: History Tags: , , ,

Today Slate shared with their readers an historical map depicting the incidence of lynching in the United States during the years 1900-1931.

This map, offered by Slate through its new history blog, “The Vault,” was originally compiled by researchers at the Tuskegee Institute, under the leadership of Booker T. Washington.

The map is a dry, statistical compilation of death at the hands of communities across the country:

Lynching in the U.S., 1900-1931

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Katrina Browne on being “White in America”

Posted December 17th, 2012 by
Category: Race and Ethnicity Tags: , , , ,

HuffPost Live's "White in America?"Katrina Browne, our founder, appeared earlier today on a roundtable at the Huffington Post’s “HuffPost Live.” The topic was “White in America?“, inspired by a blogger’s recent call for CNN to complement its “Black in America” series with a look at what it means to be white in our society today.

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:

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Historian Eugene Genovese, 1930-2012

Posted October 1st, 2012 by
Category: History, Public History Tags: , ,

Eugene D. Genovese

It was reported this weekend that Eugene D. Genovese, Bancroft Prize-winning historian of slavery and the American South, has died at the age of 82.

Genovese was especially well known for his views on slavery in the antebellum South. In books such as Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1975), he redefined master-slave relations, arguing that southern slavery was fundamentally paternalistic.

This system of paternalism allowed masters to profit from slave labor, while slaves, Genovese argued, were able to pursue their humanity through a series of practical compromises with masters, mutual support, and inner strength.

While Edward Ayers praised Roll, Jordan, Roll as “the best book ever written about American slavery,” other historians believe Genovese minimized the horrors and brutality of slavery. Eric Foner, for instance, has argued that “paternalism” hardly seems an appropriate term to apply to chattel slavery, since parents generally do not buy and sell their children.

Genovese always claimed that he was not looking to justify slavery. His work also offered a strong defense of the American South, praising its values and culture as in many ways superior to the North’s.

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