I am not from The South. I have lived here all of my adult life, but I have always had difficulty considering myself a Southerner. I was reminded of it early and often when I moved to North Carolina, no matter how many times I reminded the kids on the cheese wagon that we Bostonians hated the Yankees, too. But even as an adult who has lived three-quarters of his life below the Mason-Dixon, I often find myself an outsider in this culture.
And yet, I know it fairly well, even if I don’t get it. I’ve traveled its back roads, climbed its mountains, sang in its churches, drank its sweet tea and ate its grits, paddled its rivers to gain an intimate knowledge. Like many of us here, I take the same paths over and over and over again, a regression I found recently as Nic and I pointed the Prius in a southwestardly direction to see her family just across the Louisiana border in Beaumont, Texas.
For many who do not know or are not familiar with the south, the perception can be one of abject misery and backwardness, a point driven home by a Wisconsan at AP Training who lamented the strangeness of our national politics and then pointedly said, “but I guess you’re use to this, being from North Carolina.” And as we make the travel from 85-65-10—through the “Deep South”—we pass through cities that can be laden with heavy American history. Sherman’s march through Atlanta. The Montgomery to Selma march. Mississippi Burning. Hurricane Katrina rips through New Orleans. But for us, there are very personal memories on this path raised on this path and new memories created every trip. There’s the impromptu high school parade at the Jonesboro exit. Our walking tour of the Auburn campus. The worst hotel sleep ever in Mobile. Strolling the beaches in Gulfport and Biloxi. Walking through the French Quarter. Chicken on the Bayou. A speed trap that caught me in Vinton.
As we enter Texas, the speed limit raises and we enter narrow construction lanes. We stop at a What-a-Burger somewhere between Orange and Vidor, then cruise all the way to Beaumont. From there, it’s a week of tacos, board games, and laughter. I know all the streets in my in-law’s hood from running over the years, and I’m starting to remember how to get to the Starbucks and the gym without having to use a GPS. This paths are well worn indeed.
But the history of this town is obscure to me. It’s a city of over 100,000 people, which makes it large and modern in comparison to the many towns of fewer than 10,000 that surround it. Beaumont, it seems, has a relatively high murder rate for its size in Texas. My in-laws’ church in the heart of the city recently participated in a successful gun buy-back where they received many weapons but–just as importantly–many threats from the people in the city. The following Sunday, community leaders sat in a panel discussion about potential solutions to murder with the BBC filming for documentary purposes. The preacher spoke euphemistically a few times about “the sins of our fathers.” I’m not sure I know exactly what the sins are, but judging from the panel discussion, it seems that—like a lot of Southern cities—Beaumont probably has some racial skeletons in its closet, skeletons, that—like a lot of cities in this country, including Charlotte—still cause social problems today in the correlation of race and poverty. This church is attempting to at least bridge that gap, to take steps to solve what is often a heated, uncomfortable issue by reducing the violence that plagues the city.
It’s hot in Texas, and I spend a lot of time inside reading when I’m there. Perhaps serendipitously the thread of race relations wove through much of what I remember reading. There’s this essay in one of my favorite publications about he virtues of Tarrantino’s Django Unchained. The author compares how Germany and America use art to portray and deal with our relative racists and genocidal pasts. He argues that unlike Django, most American films that deal with race paint the racists as unrelatable villains as opposed to everyday people, minimize the actual violence and pain caused, and look to a hopeful future, as if this is all behind us. That night, we watch The Help on TV.
The second read was Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a 2016 Man Booker award winner. For me, it’s often refreshing to read a book without having to worry about how I would teach it. The book satirizes the state and history of race relations in this country in a way that has me cackling. Like most good works of satire, it is both irreverent and poingant. I know lots of people I want to convince to read it just so we can talk about it.
If this book left me in stiches, the third reading regarding race left me with dread. It was a brief article on my favorite left-leaning political blog, announcing that Charlottesville had voted to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park (once Lee park, but changed). The move mirrors such efforts in other southern cities to remove symbols of the South’s confederate past, from the removal of the Battle Flag over the SC state house after the Mother Emmanuel AME Zion shooting in 2015 to the recent effort remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans. The rationale seems to be that removing these symbols of the racist past are necessary for us to move forward. I thought about Beatty’s narrator, who would likely argue that removing the statues won’t end racism any more than having a black president did.
The trend to remove these monuments has gained momentum. But Southerners are fighting back. The monuments in New Orleans had to be removed under the cover of night with police protection. In all of these cases, the removal has met with charges of disrespecting Southern Heritage, memes quoting George Orwell, and the prideful opposition of southerners regardless of their state. A slight in New Orleans or Charlotteseville is slight across Dixie, it seems. So in Charlottesville, a Southern university town that—like my beloved Chapel Hill, likely believes it is above the dirty past of the rest of the South–a “Unite the Right” rally had been planned to protest the removal of the statue.
I cringed. This wouldn’t end well, but I had no idea how explosive a situation it would become.
By Tuesday, we headed home, mapping a different route through Dixie, heading north to Little Rock. Randy, who has travelled these roads all his life, ticked off the names of the small towns through which we would pass: Lumberton, Kirbyville, Jasper, San Augustine, Carthage, Marshall, and finally to Texarkana. Small town after small town where a NC tag and a Prius surely made us seem like outsiders, but not so much that we needed to worry if we stayed under the speed limit and I kept my hair tucked under my hat. Lucky us. How privileged. Soon we were in Little Rock.
I had hoped through our new route through the old confederacy we would see the markers of history. Unfortunately, time, traffic, and Little Rock’s tenuous relationship with our GPS kept us from Little Rock Central High School. As a teacher, I inherently see education as a tool to social progress. So, it’s odd to think of a school as a site of one of the most regressive battles of the Civil Rights Era. Here, Governor Orville Faubus, pandering to his white supremacist base, refused to comply with the Supreme Court and integrate schools. Eisenhour tried to talk him into changning his mind, but eventually had to bring in the National Guard to protect high school students from an angry mob of “ordinary” white people. Watching the “respectable” white people is revolting. It seems so hopelessly out of time, and yet even in Charlotte, once a national model of integrated schools, educational disparity at the nexus of class and race persists and reform often meets a genteel, polite resistance.
Sadly, we only have time for a walk in the park, where the dogs frolic in the fountain, and lunch at Stickyz Chicken (which is lets us put our dogs on the patio, and has a great space). Instead of the high school, we go to the beautiful, renovated waterfront district, where bands can play and public art brackets public water parks where we see black and white children playing. Every thing seems so peaceful, so newly renovated, the shadows of the past paved over in brick, shiny glass, and sculpture.
We need to get to Memphis, which is another 2 ½ hours east. Memphis sits on the eastern bank of the Mississippi. Named after an ancient Egyptian city, Memphis greets us with a gaudy, mirrored pyramid emblazoned with the Bass Pro Shops logo to commemorate the city’s etymological heritage. We turn right off the interstate as soon as we get into the city, the GPS leads us to one of the most unlikely of historical markers—The Lorraine Motel.
You’ve seen the pictures. In 1968, Dr. King had come to Memphis to help the working class, to march with striking sanitation workers. The night before, his speech suggested he was aware of his own impending demise. The next morning, an assassin’s bullet pierced the Memphis sky and struck King. Today, few citizens are venerated in American history as Dr. King. The Wall Street Journal claims that his “I Have a Dream” speech magically ended all racism in America. Talk about your out-of-touch costal elites. But here, a somber reminder: the motel, which fell into disrepair in the early 80s has become the foundation for the National Civil Rights Museum, which also includes the boarding house where the bullet originated, the whole moment of King’s death captured in the eerie trajectory of a few hundred yards of city block.
I’ve been to many awe inspiring places: the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge. But I am overwhelmed in a tone I have never known. The nexus of so many intersecting strands. A clash of ideals. A true crossroads of our nation. The courage and the fear inspired in one man’s actions brought to a mighty head in his assasination by motivations obvious, yet still myriad and dark. Now this motel sits somewhat anachronistically in what is clearly an effort for a revitalized Memphis, with newly painted signs, down the road from a hotel honoring the history of blues—the very heart of American music, borne painfully in slave culture, once reviled by the clergy as the Devil’s Music—a few blocks from Beale Street, a few more from a gleaming NBA arena that the city has just apporoved for $1.7 million in renevations an a state-of-the-art AAA baseball stadium.
We have one more place to see in Memphis, but the GPS gets us lost again. Around the corner from the Lorraine, we see a middle-aged African American woman, alone at a fold-out card table with signs and brouchures protesting the construction of the Civil Rights Museum. I slow down enough to see what seems on the surface a contradictory argument—that the King memorial is destroying the very people he fought for. But as the GPS leads me through Memphis, we see the cracked streets, the shanty houses, an elementary school that has been boarded up in disuse. The GPS, in trying to find Sun Studios, keeps trying to take me through Foote Park, which is currently surrounded by construction fence guarding the concrete rubble of what once was. Like Charlotte, Memphis is a mid-level city trying to grow, and that means sometimes it is clearing out the “the undesirable” for the new and gleaming. Frustarted, we decided to head to the hotel on a brand new 240, but finally find Sun, where Elvis, Cash, and many others got their start. It’s now a museum to iconic musicians who Nicole decided, after watching Walk the Line for the first time a few weeks ago, were kind of jerks. Regardless, it remains a testament to the fact that the American South, perhaps because of its pain and suffering, is the fertile soil in which so much of our music began to blossom.
The next day takes us through Nashville, where we briefly stop in Centennial Park, home to a full-sized replica of the Greek Parthenon, the home for Nashville’s art museum, stands across the green from a modern Southern temple–an SEC football stadium at Vanderbilt. We have lunch and ice cream from the food trucks where a mom leaps back in front of me to ask the ice cream lady if the chocolate and peanut butter ice cream she just ordered for her kids has nuts in it. I shake my head. How can you choose nuts and think you won’t have live with them.
From there, we move further east, to a small town called Decatur, where family has done us the grand favor of loaning us their house for a few days. We drive twisty roads through the mountains into what is truly the rural south. “Towns” are few the further we get from the interstate, and soon we arrive to this small enclave (a town of around 1,500 people) punctuated by a Piggly Wiggly, three gas stations, and Italian/Mexican restaurant (which Nicole dubs “a crime against humanity”) and a few fast food joints.
The next day we explore. The land is beautiful, surrounded by massive rivers that I long to kayak. We stop at an isolated gas station where the clerk answers my questions about fishing and directs me to his goo ole boy buddy in the parking lot when I ask him the best place to put in and camp. “Wherever you can find a place.” As we drive around, we begin discussing what it would be like to live out here. Are you stuck or are you fortunate? In many ways, the area embodies much of the virtue people extol in the south. It’s simple, relaxed, a contrast to the fast-paced urban, modern life. Lots of time for reading, playing music, fishing, and thinking.
We point the car home on Friday. I convince Nicole to let me take the scenic route over the Cherehola Skyway, a winding mountain road between Tellico Gap, TN and Robbinsville, NC. It means going rural instead of interstate, through Athens (a booming town of 15,000 with a university a third the size of the high school where I teach), then Etowah, a winding road on which we count four Rebel Flags, one on the same porch as a New England Patriots flag.
I begin to think a lot about the people who live here and the flags they fly on their porch, flags that people defend with slogans like “heritage, not hate”, flags that proliferated after it was removed from the Columbia State House, flags that will stand along the Nazi swastika in Charlottesville. I went to a high school where the flag was a common clothing accessory way before I could digest what that meant. On the last day of school, kids with big trucks would attach huge battle flags and race up and down the street in front of the school. I know the people who live in the rural south who bring buckets of vegetables to my mom’s house when their garden is abundant, who kindly give me directions about where I can find a dock for my kayak, who let me out of a speeding ticket with a warning because I know a little “aw shucks” routine. I know people who fly the flag who have done me immesurable acts of kindness. I also know people who can be hostile to the wrong kind of outsider. I want to believe as I drive through this beautiful country that none of these people would take their flags off their porch to use them as symbols of hate in Charlottesville. But I also know that historical symbols and monuments accrue meaning by their use. That one owner of the flag can’t escape the meaning that others ascribe to it. That any monument serves us best as a point to reflect where we are going, not just a reminder of where we’ve been.
But that wasn’t going to happen in Charlottesville. There was not going to be a quiet contest of ideas. The statue was coming down by order of the city council. As a carpet-bagging yankee, it fills me with great ambivalence. I know lots of my southern brothers and sisters who see this as destroying a past worth preserving. But even as a child I had a hard time understanding the desire to venerate this history. Certainly, the flood of outsiders escalating Charlotteville proved that racism is not endemic to the South, but we can’t deny that the South has frequently been on the wrong side of moral history. From slavery to Jim Crow to resisting the Civil Rights movement. There is much about the South to celebrate. But values that make the South a wonderful place to live—generous people, genuine music, amazing natural resources—are not embodied in a flag that has become a racist totem nor in statues to men who died protecting the Confederacy and its economic model of violent, immoral human enslavement.
We didn’t drive through Charlottesville, but it came to us in our living room as soon as we returned home. I’m not sure I really care whether or not a statue stays or goes, but I find the argument that we should preserve history to be somewhat hollow. All monuments fail to tell the entire story, but these celebrate the valour of a defeated army. On the other hand, making the destruction of these monuments the focus of racial reconciliation also seems superficial. Sure, it is a powerful symbolic victory, but does little to do the work that we need to work for a more harmonious society. But harmony has always been hard in the South. Part of the trick of the Jim Crow South and the birth of the Klan, according to several historians, was that the wealthy landowners convince poor whites to intensly hate the poor blacks so they would never realize that their economic interests would be better realized if they worked together. That racial animus became the series of laws and “Sundown Towns” throughout the South, an animus even exploited by Nixon’s Southern strategy. What has stood out the most for me, however, is that while otherwise well-intentioned people from the South have pitched a battle that has allowed White Supremacists, neo-nazi assholes, and the freaking Klan to come out of the woodwork in 2017. And once again, these groups begin to convince alienated white people that their path to Southern Shangrila lies in hating People of Color while claiming it’s about “heritage, not hate”. But if Southerners really care about preserving our history, we better look it in the face. Because we can’t just we want to preserve heritage and act like hate wasn’t a part of it all along. And if we can’t find a way to differentiate, to celebrate the South while doing the work to repair the sins of our fathers, to really make the South an amazing place for all the people who live here, then that rebel flag and those monuments will contine to have the taint of racism that those hoodless Klansmen put on them every time they show up to defend another statue.
Almost a year ago, my beloved city erupted into nights of protests and property damage after the police shot Keith Lamont Scott. It seems like it is Charlottesville’s turn to go down this road. Ironically, the actions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville has only emboldened cities and colleges to remove these monuments. And with citizens, politicians, and college students alike looking to right the wrongs of the past, it feels like we will continue to travel these roads for sometime. As we do, it helps to remember that there are two pernicious lies that arise about race and the south–whether the monuments stay or go. The first is the favorite of the white supremacist–that the past was glorious and valorous, and we need only return to it. The second is the refuge of what King called “the white moderate” who prefers order over justice–that the past is in the past, that all our problems have been solved, and that every thing is cool if we just leave well enough alone. It is perhaps as deadly a lie, as it catches us off guard when conflict erupts over unresolved issues.
In another week, I will return to my job of teaching young people how to interpret visual communication, parse rhetoric, seek truth, and perhaps most importantly, be a valuable member of a harmonious community. As our trip through the Confederacy comes to a close, I realize that progress in the South is still to be made