jump to navigation

From the Ritz to the Rubble October 1, 2009

Posted by monty in civil rights.
Tags: ,
trackback

ancestors

I’m not sure what I expected when I moved from the West Coast to the Deep South a couple months ago.  Someone handing me a banjo when I crossed the state line?  A complimentary lynch rope when I signed the lease to my apartment?  Tobacco-chewing hillbillies on every corner telling me I had a purty mouth?  All of the above?

One of the recurring problems in my life is that my expectations of new experiences are invariably formed by watching too many movies.  My prior knowledge of Georgia extended exactly as far as Deliverance, modulated by a healthy dose of self-righteous liberal indignation at the racism I believed to be inherent in the South.  There was, of course, no real basis in my own personal experience for these ideas.  I had exactly two previous exposures to Georgia, neither of which gave me any authoritative knowledge of the state or its people.  When I was ten or eleven, my family drove the length of the state on our way to Disney World from Ohio, and last January I was here for two days for a a job interview.

Even with this limited experience, I still had some fairly specific ideas about what my life would be like in the South.  Whether it’s the lingering legacy of the Civil War, the injustices visited upon Southern blacks in the first half of the 2oth Century, or the stories – some, unbelievably, as recently as June of this year – of segregated proms, I figured I’d be dropped smack in the middle of a hotbed of racial intolerance.  Besides the cliché of Southern hospitality, I think the other stereotype of the South carried by people not from the South is of racist rednecks dressed in bedsheets burning crosses.

Turns out – probably not unsurprisingly – that this perception of Southern racism isn’t entirely accurate, and the fact that I so firmly believed it to be true is evidence mainly of my naivete.  The town where I live now is pretty much like any other suburb – a leafier, greener version of the places I lived in California, and almost exactly like where I grew up in Ohio, only with a funny accent – and the people I encounter seem pretty much like people everywhere else.  The campus where I work has a large student population coming from a healthy mix of cultures and backgrounds, and there’s no discernible tension between the different groups.  It’s not uncommon to see interracial couples in stores or at the movies, and they seem to be going about their day completely hassle-free.  I know that in some ways this astonishment marks me as the real backwards rube in this situation, but at the same time I have to wonder how and when this atmosphere of tolerance evolved.  History shows us it hasn’t always been this way, and – as I mentioned above – segregation is still very real in some places.

As pleased as I’ve been to discover that Georgia is generally more accepting and tolerant than I thought it would be, there’s one thing I still haven’t gotten used to: the discomfiting regularity with which I see Confederate flags.  They fly in the front yards of otherwise inocuous-looking ranch-style homes; they’re emblazoned on bumper stickers and license plates; they’re proudly displayed on t-shirts worn by overweight men and women whose pendulous bellies stretch the flag precariously in either direction.  It’s rare that I don’t run errands around town and see a Confederate flag somewhere. And this bothers me.  Really bothers me.

I saw my fair share of the Confederate flag growing up in a rural part southwestern Ohio.  The southern part of that state is really more Kentucky than Ohio, and I have vivid memories of seeing the Confederate design on flags and shirts and cars, and even on the cheap, magnetized locker mirrors you could win at the county fair.  As my interest in civil rights developed throughout high school, I listened to the debates over what the flag actually represents now that we’re so far removed from the end of the Civil War.  Then, as now, the appearance of that symbol frustrated me, and just as most people wouldn’t dream of flying a Nazi swastika as a sign of pride, the divisive nature of the Confederate design (and the racism that is inextricably linked to it) seemed to preclude it being waved seriously by anyone with an ounce of compassion.

I know there are some who still say the Confederate flag is a symbol of states’ rights, or of resistance to unprovoked Northern aggression, or whatever.  I’m not a historian, and I can only speak to what the symbol means to me, as a run-of-the-mill white guy who doesn’t really have any cultural or familial baggage associated with the flag: it makes me deeply uncomfortable.  I don’t understand, either from a logical or an emotional point of view, why someone would associate himself with that symbol, unless he’s racist.  And, for better or worse, that’s my first impression whenever I see someone displaying a bumper sticker like the one at the top of this post.

Maybe it is just a sign of Southern pride.  But I don’t think it’s any coincidence that a local store flying the Confederate flag out front is also flying a flag with the white power symbol on it.  As much as my new home has surprised me (and pleasantly so), I feel in some ways like I’ve walked into David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where the bucolic facade hides an intractable rot beneath.

(And, thanks to this post, my Google search bar is now littered with phrases such as “Georgia KKK,” “Georgia racism,” and “white power flag.”  The sacrifices I make.)

*****

Current listening:

LogoAIR09-Reflets5

Air – Love 2

Advertisements

Comments»

No comments yet — be the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: