Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Night They Drove 'Ole Dixie Down

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April 16, 2011. Click Arrow for Podcast
___________________________________________________ This week is the 150 year anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.  If you think "The Recent Unpleasantness" WASN'T about slavery (it was!) you aren't the only one. After you listen to the podcast you should check out Keith Olberman's take on it.

When I was a kid there was one black kid in my whole school.  As I remember it his parents were northerners.  He came home with me on at least one occasion and I remember that it got back to my mom (who of course already knew) that I was hanging with this guy after school.  This was about 1968 or 69.  Brown v Board of Ed was passed in 1954 so this was about a dozen years later and our town had successfully resisted implementing integration up to that point.  The next two years saw bussing begin to be used to integrate the schools.  White folks weren’t happy but I was lucky enough to have parents who weren’t racist and who actually did their part to help integration work.  We, as a family, were intimately involved in what were called “Charettes”.  It’s a French word that we were told meant a “sit down” a “discussion” a “meeting of the minds”.  These “Charettes” were held at schools all over town and were a place where the adults (black and white – there weren’t any Hispanics to speak of in Durham at the time) could hash out the mechanics of integration as well as talk about their fears about the process. 
It was during this time that I remember first hearing that the Civil War had not been about slavery at all.  The son of the local leader of the Klan explained that it was about “states rights” .  The right of the states to leave the union if they wanted to.  We had studied the Civil War in history class.  It seemed strange to me even then that someone would argue that the war had nothing to do with slavery.  I remember feeling like I’d been hit in the gut the first time I fully realized what slavery was.  I thought about a slave, Jim from Huck Finn is who I pictured. I thought of him being whipped and sold down the river far away from his family.  I thought about how he must hate the people who whipped him, who branded him, who made him work hour from sun up to sun down.  If he tried to run away and was caught he was flogged until his back was bloody and often had an ear or a finger cut off as punishment.  This is what slavery was and even as a kid I knew it.  So, when someone told me that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery I found it hard to believe.  I mean, here were all these black folks who were clearly not happy about being slaves so how could it be that the war wasn’t at least partly about slavery.  But no, the white folks I knew, most of them, insisted not only was the war NOT about slavery but it WAS about how Southerners were being victimized by Yankees.  This really sounded fishy to my ten year old mind.  The slaves weren’t rising up, they were in fact, not that unhappy about being slaves.  But the white southerners were up in arms about the price they were getting for cotton?  It just didn’t smell right but there wasn’t much I could say – at least not without getting a good smack down. These kids, the sons of the white rednecks, were pretty aggressive and I was put in my place more than once just for being a skinny kid who didn’t really play sports. 

As I got older I heard the same argument over and over again.  Every few years there would be a flap about some state flying the Confederate battle flag and refusing to take it down.  Or there’d be a black guy killed by a bunch of drunken rednecks but it always turned out that the black guy somehow deserved to be killed and the rednecks were just protecting themselves or their girlfriends.  Black folks, I was told, were poor because they were lazy.  That too seemed a strange thing to say because everytime I saw black folks they were working pretty hard, sweating in the sun, driving trucks, mowing lawns, sweeping floors and cleaning toilets.  It never set right with me to say they were lazy when I could see, with my own eyes, how hard they worked and at jobs that I knew didn’t pay very well.  Then, as the years went by and I learned more about slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, and the struggle for civil rights, I realized that it was all just one big lie.  But I had grown up in a country where these were the stories we told ourselves in order not to have to look at the true history of racism and slavery and exploitation.  We are still telling those same stories today.  The folks who are celebrating the beginning of the Civil War in Charleston, the ones who dress up in Confederate uniforms, they don’t go to civil rights marches on the weekends they aren’t reenacting the lost grandeur of the Confederacy.  No, they know enough nowadays not to flaunt their revisionist history.  I wouldn’t accuse most of them of being outright racists.  However, they ARE in league with the true racists to the extent that they create the context in which the more virulent forms can take root.  Public school integration never worked because it was never really tried.  Look at what is happening today over in Wake County. 

We have yet, in this country, to have a true reckoning about our shared history.  Telling the truth about the causes of the Civil War sounds, to me, as about as good a place as any to begin. 

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