…or a monument.
Summer is upon me. According to John Phillips, “The Mississippi River runs like molasses in the summertime.” I know the summer humidity is as sticky as molasses…just like discussions about my heritage.
The steamy humidity is a part of my heritage, as are lightning bugs and mosquitos, or violent thunderstorms, and the refreshing cool afterward. Cutting sweet corn off the cob and salting it with the sweat off my brow. Seems much of my heritage runs the gamut between opposite poles of good and bad.
My Southern heritage is being debated across the far reaches of this country…again. The left is celebrating a statue of General Lee and Traveler, along with Stonewall Jackson being whisked off to a museum and the Right continues to debate the evils of Critical Race Theory, a theory I believe most have never studied…including me. CRT is a graduate school or law school course that has been around for some forty years and is beyond the scope of what is being taught in grade schools. Some people are confusing the truth about our checkered past for CRT. I notice the folks crying the loudest about General Lee are also crying the loudest against CRT. Maybe they aren’t confused at all.
These statues were erected to glorify men so gallantly in their Confederate gray or butternut. Many monuments were bought and paid for by the Daughters of the Confederacy. Statues bought and paid for by our grandmothers and great grandmothers can’t be bad, can they?
The problem is many were erected in the badly segregated South of the Jim Crow era, celebrating men who caused the deaths of so many and who brought havoc and destruction to the South. Erected by those who advanced a segregated society for another hundred years after the war. I find nothing to celebrate on this issue.
I believe there is much to celebrate about my Southern heritage. What I celebrate doesn’t increase the resentment associated with enslaved people bullied and beaten by gun bulls and patty rollers on tall horses. The enslaved whose present and futures were lorded over by Southern aristocrats whose propaganda led poor whites to their deaths on distant hillsides. Our heritage doesn’t have to involve a Battle Flag that flew over an army in the employ of a rebellious cluster of Southern states intent on keeping and expanding their “peculiar institution.” A “country” that only lasted for four years.
Is there nothing else we can celebrate regarding Southern Heritage? Is there nothing else to be proud of? Is there nothing more than flags flown from pickup trucks and belt buckles and bumper stickers proclaiming “Forget, Hell!!!!” Are we simply the sum of our rebellious past?
We have a rich culture that doesn’t have to harken back to “old times there are not forgotten.” If you are going to lionize the exploits of soldiers on a battlefield, why look past the Revolutionary War? More Revolutionary War battles were fought in my state than any other and some of the greatest military leaders of the war fought here. South Carolina born and bred, Sumter, Marion, Pickens, and Moultrie, along with adopted sons like Morgan, Greene, and Shelby left their mark, not only on my state but on the nation as a whole.
Wait just a “cotton pickin’ minute.” Weren’t some of these men slave owners? Yes, some were and despite this fact, we should neither purge them from history books nor should we discount their contributions. As some of my right-leaning friends have told me, “It’s history”. I agree, it is history and history should be taught warts and all. It shouldn’t be sanitized, nor should it be taught as propaganda like my eighth-grade Cold War Civics class. History is simply what was. We shouldn’t cover it up and we shouldn’t hide from it.
We have a rich Southern culture and heritage going back centuries despite our “peculiar institution” and resulting Jim Crow…let me rephrase that…” including our peculiar institution and resulting Jim Crow.” It’s history. We don’t need a flag or statues to worship under any more than we should deny the existence of mosquitoes and high humidity in our travel brochures. They are facts we can’t or should not attempt to escape. Facts are facts and history is history.
We have a rich and diverse heritage in my state alone. Gullah language and art from the coast to Appalachian culture in the mountains and foothills and to German Lutherans in the “Dutch Fork” middle. Native American tribal influences from the Catawba River, across to the Savannah, and down to Pee Dee just to mention a few. We have art, music, and literature that sprang from slaves and sharecroppers. Beautiful cities and small towns. Architecture, music, visual arts, cuisine, sports, a heritage that shouldn’t include praise for men enslaving other men or men who fought for them.
When I say “shouldn’t include” do I mean we should ignore it? Certainly not. We shouldn’t heap praise upon the heads of my long-ago, dearly departed great, great grandfathers for fighting under the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia. Whatever their motivation, they rebelled in the name of supporting slavery. If there was any honor in that flag it was lost when it was co-opted by the KKK and like minded white supremacists while we or our parents did nothing.
My grandfathers were poor men with little education. Maybe they bought the propaganda about the state’s rights that included the right to enslave. Maybe they believed in an unfair tariff that was placed on goods raised on the backs of the enslaved. Maybe they believed it was a War of Northern Aggression. I doubt they thought much past the surface. Wars are started by rich, old men and fought by young, poor ones. Still, they fought and died under the wrong banner and should not be memorialized or immortalized.
No, I’ll stick with being proud of a heritage that includes BB King from Mississippi singing the Blues, a Southern invention. I might sip a bit of Jack Daniels from Tennessee with a bit of Coca-Cola invented in Atlanta, Georgia. Maybe later I’ll select from a menu that includes Cajun or Creole food from Louisiana or BBQ from anywhere in the South or shrimp and grits, from my state. I’ve eaten enough Soul food to cause my arteries to collapse.
Afterward, I might go sit on my front porch, a Southern culture trait in itself, while smelling honeysuckle, jasmine, or gardenia with a Pat Conroy, Ace Atkins, or a James Lee Burke novel. All notable Southern authors who follow a lineage of fine Southern authors from Faulkner, Walker, O’Conner, and Williams to name just a few.
Depending on the season I might watch my favorite sports teams, The Braves from Atlanta, The Tigers from Clemson. I might catch a NASCAR event, a sport begun in the South that sprang from moonshiners and dirt track racers. We have a Southern heritage attached to our sports teams and college football is a recognized religion with an attending congregation in the millions on any given Saturday. Why can’t we Southerners be proud of that?
Again, and with fervor, my Southern Heritage doesn’t involve a battle flag or statues saluting dead Confederates. My Southern Heritage is too rich for that. My Southern heritage is about beautiful and historic homes and cities, sharecropper shanties, and Sears cottages. It’s about kudzu, cotton, and long-abandoned textile mills. It’s about old men, white and black, plowing behind a mule on the river bottoms.
It is about rich music from Nashville or Muscle Shoals and even richer food from New Orleans, Atlanta, or anywhere on the coast. It’s great literature that can be as heavy as Southern humidity or as light as the scent of Jasmine. My Southern heritage is about beautiful flower and vegetable gardens, and cotton fields bursting white in the fall. It is about sitting on the front porch with family and friends after church and a Sunday dinner.
My heritage is about friends and families of all races. It is about celebrating diversity.
If I haven’t turned you off, further works by Don Miller may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0A3XCeFAUGkHotYyrBgt6V-v3Rl-6mVzt2hmVK3o_4rtITkiH874sjYQs
Image of Lee’s statue by Paul Mayer, Office of the Mayor, Washington, DC.