I grew up whistling Dixie. Literally. It was one of the first songs my daddy taught me, and I liked it. A third-culture kid growing up in British Commonwealth countries, it gave me a connection to my home state of Louisiana. It evoked images of grand plantation homes like Tara in Gone with the Wind, as well as more humble memories of my grandparents’ farm in the rural South. More than anything, though, I just liked the tune.
While many of my ancestors fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, I never thought they were fighting for slavery. Most of my people were country folk, and while segregation was common, we weren’t taught to hate colored people. In fact, my dad told stories of earning some pocket money as a kid by picking cotton alongside African-Americans. He never claimed to be better than they were. There was social separation, yes, but overt racism, no.
Fast forward to my college years, after my return to the United States, and I began to see things differently. We were told to lock our car doors if we were going through the “dark” side of town. When an African-American (male) friend gave me a ride back to Houston late one night, someone told me that I could have put myself in danger by riding with a black man because someone might see that and I “might get shot.” I couldn’t believe it.
At the same time as I was coming to grasp with the reality of racism in the U.S., however, I also saw groups of black college students congregating together on the steps of the student center, without any white students. I pondered this, wondering why African-Americans would fight so hard for desegregation and then separate themselves out.
Later, I figured out that “social separation” was not always forced, but just a matter of cultural differences; or it was easier for some people to do than the hard work of trying to build bridges. I was fortunate to have friends of many races, cultures and backgrounds, but that wasn’t the case for most people. Most people, I learned, gravitate toward others who are most like themselves.
Over the years, I have learned a lot about the differences between North and South, especially with regards to race relations. I can speak with more authority now that I have spent time in cities across the country, and have a child who is of a different race. Up until this year, she has been in Title 1 schools where Caucasians were a small minority. That has given me perspective as well.
While cities across the South are tearing down their Confederate monuments, the truth of the matter is that racism is not a Southern thing (nor just an American thing, for that matter). It is alive and well in the North, even if it’s not out in the open. Some of the most virulent racists I have ever met have been from Northern states. “Social separation” doesn’t begin to describe the hatred for minorities that filled their hearts.
To white people who would say that prejudice works both ways, yes it does. When my daughter is ridiculed at school for having a white mom, I feel it. And yet, when I make the effort to break down those barriers, and those kids and their parents realize that I’m okay with their ethnicity, any tension that might have been there is immediately erased.
Most African Americans sporting Black Lives Matter t-shirts aren’t violent BLM activists. After decades of incidents like the beating of Rodney King, and statistics showing that blacks are more likely to be killed by police, they are genuinely afraid of white people in authority. Just like Rosa Parks determined that she had a right to a public bus seat, many minorities feel they must continue to speak up for their rights to have a place in American society. Just as white people are frequently told to stay out of black neighborhoods, for fear of violent acts towards them, so black people and other minorities are told to be cautious when passing through all-white communities.
It is a sad statement on American society that we live in so much fear of one another. It is also sad, however, that we feel the need to erase the past in order to move beyond it. The violent protest by white supremacist groups over the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, shows that historical monuments hold significance for some groups.
The very fact that those monuments are now creating a rallying point for hate groups may be a good reason to take them down…or not. I think it’s up to each local community to decide which monuments to keep and which to remove. Yet, I hope that any tearing down can be done peacefully and respectfully; for only when we respect our history can we learn from it. After all, the bigger issue is not really about the statues themselves, is it? It’s about who we are and what we stand for, and that is a lot more evident in our everyday lives than in monuments of people from the past.
I will always be from the Land of Cotton and have no regrets about my Confederate heritage. Out of it has come a tradition of Southern hospitality and respect for others, including those of color. But today, I will say a virtual goodbye to Dixie and hope that the Confederate flag will wave only in museums, rather than being waved by people whose mission it is to hate. Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.