Owning the past

The whole mess with Paula Deen has me thinking about a lot of people I knew when I lived in the South.  Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia were all places I spent a lot of time.  And the more I think about it, the more I think the image problem the South has in regards to much of the rest of the country (and even the world, to some extent) is this:

The South (as a region) still hasn’t come to grips with slavery, even now, some 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.  Collectively, the South thinks that it has, but really it hasn’t.  I am saying this as someone who was born there and lived there for decades who also happens to be a specialist in the area of 19th century American history.

You can’t really own history without owning all of it.  You can’t pick and choose, like it was a salad  bar, because events are all interwoven together.  The highly idealized stereotypical vision of the antebellum South (moonlight & magnolias, belles & beaus, mint juleps, etc.) as many white Southerners see it was only possible because of slavery.  And if you think that isn’t true, you probably haven’t read a lot about American history.  I don’t see how people can, with any sort of intellectual honesty, pretend that white Southerners have every right to remain embittered over losing the Civil War while also believing that black Southerners have no right whatsoever to still be mad about 250 years of bondage (not to mention another 100+ years of Jim Crow afterward). They are connected, regardless of what you might think or may have learned.

I could not possibly count the number of white Southerners I have known in my life who probably think, in all honesty, that they are not racist.  But in truth, the idea many of them have in their heads of “not a racist” is pretty limited, I think.  You don’t have to be an outspoken, burn-crosses-on-the-lawn, pointy-hat-wearing Klansman to be a racist.  Racism can often be subtle, and sadly it affects all of us in ways many of us don’t even realize.  I saw it as a child, when a black family moved in two doors down from us.  Even now I can remember the horrible way they were treated by some of my parents’ neighbors and by other kids in my neighborhood.

Anyway, it’s not often that Southerners Paula Deen’s age have a late-in-life epiphany about racism (many have them WAY earlier, thank God), and from her perspective I am sure that it’s absolutely horrifying that hers is taking place in the national media.  But it seems to me that she knew, she had to know, that these things she said and did were wrong.  But she refused to acknowledge it, or confront it, and so she did nothing about it until it was all public, out in the open for all to see.  And she has no one to blame for that but herself.   Think I’m wrong?  Read the court documentsThen try to defend her.

And honestly, I would be willing to bet that the kind of person who thinks that the Supreme Court did right with its ruling on the Voting Rights Act is the same kind of person who thinks racism is dead.  The sort of people that want to believe that racism ended when Barack Obama was elected President, as if afterward every hateful Klansman, every Neo-Nazi  and white nationalist, and every angry old Archie Bunker-esque white man all just threw up their hands and said “oh, well, racism is dead, time to take up a new hobby.  I hear knitting is kind of cool.”  Come on.  Don’t be naive, or worse, willfully ignorant.  We as a country still have a long way to go, and that is still true in spades for the South.

-Geoff

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