The current upheaval over the treatment of Black people in America has stimulated some troubling memories and questions for me. I’m sure I’m not alone.
First, some history. It’s usually good to start at the beginning. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. One of the local “jokes” was that Memphis was actually part of Mississippi. This meant that the “culture” of Memphis, particularly race-related, was more like Mississippi than Tennessee. Tennessee had actually been “two states” during the Civil War, with the eastern part, heavily mountainous and not connected to the cotton-focused agrarian economy of the Deep South, aligned with the “north.”
In Memphis, it was often said that “cotton is king.” Indeed, situated on the mighty Mississippi River, Memphis at that time was a major depot for shipping of cotton delivered mainly from points south. One of the highlights of life in those days was the Cotton Carnival, a huge citywide series of fancy-dress balls, a large parade, selection of a King and Queen and various princesses plus other events celebrating the cotton that sustained the local economy. The reality that the cotton-based economy had developed on the backs of Black slaves was not much mentioned or considered. It simply wasn’t “relevant.”
The history of the Cotton Carnival, started in 1931 and now called Carnival Memphis, can be seen at https://carnivalmemphis.org/carnival-history/ including a brief but revealing video montage of the Cotton Carnival parade and this strange photo:
At the time, I did not know the origin of the “cotton is king” mythology but, come to find out, it originated, not surprisingly, with a South Carolina pro-slavery politician (owned 300), James Henry Hammond, who made a speech in 1858, declaring that,
In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. … It constitutes the very mudsill of society …. You dare not make war on cotton — no power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is king.
https://bit.ly/3fKWzbG That, of course, turned out to be quite wrong a few years later. If you choose to read Hammond’s story in Wikipedia, brace yourself as he is reported to have been, among other things, a serial rapist, a fact that did not prevent his being elected to the U.S. Senate.
Most of the young boys I grew up with were overt racists. The n-word was used in normal conversation to refer to all Black people. These boys thought all Black people were ignorant, dirty, untrustworthy and dangerous. I seriously doubt, however, that any of them actually knew any Black people, except possibly in their role as maids or people who performed menial tasks for their parents. For reasons I still cannot explain, I was the odd- man-out in this racially problematic environment. This was partly because I did know two Black people, one a Black man who worked in my father’s carpet business and the other was Beanie, my grandmother’s maid/housekeeper/cook/attendant. Both of these people were naturally kind, among the best people I have ever known.
I am still bothered by an incident involving Beanie. When I returned to Memphis from college at Christmas holiday time my freshman year, it was expected that Beanie would prepare all my favorite foods for a true feast at my grandmother’s place. Beanie was an extraordinary cook. When it was time for Beanie finally to go home, I insisted on driving her. She reluctantly agreed but insisted on sitting in the back seat. When I pressed for an explanation, she said it would be trouble for her if she were seen in her neighborhood driving in the front seat with a white man. Such were the wages of our sins.
The hostility of whites to Black people, and Black people’s apparent acceptance of that reality, made no sense to me. As a non-practicing Jewish person, I was acutely aware of the oft-heard theme in my family and elsewhere that Jews were the subject of class discrimination, placing them below other white people but above Black people in the social/economic hierarchy. That discrimination didn’t make sense either and felt like a constant wounding. I could not understand what these considerations (being Black or Jewish) had to do with anything important, with what kind of person you were.
In any case, I think my personal interactions with Black people from a very early age likely shaped my thinking and left me “out” of the typical racial attitudes held by my friends. Whenever the subject came up, which was rare, and I asked, “why do you hate Negroes,” no one could ever answer coherently. They just did. They thought it was obvious why they should fear and hate them. And it was not a question they thought was important. It was just how things were.
One of the consequences of my upbringing in this environment was that I “identified” as “southern.” Questions of “identity” as such did not come up in those days, of course, but it was clear to me that I was “southern.” When fate delivered me to Yale University in 1960 in New Haven, CT, the “southern” contingent found its members quickly and during early and long nights in Vanderbilt Hall on the Old Campus quadrangle, students would sometimes open their windows to shout. It was common for someone to scream “I am not a number” and slam his window. A contest of sorts emerged and we “southern” boys met the “Yankees” singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic with robust renditions of Dixie.
This exchange wasn’t about race; there were few Black students in that class, and I don’t believe anyone thought of it as a racial thing. It was just “who we were.” We missed home and this was a way, I suspect, of proclaiming that. We didn’t much think about the complex and troubled history of the key words:
I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten,
In Dixie Land where I was born in, early on a frosty mornin’,
Then I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie….
See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dixie_(song) for more on that. Looking back, however, it is horrifying and shameful that we were so ignorant about this subject. The words of the song are prescient because those who still believe in it are stuck in what they imagine are the “old times” and happily proclaim their willingness to “take my stand to live and die in Dixie.” The question is, stand for what?
Fast forward a full lifetime in which I have been blessed to, among other things, have traveled the world and interacted with people from many cultures, some quite alien to our own. From those experiences I came away with one major impression – ordinary people everywhere want pretty much the same things: an opportunity for personal development and security from want. In short, they desire personal freedom, the chance to grow, to have a family, to get an education. Everywhere I went, it was the same.
Fast forward again. The United States is torn apart by the realization by many, almost certainly the majority, that something is fundamentally wrong with our society. While Donald Trump is not responsible for this condition, he has sponsored, promoted and encouraged division from the very first moment of his presidency. The reality is that he is playing on something that already existed. It took the murder of a Black man by police, one of many such events over many years, to once again shatter the veneer that has enabled American society to overlook this gaping hole in our history and in our national morality.
One of the many consequences is the movement to take down the symbols of our hateful past – the statues, the paintings, the flags and other indications of our troubled history. The central question now, at long last though not for the first time, is “what does it mean to be an American?”
That question is really one of identity. What symbols do you identify with? And why?
While enjoying the light breeze in Central Park Sunday morning, my wife observed that there were many statues in the Park whose provenance she did not know. I thought, that’s pretty normal; many of these things we “see” but do not really think about unless we have a particular reason to observe more closely. These are in a sense failed symbols most of the time. Even tourists often don’t pay attention; these symbols are no different to our conscious minds than the trees and rock formations that cover the Park.
But there are some such symbols that we do notice. In our case a good example was the Confederate soldier statue that, until recently, stood in the middle of the intersection of South Washington Street and Prince Street in Alexandria, VA where we lived for many years. I suspect that we were conscious of it because of its peculiar location that forced you to veer slightly around it when driving north on Prince. We often wondered aloud why the statue was still there in what had become a politically liberal community.
The many proposals to remove these symbols of the Confederacy have sparked a fierce reaction among many Americans who claim that these monuments are not symbols of racism but are only reflective of their “heritage” and their “history.” These are puzzling claims.
It is 2020. Americans are still arguing that statues of Confederate soldiers who fought against the country in order to preserve the system of slavery – the ownership of one person by another in which the slave was forced to provide free labor to enrich the other – on which the economy of the south had been based are related in some way to their current conception of themselves.
The question that puzzles me about this is: why would anyone in 2020 see his identity as tied to the “heritage” of slavery and treason against the country? The Confederacy lost the Civil War. Why are so many people attached to the iconography of a defeated political entity? Americans typically do not think of themselves as “losers.” Most astute observers agree that the Vietnam War was lost, but even then, many Americans refused to accept the idea that America “lost” a fight.
Why then do so many Americans reimagine the Civil War as a conflict over “states’ rights” when the main, if not only, “states right” at issue was the power of people to own other people for the purpose of extracting free labor from them? These folks are not going around regularly pondering the complex relationship between the federal and state governments or how that relationship is affected by the structure and language of the Constitution.
There are many options available for building an identity, but these people are passionate, sometimes to the point of violence, that these symbols reflect who they really are.
I strongly suspect that the Confederacy identifiers’ actual knowledge about the conditions that led to the Civil War, and its aftermath is shallow at best and for most it is just a set of simplistic and false ideas about what happened and why. And I am even more convinced that they have blocked out, if they ever knew it, the history of what happened after the war and that continued until at least the mid-1950s, sanctioned by the Supreme Court throughout.
I recall that in my own eighth grade American History class, our teacher informed us that in our reading and discussion of the Civil War there was to be no mention of slavery. That was not, she said, what the war was about and therefore we were to avoid the subject. Instead, we spent our time memorizing the names and dates of major battles.
That was in the 1950’s, of course, more than a half-century ago. While I hope that educators today are more informed than that, the truth is I don’t really know what is taught to children these days. Maybe that is part of the answer to my question.
But I suspect there is something else, something deeper, at work and I think it’s just plain racism. I just saw a video on Twitter of a white woman sitting in the back of a pickup truck covered in Confederate flags. She is holding a large such flag and shouting at someone off-camera: “I will teach my grandkids to hate you all,” as she drapes herself in the flag, raises a fist and says “KKK.”
This is not a unique event. Huge swaths of Americans are in thrall of Donald Trump’s overtly racist policies. Neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville chanting Nazi slogans and Trump said there were “fine people [pause] on both sides.” Trump has facilitated the public emergence of an overtly racist class of Americans who are attracted to his idea that America was once “great” and that he will make it “great again.” It is these same people who identify with the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate soldiers and politicians who tried to destroy the country and waged war that killed 750,000 men in arms and an untold number of “civilians.”
Racism seems to be the only unifying principle behind all this. The virulent response to the removal of statuary that, bizarrely, sits in, among other places, the hallowed halls of Congress cannot be explained by anything else. The “history” and “heritage” represented by the Confederate flag and monuments of traitors who fought against the country so they could retain the slavery system is the concept at the heart of racism historically: that Black people are a subordinate and inferior people whose biological destiny is to be under the heel of the superior white race. There is much scholarship on this history, including recently Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, the documented revelations in which will stun you.
If it’s not racism, what could it be? Adherence to a mythology that conflicts with the very “idea of America,” the notion of American “exceptionalism” on which we have for so long rested our moral-superiority hats, must have a powerful source. If you stood up at a meeting and announced only that, “I want to be identified with losers, people who identify with a vile ideology from the distant past,” most people would think you had a screw loose. But if the meeting were in rural West Virginia or South Carolina and you then broke into Dixie, it’s likely most of the people there would immediately understand and rise to join you in the chorus: In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.
Good old times are not forgotten.