Sunday, September 8, 2013

We Need to Talk About the South.

Look, I know I just posted about being back in Jersey and dressing up in lingerie and throwing toilet paper at a movie screen, but I do need to backtrack. There are some photos and thoughts I've been sitting on, and would probably like to sit on forever.

My trip South was largely relaxing, and I found the things that attract me... anywhere on earth. All I need in this life are cheap burritos, craft supplies, second-hand books, and a $2 beer now and again. For goodness's sake, I found cafes and book shops and thrift stores and poetry readings in Cape Town, South Africa. That city lends its unique flavor to every happening on its cobblestone streets, and yet, there it was: gritty youth hipster culture, or whatever you want to call it.

During the week I spent in the South, I could have disappeared into the coffee shops and dive bars and second-hand shops. It seemed to me that the folks who live in hip neighborhoods are all transplants--they barely had accents I could detect.

But I got out a little, and took a trip to Stone Mountain Park.

Nature walks, over-priced concessions stands, information about wild life, a preserved grist mill... and trails and halls with monuments to the Confederate states in the American Civil War.

I am from New Jersey, and I have lived in Wisconsin. This was a rude awakening to me: a pro-Confederacy tour of American history that I had never been exposed to before.

Here are some pictures I took last week, with the aim of making fun of them on my blog. Snarky captions came to me instantly as I framed the shots, and man, was I impressed with myself.

STOP Robert E. Lee? I agree, he should be stopped. Oh wait...

And the South will rise again! In the mean time, it can prevent sand from getting in my bumhole.
Hahaha, right? So clever. And now I get to walk away from a sight that makes me uncomfortable, and feel like somehow I dealt with it. I mocked it. And then I go back to my life in the North, where I was raised and educated, and people who disagree with me about what these pictures mean can go back to their own realities...

How unproductive.

I use humor to defuse uncomfortable situations. (As most awkward kids who went through hell in middle school will tell you.) In small social settings, this is a pretty nifty tool.

But it's also a crutch when trying to tackle something larger than a minor case of social awkwardness. Larger than yourself (by which I mean "myself.")

So what do we do about this, as Americans? (I'm going to spoil this whole post right now and say: I don't know what the answer is. I am writing this post last, because I am truly stuck, intellectually and morally.)

Thus far, we continue to live in our own individual echo chambers, where everyone around us agrees with us, and amplifies the pitch at which we affirm our own ideals.

And we stay separate. Maybe for the rest of our lifetimes--or until something really explosive or unavoidable happens.

Here is what I mean: While I've been in the Northern US (or out of the country entirely), Stone Mountain Park in Georgia continued to welcome tourists and locals through its gates. You can guide yourself through a tour of monuments--one to each state of the Confederacy, with fun facts about its heroes and contributions to the Civil War. Visitors learn about discerning statesmen and passionate advocates for states' rights and property. We don't see mentions of the Ku Klux Klan, or even, oddly enough, "slavery." "Property" is a big theme, and there's even an Antebellum Plantation section you can walk through/shop at.

But what keeps the plantation running? Why are there goods for purchase? Where's that engine of the South, the laborers?

Conspicuously, nauseatingly absent.

Check out these landmarks:

President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. This carving is bigger than Mount Rushmore, you guys!

The people of Mississippi viewed Republican victories in the 1860 election a threat to their rights and property.

Here's a notable/quotable about standing up for what you believe in:

This explanation of Civil war history could not be more alien to me. Though I see it now as problematic and reductive, I was taught that the Civil War was fought over human slavery. From the get-go, there were editorial and moralizing undertones to how the facts about battles and generals were presented: Clearly slavery is wrong. The North was destined to win. Lincoln was a hero. And so on.

Safe to say, I did not get a nuanced introduction to the American Civil War. It's still shocking that a less-than-nuanced view is taught south of Mason-Dixon... it's just the mirror image of the tainted history I was given.

I am now going to use my Philosophy minor and say that: largely due to technological advances, we live in a fragmented society. I can get and share information on platforms specifically geared to me and people who think like me. I can have my beliefs reaffirmed on a never-ending cycle.

I'll use myself as an example: Even if I live physically next door to someone who doesn't agree with me (oh, let's say, about how appropriate it is to hang a Confederate flag on one's house or car), I can wake up in the morning and check my Facebook updates from friends I made in college, at a 4-year liberal arts school in Wisconsin. For argument's sake, let's say they all agree with me. (Because with Facebook, I can hide updates from people I don't want to see, yet still be "friends" with them. I do in fact do this sometimes. Guilty!) I get in my car and stream a podcast by a young, hip, white, middle class artsy professional. Yeah, they agree with me, too. I go to my nonprofit job. All do-gooders and social justice advocates there! I shop for groceries at a crunchy granola health food store. I stream a documentary on Netflix, that was suggested to me because of other films I watched and liked. I go to bed. I start the whole day all over again.

I'm taking this to an extreme here, because for me, personally, I take a lot of pride in avoiding this scenario. I was raised in a household with political ideals I did not adopt and do not believe in now. I grew up, and now live in, one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the U.S. My hometown is unusually economically diverse, according to the most recent US Census. I made friends in college with views I didn't hold myself. And on and on.

It could so easily go down another way.

And this is where I have thought myself into a corner. I don't want to live in a bubble. Bubble bad. So I walked through a memorial park to the Sons of the South, or whatever that was. (UGH LAURA STOP BEING SARCASTIC!) And it felt uncomfortable, and I fought myself the entire way just to keep going, and not to dismiss things with my bad NJ punk rock attitude.

Now what?

As it stands, like-minded lefties like me could stay in our hip hoods. It's easy enough to do.

We're a segregated nation--intellectually, morally, and economically, ON OUR BEST DAYS. (We're still racially segregated too, by the way. Ask me about going to university in downtown Milwaukee.)

Now I'm back North. I've seen another world. And... I don't know where I go from here.

If you feel that you can post suggestions, respectfully, in the Comments section, please do so.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, I saw this on Facebook and wanted to comment because I thought it was well-written and a familiar situation. That being said, I can't say that I have any good suggestions...
    When more of my dad's family was alive, we would visit them in Appalachia once every couple of years and it really was a different world, where portraits of ancestors in the Confederate army were proudly displayed and Grandma expected you to grow up a Democrat, but not THAT kind of Democrat. In school I was taught that Confederacy=Evil, so I remember asking a relative about those photos, and they basically said, "Why shouldn't we be proud of what our family contributed to this area? Are we not allowed to have that?" I sympathize with that, but I also think that the South has plenty to offer and some of the residual Confederacy pride is a little disturbing. I guess my dad came from a different kind of bubble, one in which you might not meet a person of color until you're 16 and you're pretty sure that your Northern relatives think they're better than you. Travelling helps, right?