Sunday, July 6, 2008

Southern Culture On The Skids, Part I

Apologies and Excuses
I'm not doing very well on keeping up with my Monday and Thursday schedule so far. My first two posts went up after midnight, one of them was a reprint of an article I'd posted elsewhere, and I missed my last posting date entirely. You're probably not interested in excuses, especially excuses that include shameless self promotion, but I'll give them anyway. In the past week, I've put the finishing touches on the Hex Games web site, helped oversee the release and marketing for Weird Times at Charles Fort High, started a new job, and helped prepare for the big 4th of July celebration that my parents host every year. I'm already posting Monday's blog earlier than normal, and I've got a feeling it will be long enough to make up for the missed post on Thursday, so hopefully that's a sign I'll do better in the future. Now on with the show.

My Confederate Flag
When I was in college, I helped a friend of mine (a Chinese American named Joseph Yeh, sadly no longer with us) move. At some point during the process, Joseph picked up a box, pulled a Confederate battle flag out of it, and handed it to me. "Here, you're a redneck. You should take this," he said. Joseph considered me a redneck (in a more or less joking way, I hope) because I was from a small town, liked country music, and (at that time) still spoke with a bit of a twang from time to time.

I'm not really sure where, why, or how Joseph got the flag, but I took it back to my dorm room and hung it on the wall, and it's stayed a constant part of my home decor ever since. At first I hung the flag was mostly ironic, but at some point I started to self-identify as a Southerner and the flag actually became a symbol of heritage for me. This was a little weird, since I'd spent high school dreaming of escaping my rural hometown and most of college trying to hide my redneck roots.

I'm not exactly sure where my inexplicable Southern pride came from, but I have a few theories. I think it really got started with a Civil War history class whose reading list included Michael Shaara's book,The Killer Angels. This book (which, from what I understand, is also the inspiration of my favorite TV show, Firefly) presents the battle of Gettysburg from the viewpoint of the men who fought there and is based heavily on person diaries, letters, and other primary source materials.

Of all the great men whose stories are told in The Killer Angels, none fascinated me more than Robert E. Lee. Although Lee did not own slaves or even agree with succession, he chose to resign from the Union army (which he had been offered command of) and fight for (and in fact lead, in a way Jefferson Davis never could) the Confederacy because he was first and foremost a Virginian. This very Jeffersonian reasoning appealed to me immediately, and as I learned more about Lee I began to realize (or perhaps more correctly, finally accept) that there was a lot more to the South than stupidity and hate.

Another thing that helped me "come out of the closet" as a Southerner was actually spending time in northern cities and began to notice the subtle difference in culture and behavior. A friend of mine verbalized this perfectly when he wrote about how many of the things that people in Columbus, Ohio (where he lived for several years) considered "Southern food" were things he had grown up thinking of merely as "food." In the same vein, Yankees just don't have the proper respect for Elvis. While those of us from the South enjoy poking fun at Elvis and his fans as much as anyone, at the end of the day we realize that he's still The King. Northerners just don't seem to get it.

Despite my burgeoning Southern pride and the Confederate battle flag I've carried around for a decade and a half, you'll never see wearing a rebel flag on a T-shirt, getting it tattooed on my body, or sticking it in bumper sticker form on my car. I realize that many people see the flag as a symbol of hate and bigotry, and in fact my usual assumption when I see the flag displayed in public is that the person displaying it is probably an ignorant racist redneck. That may seem strange, but it's true.

Speaking of Rednecks...
There is a well-worn white trash migration route that runs from Kentucky to Florida. Not surprisingly, many members of may family have traveled it at one time or another. The most recent was my cousin's son, Josh, who arrived back in Kentucky about two weeks after I (quite involuntarily) moved back to Mayberry (as I like to call this little corner of Western Ky.). When he got to town, he had a Confederate battle flag flying from the back of his truck.

Ever since he got here, various family members have been telling Josh that he needs to get rid of the flag before he gets his ass kicked, but so far he hasn't listened. I'd never met Josh before he moved back, and haven't really talked to him about why he was driving around with the Confederate Flag hanging planted in his truck bed, but I assumed that it had more to do with being young, misguided, and somewhat uneducated (he dropped out of high school) than active racism. That is, until today.

My brother, who is a volunteer fireman and former ambulance service director, usually keeps the scanner at his house turned on, and last night he heard the police commenting about a truck that kept cruising a particular apartment complex (where many of the town's few African-American residents happen to live). When one of the officers said "He doesn't have the flag this time," my brother knew it had to be Josh. Eventually, the officer commented that "he's learned the error of his ways." We assume that Josh was ticked for disturbing the peace or something similar, but have yet to confirm the actual charge.

Normally I'd be defending Josh's right to freedom of expression, but in this case I think I have to side with the police. I'm not sure if driving through a black neighborhood (or at least the closest thing we have to one) flying a Confederate battle flag is the same as shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, but there seem to be some similarities. Josh wasn't expressing anything, just causing trouble.

For Further Reading
As those of you who've read some of my old Death Cookie stuff known, synchronicity has a tendency of rearing it's ugly head whenever I start ruminating on all things Southern. So I wasn't terribly surprised to see this article (responding to this article) as I went through the archives of a blog I've been reading lately. I've got things to say about both articles, but I think it's best to save them for next time.
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