A Southern Shame: A White Southerner’s Take on Race, Charlottesville, and Confederate Monuments
I am a white male born and raised in South Carolina. Over the years, I have left my home state many times, travelling far and wide from my Southern roots. I have driven the length of this country by car several times. I have stood in awe at the edge of the Grand Canyon and stared with wonder at the Rocky Mountains. I’ve fallen in love with the West Coast, with San Francisco and Seattle, cities so different from my home in Charleston. I’ve travelled to such disparate, far-flung places as Kenya, The Netherlands, and Thailand. The American South, however, remains my home, the place I keep returning to, the landscapes and faces I will always love.
The South is not an easy place to love, however. Not when white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members, and self-professed Nazis march the streets of Charlottesville. Not when a simple trip to my local beach brings me face-to-face with The South Carolina Secessionist Party, proudly waving Confederate battle flags. Not when a statue of John C. Calhoun, one of the most vocal defenders of slavery in American history, overlooks one of my city’s major parks. Not when a young white supremacist can walk into a black church and murder 9 innocent people who welcomed him with open arms into their Wednesday night Bible study.
Racism is an infection that plagues our entire country, yet the South is where you will find the original wound, still bloody and unhealed.
As much as I would like to imagine that I have nothing to do with that wound, no connection to that history, I know the truth is something different.
Many years ago, I learned at a family reunion that I am related to men who fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. This revelation couldn’t have been further removed from the beliefs I held, from the principles of equality and justice by which I wanted to live my life. At the time, I was a budding campus activist, particularly passionate about anti-racism organizing. In those days at the College of Charleston, I was working on a minor in African American Studies and was showing up to every single multicultural dialogue and diversity event my college offered.
I did not know how to process the news that I shared blood with men who fought and died for the Confederate States of America. I didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want to be related to men who supported the political goals of the Confederacy, which were (make no mistake about it) the preservation of the institution of slavery and the systematic dehumanization of black people for the purposes of profiting off their unpaid labor. To share any genetic connection with such men filled with me embarrassment and a sickening sense of shame.
I did not want any of this to be true, and yet it was.
If you are a white Southerner reading this, your ancestors might not have been involved in the Civil War. Your family might not have owned slaves. Your grandparents may have arrived in the South long after slavery was abolished. But like me, there are some hard questions you must ask yourself these days.
Why are so many public parks, city halls, and state houses throughout the South littered with monuments to the Confederacy?
Why are there statues dedicated to men who rebelled against the United States of America, to generals who fought to maintain the right to own other human beings?
What does it say about us, as white Southerners, that these are the symbols most closely associated these days with the concept of “Southern heritage”?
Of course, the Confederacy and its racist legacy does not solely define the South nor its incredibly rich contributions to the cultural fabric of America. Try imagining, for instance, American music without the talents of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, or Johnny Cash, without the blues of Mississippi, the twang of Nashville, or the second line stomp of New Orleans. Try imagining the culinary landscape of America without collard greens, barbeque, gumbo, grits, sweet tea, or banana pudding. Try imagining the natural beauty of this nation without the Charleston lowcountry, without the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains, without the mighty Mississippi river.
These are all things of which Southerners can be genuinely proud. And yet, whenever the concept of “Southern pride” is invoked these days, it always seems to be coming from the mouths of men whose white faces have grown red with rage, angrily waving their rebel flags in the air. After all, it was the potential removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee that brought together in Charlottesville that unholy union of Neo-Nazis, Klan members, white supremacists, and self-avowed fascists.
Here’s another hard question.
What are we, as white Southerners, going to do about this?
On the one hand, we can continue to carry on as usual. We can believe, as 21st Century modern Americans, that we had nothing to do with slavery, nothing to do with Jim Crow, nothing to do with segregation. We can pat ourselves on the back for having a black friend or two. We can act surprised when yet another police officer murders a black person in broad daylight and faces no repercussions. We can get defensive when people of color bring up their experiences with discrimination. We can criticize Colin Kaepernick for kneeling. We can criticize Black Lives Matter for blocking traffic. We can say we don’t see color. We can keep doing nothing.
We could boldly declare that white supremacy is no longer tolerated in the United States of America.
We could take a long, hard look at the history of the Civil War and affirm – once and for all – that the Confederacy and all those who fought for it were on the wrong side of history.
We could genuinely listen to people of color when they tell us about their experiences with racism and not misinterpret their truths as an attack on us as white people.
We could become advocates for policies and programs designed to counter centuries-old racial disparities in employment, housing, education, law enforcement, and so many other facets of American life.
We could stop standing idly by while innocent black men and women are murdered and their killers walk free.
We could take down the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville.
We could take down the statue of John C. Calhoun in Charleston.
We could stop glorifying racists in our public parks and state houses.
We could stop voting for racists in the White House.
I am not ashamed to be a Southerner, but I am ashamed of the racism that continues to fill our city streets, that continues to define our politics, that continues to impoverish communities of color throughout the South.
It is a hard question, but one we must answer:
What are we, as white Southerners, going to do about racism?