sunset - south georgia - kathy gill

Two months ago, I phoned my husband while driving through southwest Georgia’s red clay fields and tree-lined hills.

“Remind me why I don’t want to live here,” I choked, eyes watered. “I mean, I know I don’t want to live here, but the pull of the land…” I couldn’t continue.

“Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”
~ Gerald O’Hara, Gone With The Wind, 1936

My mother instilled this message long before I read GWTW. And I read the book long before I saw the movie. That was, after all, long before VCRs and DVDs.

“The land” of my mother represented a rootedness that did not jibe with my desire to get away. I left for college with the (unarticulated) goal of never seeing a farm or farmer again … yet I would get a master’s degree in agricultural economics and then work for a northeastern dairy cooperative.

Nevertheless, I had flown the coop.

After moving to the Pacific Northwest, I swore I’d not return during the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day. (Those days of white shoes, burning sun and sweltering humidity.)

BBQ Joint - Photo by Kathy GillVisits to southwest Georgia revolve around end-of-year holidays, family reunions, and the occasional wedding/anniversary. They are marked by cultural touchstones: a Waffle House breakfast, boiled peanuts, fried catfish, sweet tea, camellias in bloom (if I’m lucky). Coca-Cola, with its high sugar load, is a treat of the past.

As I have aged, each visit has become a little more painful due to the troubling words that wash over me from the mouths of relatives and neighbors and friends.

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
~ George Webber, You Can’t Go Home Again, 1940

The changes on display in the South do not seem to be those of progression but rather of regression. For example, when I was in the eighth grade, we had a girl’s-only sex ed class. I cannot image such a thing in today’s political climate.

Today’s South seems more evangelical, more enamored with a glorified past, less open to opposing views. People do not seem to hear the bigotry sprinkled throughout their speech. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, since oral history was the only post-Civil War regional history that we were taught. Just as a fish is not aware of the water that surrounds it, we unconsciously absorb and integrate cultural messages. One of those messages was that the symbols of the Confederacy were to be venerated.

Not too long after I had become part of a community of motorcyclists who like good food and spirited debate, I got into an argument about the reasons for the Civil War. It was not slavery, I insisted, but northern industrialization that was subsidized by tax dollars.

I was wrong.

I didn’t know that Alexander Stevens, Confederate States of America vice president and 50th Georgia governor said this, to applause:

“Our new government is founded upon … the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”

Nor had I learned in school that the Confederate flag bandied about today is a 20th century fabrication, as well as the chosen symbol of the KKK [1]. Come to think, that ugly symbol of hate seems far more routinely displayed today than when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
~ The Life of Reason, Santayana, 1905

SC flagsterPerhaps this lack of contextual history can explain South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s flip-flops on the Confederate flag flying at the capitol.

The first generation American daughter of Indian immigrants was born and reared in South Carolina. Somehow – I’m not sure how – she thinks that her election “fixed” the historical racism that South Carolinians have exhibited towards black Americans.

Moreover, in an election debate last fall, she quipped:

“What I can tell you is over the last 3½ years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”

It seems impossible that she could speak those words if she knew of the political hay that has been made with the Confederate flag. Dixiecrats nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond as a candidate for the presidency after the 1948 national Democratic convention, where the Confederate Battle Flag waved boldly. Afterwards, “[s]ales of Confederate flags, long moribund, exploded.”

It was not until 1961, on the 100th anniversary of South Carolina triggering the Civil War when it attacked Fort Sumter, that the Confederate flag would begin flying above the S.C. state Capitol.

In-between those two events: Brown v The Board of Education.

Confederate Battle Flag, NPSThis very flag, the Battle Flag, flew over “an army raised to kill in defense of slavery.” It was “revived by a movement that killed in defense of segregation.” And last week, a modern version was “flaunted by a man who killed nine innocents in defense of white supremacy,” Yoni Appelbaum wrote in The Atlantic.

On Monday, bowing to national outrage, Governor Haley told the S.C. legislature that she wants the flag to come down. That will require a two-thirds vote. Note that demands like this one do not have a great track record when it comes to future political livelihood.

But come down it must.

And all vestiges of the Confederacy must be excised from my home state flag as well.

The Confederate Battle Flag became a central part of Georgia’s state flag in 1956. And what was happening then? Outrage at the Brown decision and desegregation.

I suddenly have a better understanding of why this historical information is as foreign to me as Mars: my education was hobbled by current events.

In 1970, my parents sent me to a private school rather than have me bussed to Albany’s all-black high school. My parents had built their home 16 years earlier, but it was swept into the city’s controversial desegregation plan (less than one city block on the “wrong” side of the line).

In 2003, Georgia’s citizens approved a new flag design that substituted the original and lesser known flag of the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars, for the Battle Flag. Although it does not carry the emotional punch of the Battle Flag, it remains a conscious tentacle to a past marred by slavery.

Can you imagine a German municipality deciding to create a new flag that incorporated a swastika as its centerpiece? Me, either. So why do we whitewash our own tributes to hate? And willfully fail to acknowledge them?

***

I’m left wondering about my heartstrings.

Yes, April was an emotional period: my dad was in the hospital after having a mild stroke and carotid artery surgery. But that alone cannot explain my sudden and irrational exploration of ways I might find gainful employment in a rural corner of Georgia.

The heat and humidity cripple me. The farm has AT&T mobile data as its “broadband” Internet. It’s miles from town and even further from the closest city. None of these things create an inviting environment.

But it will always be home, warts and all. And warts? They’re caused by a virus. The virus is more likely to cause a wart when it contacts skin that has been cut or otherwise damaged.

“Every wart is a mother wart that can have babies. You need to get rid of all visible warts whenever they appear so you don’t have more spread,” dermatologist Robert Brodell, MD, told WebMD.

The Confederate flag is like a virus. Bigotry is the wart that it creates when minds are susceptible to its connotation. Removing that symbol — with very public dialog about why it needs to be removed — is one step towards excising the larger, persistent social ill that is racism.

“It is place, permanent position in both the social and topographical sense, that gives us our identity.”
~ J.B. Jackson

Photos by Kathy E. Gill. Battle Flag, NPS.
Cross-posted: Huffington Post, Medium

[1] The St. Andrews Cross became a Confederate Army Battle Flag; the it was always square. A horizontal version of this flag appeared mid-20th century. In addition, the dark blue of today’s pop culture Confederate flag is borrowed from the Stars and Bars.
Modern Confederate Flag

The modern, pop culture Confederate flag is horizontal, not square, and features dark rather than royal blue.

Birthplace Battle Flag
KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2015 The Moderate Voice
  • SteveK

    Thank you Kathy for your heartfelt tribute / critique of the south. The south you knew and the south of today may be different in your eyes but as my wife’s Arkansas relatives would say, “It’s just the same only different.”

    • Thanks, Steve. This was hard, but it’s been eating at me since last week.

  • Karen Anderson

    I grew up in Virginia. My grade school was segregated until 5th grade. Our next door neighbor was in the KKK; the Fiery Cross newspaper was delivered to his doorstep once a week. My high school was named after a Confederate general, and our school flag was the Confederate flag. Somehow our history curriculum stopped just before the end of the War Between the States and started up again with tales of those awful Northern carpetbaggers and then the Industrial Revolution. I had several classmates who bragged about being the descendants of Confederate generals. I go back to visit and am amazed that many of my former classmates still live the segregated, sex-role delineated country club lifestyle that I associate with my parents’ friends in the 1950s. Many of my female classmates live as housewives; one committed suicide because when her husband left her, her monied suburban life was effectively over. I’m currently doing a project for work that involved interviewing a number of Southern police officials. One recently mentioned to me that having a large Jewish institution in his jurisdiction presents a challenge for police in terms of protecting the institution and its visitors. Bottom line: It’s going to take a lot to change that whole Southern white mindset.

    • Karen, it’s like a time warp, those frozen social roles. Had I never left, I’m certain I would not be the person I am today. How could I?

      However, I do not believe this is strictly a “southern” problem. If it were, there would not have been riots in Boston re desegregating schools. And look where we live, in lily white/white bread Seattle.

  • tnlib

    Excellent article. Just excellent. I cannot begin to tell you how much I relate to it. “I’m asking myself these days ‘what is true Southern culture?’ I’ve been away for 35 years and it’s changed, not for better.” That is exactly how I felt when I came back to Tennessee in 2001 after an absence of over 30 years. I’m sad to have to report that it’s still getting worse. Yet, there’s that land, that earth. It sucks us in like quicksand. The best of luck to you.

    • Thank you, tnlib. I’m with The_Ohioan on imprinting. Are we like salmon? (Asked with tongue only slightly in cheek.)

  • The_Ohioan

    I know what you mean, Kathy. I’m never as comfortable in my skin as when I’m back in the hills of southeastern Ohio. I sometimes wonder if, like ducks, we are psychologically imprinted with the atmosphere of where we grow up.

    My grandfather moved his family from WV to Ohio in 1916. His brother had preceded him there and they both nearly killed themselves farming on their red clay holdings. During the 1920’s the KKK became active in that area and his brother tried to convince my grandfather to join. He would have nothing to do with it.

    Of course the underground railroad had run all through that country and many blacks had later settled there and some had intermarried with the Irish families (the other “others”). The KKK never flourished there and still doesn’t as you can see from the SPLC map I linked to in another thread.

    http://www.splcenter.org/hate-map#s=OH

    I can remember my cousins on a visit from WV just after the Brown/Bd. of Ed. decision saying, when I expressed approval, “Yes, but your n….rs are not like our n….rs”. Still a teenager, I was shocked; never heard such sentiments expressed.

    I’m never sure if discrimination is worse in the rural areas where there’s no one willing to rebut it or in larger cities where the migration after WWII happened and the pressure of vying for jobs creates tension. In any case, it can, and does, exist almost everywhere and that’s what we must deal with.

    • Thank you for that — fear of “the other” seems to be part of human cultural foundations. But we are thinking mammals. We have agency. We can change, if we want to. And are helped.

      When I moved to PA after grad school, I was (a) surprised at the extent of agriculture north of the Mason-Dixie line and (b) stunned at the racism, which was just as ingrained but presented differently from that I had grown up with.

    • I can remember my dad telling me that your skin did not have to be black to be a n…r. It was a slur that our Scot-Irish family also flung at whites.

      • SteveK

        It’s generational… And how the generation in charge deals with it.

        My father died when I was in my early 30’s but until he was taking opiates for pain near the end none of his kids heard him use the ‘N’ word or any other racial epitaph.

        The drugs in his system (and probably knowing the end was near) brought out a fear and loathing of anyone ‘not white’ that none of us had seen before and we were all shaken by it. I was glad the kids weren’t around to hear what ‘grandpa’ was saying.

        Not long after he passed my brothers, sister, and I were talking about what we thought of what we’d seen and together it dawned on us that that wonderful man had kept all his fear and hatred inside so as to not affect (infect) his children and by doing this he made us better than he was and that made us proud… Very proud to be his children.

  • IndyGuy

    Great article Kathy. My wife grew up in Tennessee and she’s told me some similar stories, especially when she was a little girl and they had a “whites only” drinking fountain. Fortunately her father and grandfather never ever referred derogatory to blacks and other races, perhaps it had something to do with them being Catholics in the south.

    I currently live in Indianapolis and have encountered people like you mentioned back in Georgia. I was stunned that these people had southern confederate sympathies by referring to the Civil War as the war of Northern Aggression. In fact I took exception, when a coworker and I got into a heated argument about that incredibly dishonest statement. Civil War history is intertwined with my family where my then great, great, great Grandpa, who was only 12 when he ran away from home in Hersey, PA, to enlist in the Union Army as a drummer boy. I traced his unit and learned that he was at Gettysburg and several other battles. It always insulted me and my family to hear these neo-confederates degrade Grandpa’s service to his country. Also during the war one of my great aunts worked to help guide run-away slaves along the famous Underground Railroad.

    You’d think that living up here in Indiana you wouldn’t see much Confederate flags and sentiments but just on Saturday my son and I were on a long rail-trail hike when we stopped in a small town for some water and snacks. As we made our way to the local grocery store a home close to it had a pickup truck with a huge Confederate flag attached to the rear gate. I stopped there and looked on in disgust as I talked to my son about the recent killings in SC and why this person would have this dishonorable flag flying on his crappy pickup truck. I wanted him to know how wrong it was and that our family was a part of helping to extricate our Nation from the evils of slavery and preservation of the Union.

    • archangel

      Being from Indy, we had a saying: ‘the world thinks Ind is The North. But the Mason Dixon line is right under Michigan on Ind.’s map.’

      Also the kkk originated 35 m. from where we grew up.
      Being catholic, immigrant, latino, jewish, black was not safe. Watching the current Indy legislature and their dreams of return to 1950s pain and arrogance by the few over the many, is beyond the beyond.

      • Yup. I did not realize that the KKK originated that far north, but it’s not really a surprise.

    • Ah, yes, I learned of this as the War of Northern Aggression. Talk about flipping a narrative (given SC fired the first shots)!

      Sometimes I wonder how much of the sentiment we think of a “southern” might be more appropriately labeled “rural”.

  • DdW

    Just had the chance to read your article, Kathy. Beautiful!

    (Love how you incorporate famous quotes into your writing.)

    I wonder if you could (re-)read Robin Koerner’s piece on the white Southern minority and my comment and tell me if I am way out of line. Would appreciate it.