As the editor of a magazine that deals with Southern culture and Southern identity, I think it is my duty to be a part of the ongoing conversation about current issues, especially in light of the recent massacre in Charleston, S.C. and its aftermath.
First of all, I want to say that I’m happy to see that same-sex marriages are once again legal in Alabama, and everywhere else in the country for that matter. There is still resistance in some corners of our state, but here in Birmingham, I think most of us are ready to embrace the new normal. With the recent Supreme Court rulings and the Confederate battle flags coming down in many places, I am actually feeling more patriotic than any time in recent memory. It seems that this Great American Experiment might actually be working, still imperfectly, but making steady progress. Now, if someone would just do something about Donald Trump… (okay, I stole that joke from NPR, but you have to admit it’s a good one).
As I am composing this, we are coming up on the 4th of July weekend, and, appropriately enough, my students in the Early American literature class I teach are reading excerpts from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and from Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography this week. We talked about what Paine and Jefferson might think about some of these current issues, and we concluded that Paine, at least, would see these changes as positive. He was not a religious man, so we can hope that if he were dropped into a modern world, he would not have all the hangups that the right-wing evangelical factions have about modern sexuality. He was also an abolitionist. We speculated that if he knew what happened over the two hundred years after his death, with the states of the Confederacy seceding from the union and the role that the institution of slavery played in that, he would see little reason to celebrate that secession 150 years after the war ended. He came to the United States from England in 1774, stirred by the spirit of revolution. He saw little value in clinging to a past where Americans were politically enslaved by England (a metaphor he utilized in his writing), so it’s easy to imagine that he would see little value in clinging to a past that represented actual slavery.
Jefferson, on the other hand, is more complicated. He was a Southerner and a slave owner. Even though he initially wanted to include a statement against slavery in the Declaration of Independence and was voted down, it’s possible that he was acting purely out concern for how history would view him. He probably thought history would pay little attention to his home life. He was a great man in many ways, and a liberal thinker, but it is hard to say what he would think about the history-making changes we are living through right now. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt. I think many of us who have grown up in the South are familiar with how complicated it can be to come to terms with our history. To perhaps put it a little too coyly, issues of race in the South are never completely black and white. They are complicated.
Speaking of NPR, there was an interview there this week with an African-American gentleman from Montgomery (I can’t seem to find it now, or I would post the link). He was saying that where he lives there are monuments to the Confederacy everywhere, including streets and schools named after Confederate officers. In contrast, he says, there are very few monuments to slavery and Jim Crow, which means we in the South are not really dealing with our history of terrorism and cruelty. This lack of direct acknowledgement makes it impossible for us to have a real conversation about race and what it means.
I agree with many points the gentleman from Montgomery made, but with a few caveats. I have always felt deeply that a defining aspect of Southern culture is the way we live with our history, the good and the bad of it. I’m all for taking the battle flags down from state courthouses and other official state sites, but rather than seeing its presence as a glorification of the Confederacy and all it stood for, we should see it as a recognition of one of the dark moments of our history. Even monuments that overtly glorify or romanticize the Confederate army can be seen through this filter. We are reminded that as recently as fifty years ago, many of us still thought this way. Many of us thought these monuments were a necessary and good idea. We are not so far past it.
One difference between Birmingham and Montgomery is that we do have many monuments that acknowledge the cruelty of the Jim Crow era. We have the Civil Rights Institute, which I have toured many times, often while leading student groups. Some of the exhibits are downright haunting, and I have had students say that it was disturbing and upsetting to them, as it should be. It can be a very emotional experience. Even though Birmingham as a city did not exist during the era of slavery, the connection between Jim Crow and slavery is not lost here. The exhibits in the museum make the connection very clear by presenting a chronological history of civil rights abuses.
Downtown Birmingham is a living monument to the Civil Rights era, which means it is actually giving direct address to the issues to which the Civil Rights era was responding. So, the upshot is that yes, we should take down the battle flags from our government buildings because we don’t need our city and state governments even seeming to openly endorse a faction from our past that defended the institution of slavery. The other public monuments to the Confederacy should remain as reminders of where we have been, even where we have been recently, how far we have come, and how far we still have to go. We should also continue to add new monuments that acknowledge the ugly side of that history, that acknowledge the lynchings and the bombings and the effort to keep the black man oppressed, physically and economically.
For better or for worse, we in the South continue to live with our history and walk among the ghosts of the past. Flannery O’Connor called the South “Jesus Haunted,” which may be true, but it is haunted just as much by our history of slavery and terrorism against our own people. And even if we try to suppress them, those ghosts will not be lain to rest anytime soon.