Reckoning With our Racist Southern Heritage
This is our moment. It’s time to do the hard work of changing the stories we tell ourselves.
Growing up and living in the South is like living in a fishbowl. Every day you swim in the water of racism. You can’t escape it. You can hide in the little pink castle, but the water is still all around you.
I was born in 1962 in a little rural town that was in the shadow of downtown Atlanta. Mine was the South of magnolia blossoms scenting the summer air, riding bikes until dark, church potlucks of fried chicken, potato salad and peach cobbler. Manners and propriety were the rules of society. Ladies wore gloves to church, children were to be seen and not heard, and if adults wanted to insult someone they always said “Bless her heart” at the end.
Mine was also the South of segregation and racism. The South I grew up in was dominated by whites, with blacks merely playing a supportive role. It was a somewhat gentler version of slavery. It was the world I knew, and I could not help but be indoctrinated in the covert belief system of white supremacy and white entitlement. It wasn’t called racism. We were taught it was “proper.” As long as everyone knew their place, things were fine.
The South I grew up in was the South of institutionalized racism. While Brown v. Board of Education had integrated the schools 8 years before I was born, our community was still painfully segregated. There were black children in our schools, but in all other ways, the black community remained separate. There were no blacks in our churches except for Saturday afternoon when they came to clean for the services on Sundays. The blacks did not shop where we did. They did not swim with us at the city pool.
I was raised by parents who did not teach me to hate, for which I am grateful. In my house, we never heard the ’N’ word. If we ever used it we were sure to get the bar of soap, the one that lived in a slimy puddle next to the kitchen sink, wallowed around in our mouths. For this reason, among others, that word has never come out of my mouth.
I was surrounded by children whose parents were blatant racists, and by teaching, the children were too. Cordiality is the cornerstone of Southern society, but what goes on behind closed doors can look very different. It’s around the dinner table that racism is perpetuated. That my own parents were teaching us to be kind and inclusive was no small thing in a rural town in the South of the 60’s and 70’s. But they were swimming against a very strong tide. I did not recognize how remarkable that was until I was older.
I remember my best friend in the first grade. She was a tall, thin black girl with braids all over her head and bright, white teeth. Her name was Emily Crowley. She got me into trouble in class almost daily with her antics — silly songs, rhymes she would recite in a falsetto voice, and finger plays of “little bunny foo-foo.” I would laugh out loud and get called to the board to write sentences. I didn’t care. She was hilarious and I loved her.
When she invited me to sleep over at her house, my mother looked sad. She had to explain that it would not be possible. You see, Emily lived in a ‘shanty town’ on the edge of town and it just would not be proper for a little white girl to show up there. My parents were sympathetic, but as open-minded as they were, they were a product of their time and place, and by extension, so was I.
In my South, statues of little black boys with fishing poles decorated yards. Words like “pickaninny” — a pejorative term for a little black child — were part of the vernacular. Gone With The Wind and Song of the South were sacred representations of life as we remembered it — as we longed for it to be again. Genteel, privileged, entitled — all made possible by “loving, devoted slaves.”
My grandmother employed a black housekeeper, and being a product of her upbringing, was a ‘gentlewoman’ racist. She was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Because she saw herself as the benevolent mistress, she referred to her maid, and other black people, as “niggras.” She could not hide her views behind a whitewashed version of the ’N’ word. We were told never to say that word, either.
My mother also employed household help. I loved the beautiful black woman who cared for us, and we all thought of her as a part of our family. When Eloise would prepare lunch for my parents, my mother would invite her to sit and eat with them. She refused. The chasm between black and white in the segregated South could not be so easily conquered, no matter how much we loved her.
I was learning, by observing, of the very real divide between blacks and whites. Even my parents couldn’t erase it. The education system in the South perpetuated it. In junior high we studied Georgia history. The textbook we used was written in 1954, called The History of Georgia. Here is an excerpt from the pages about slavery.
“The master often had a picnic or barbecue for his slaves. Then they had a great frolic. Even while working in the cotton fields they sang songs. The beat of the music and the richness of their voices made work seem light.”
Dear God. This revision of slave history was fed to thousands of Georgia school children as truth. The slaves were happy! They loved working in the cotton fields! The masters were kind and benevolent! Everybody was jolly! It was a peaceful and joyful time! All was as it should be!
We were taught to call the Civil War the ‘War of Northern Aggression’. We were simply defending ourselves. It had nothing to do with the right to hold slaves.
Only that is patently false. The states that seceded all made it perfectly clear their intent was to protect the culture of enslaving blacks.
While I am not responsible for the way I was indoctrinated as a child, I have been responsible for what I choose to believe as an adult. Even though I was raised by parents who did not teach overt racism, the messages were all around me. I believe it is because my parents taught me to think differently that I have been able to challenge those messages.
Even the white churches of the South taught segregation and white supremacy. I am sure many still do. My ex-in-laws were devout evangelicals, and all I will say is being a Christian does not preclude being a racist. My mother-in-law would spout scriptures that backed up her belief that the races should be separate. “The bible says so,” she insisted. She put an ad in the paper once — it was 1992 — to rent a house she owned. She wanted to put “Blacks need not inquire,” and had to be told that was illegal. She was indignant. It was her house!
My ex-husband’s grandmother backed a black man up against the post office boxes while holding her gun on him, just because he happened to be checking his mail at night when she was in the post office. These kinds of things were happening all around me. This is my South.
I can’t count the number of times I have heard privileged whites bitterly complain about blacks who “live off the government, having as many babies as they can so they can get a check and lay on their ass.” After all, these poor, beleaguered white people paid taxes and they were “supporting” those sorry blacks and they resented the hell out of it. It is a genuine belief in the South that blacks are responsible for their plight because they are lazy.
Today, racists in trucks fly the rebel flag behind them as a statement of defiance. That flag entitles them to their racism and hatred. They can say all day long that the flag is not a symbol of slavery, but they are deluding themselves. In a way, you can’t blame them though, because that is what they — and all of us — have been taught. That flag, to many of them, is a symbol of a proud heritage.
Many Southerners cling to that belief fiercely. It is such a part of the false narrative in the South, I even had a black co-worker say she loved the Confederate flag. “It’s a part of my heritage,” she told me, when I asked why she was wearing a bandanna of the flag. This is what indoctrination will do to you.
I read in the New York Times this week stories of southerners who were taking rebel flags off their vehicles and having racist tattoos removed. Greg Reese, a white man from Compton, KY was moved by George Floyd’s death to join Southern Crossroads and create a decal that says “Rednecks for Black Lives.” He has chosen to pivot. While these folks are probably a drop in the bucket, it’s a start. If even a few of them can see where they have erred, it will go a long way toward starting the change.
It is time we burned those rebel flags along with our narrative that “The Civil War was not about slavery.” I am looking for a day when I never hear one of my fellow Southerners say “Blacks have nothing to complain about” or “Don’t look at me — I never owned any slaves.” Many racist Southerners who want blacks to put the past behind them and get over it, refuse, themselves, to lay down their battle flags and their proud Southern (read racist) heritage. They are clinging to the past like a sailor clinging to the mast of a ship going down in flames.
Our Southern heritage is shameful, and the sooner a majority of us admit that the better. Tearing down monuments to white supremacy and the oppression of black people is just the beginning. We have to tear down the institutions that perpetuate the Southern doctrine that slavery was not so bad and life was better when everyone knew their place. We have to attack the foundations of the monument of Southern pride that keeps black people in bondage. We have to tell the truth of our history, and reject the pretty lies we tell ourselves.
This is my South. I want to see it change. It’s time we listen to the voices of the Emily Crowleys of the South. The ones who couldn’t have their white friends sleep over because of racism. We need to hear the stories of black men who are held at gunpoint at the post office for the crime of checking their mail. We need to understand what it means to be discriminated against in your housing options because of the color of your skin.
I will keep telling the truth as it is, not as the South has written it. I will continue to see the ways I was indoctrinated and make sure my children and grandchildren know the truth. I will keep calling bullshit on the stories we Southerners tell ourselves until I can be proud of my South.
But we have to face the truth of our Southern heritage with humility and shame, and be willing to drop our shield of white ‘poor me-ism.’ It is time we face our privilege and our complicity. I am tired of hiding in the little pink castle in the corner of the fishbowl. It’s time we demand this fouled water be changed.