Southern Heritage is Deep and Complex
by Lester Laminack
My American family can be traced to a German immigrant who entered Philadelphia in 1739 and made his way to South Carolina in 1767. The roots of my family tree have reached deep into southern soil and spread far across the region. I grew up in a small rural town halfway between Birmingham and Atlanta. That Alabama county seat with its three traffic lights was my geographic world back then.
I was born in 1956, early enough to remember two water fountains on the side of the Tasty Dip, separate schools, and separate churches; early enough to witness, but not understand, two separate worlds. I was a child when the evening news brought black and white images from the streets of Birmingham into our home. I saw a bombed church and heard the somber voice tell of the death of four little girls close to my age. I saw fire hoses being used to force black teenagers off the sidewalk. I saw police officers holding taut leashes with German shepherds lunging toward black people on the streets. I saw images of people draped in white robes with conical coverings that hid their faces. I saw a burning bus twenty miles away in Anniston. I saw burning crosses and burned churches. I knew little and feared much. Those images from the news are as much a part of my southern heritage as long humid summers, bird dogs under the front porch, the wafting smell of pine and the haunting sounds of a whippoorwill at dusk.
There has been a lot of talk about heritage lately. Though our southern history is deep and complex we tend to cling to and glorify the charming and romantic images of the south while we gloss over or ignore the more heinous ones. However, history is not a flower garden where we are allowed to select the most beautiful blossoms to grace our table when company is coming. History is everything from the past, all of it. Our past unfortunately includes the truth of slavery and cruelty, mistreatment and systematic legal racism. We are not afforded the luxury of selecting only a few scenes from our storied history to set on display when we speak of our heritage.
Each time we embrace the soft, romantic notions of the old south we are pricked by the thorns of cruelty inflicted upon countless human beings. When we evoke images of Spanish moss drifting in the moonlight we must not forget there have been human silhouettes hanging from those same branches in the night sky. When we chuckle about Jack Daniels and Jim Beam as cousins who find there way into our family stories we must not forget how Jim Crow and George Wallace also played a role. When we think of southern women and speak with admiration for the character Scarlett O’Hara we must not forget the very real women named Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Mary McLeod Bethune. When we speak of the innocence of a southern childhood let us not forget Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley who had their own cut short. When we wave a flag and speak of valor and courage and honor we must not forget Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Medgar Evers who risked everything to ensure the human rights of our neighbors.
Our southern heritage is not rooted in a symbol emblazoned on a piece of cloth clipped to a chain and run up a pole. It isn’t an icon to flaunt in the faces of those oppressed by the attitudes, behaviors and policies of previous generations. We cannot gloss over the fact that one group of humans believed themselves more worthy than another group of humans and made their existence miserable at best. This truth is part of our history. So as we have conversations about our southern heritage we must remember this ugliness IS part of our history and all of it is brought forth in symbols of the past. Nothing is exempt. Any symbol from the past brings with it the best and the worst of our history. Let us recognize this is our collective southern heritage. As such the very symbol some hold up to honor their ancestors is an affront to the loss and pain and indignities suffered by the ancestors of their neighbors. Any symbol of our heritage should represent all of us and give each of us something to be proud of.
Let us pause and consider what we hope to bring forward, what we hope to represent us as southern people. What shared attributes can all southerners take pride in. What would we lift up and hold on to? What is worthy of continuation in future generations? The heritage I want to bring forward is a tradition of caring, of lifting up those in need and offering them food and prayers and support. It is tradition of music and praise, of family and friends, a tradition of community. This part of southern heritage is evident on front porches, in hospital rooms, and in a neighbor’s garden. It emerges when a house burns, when a child is sick, when a church needs a new roof, or when the high school band needs new uniforms. It is in the act of caring for others. It is a way of being, a manner of living, and an attitude of gratefulness. It is reflected in dialect and conversation, story and song, in “bless your heart” and “lawd have mercy” and “well, I never.”
If the roots of your heritage run deep and spread out into the rural south you are likely to find a plow and a pulpit, an outhouse and moonshine still, a hand dug well, and a chimney built of stones taken from fields plowed by a man walking behind a mule. You will likely find folks who ate what they planted or hunted, and built the houses that sheltered their families. You are likely to find folks who helped a neighbor bring in a crop or build a barn or change a tire.
The confederate flag has become so divisive that there is no clear message it can evoke in ALL people. Regardless of what it may mean to some, it has become a flagrant banner of racism and hatred and arrogance that calls up the worst of our past. At best that prevents old wounds from healing, and at worst it continues to inflict new ones. Many southern folk lift verses from the bible to justify their attitudes and behaviors. Here’s a verse to consider: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:30). If you are a southerner, one who holds dear the best of our collective heritage this flag is “your right hand.” Clinging to it while knowing that it evokes pain and images of the worst of our history is a deliberate act that perpetuates the attitude of supremacy of one group.
No flag holds the essence of what is good about being southern. That is within us. The best of what it means to be southern is in our behavior toward others, in our kindness and caring. If pressed for a symbol of the south it would as likely be a magnolia blossom as anything, or perhaps a glass of sweet tea with beads of condensation swelling up on the sides.
We must move forward.
In recent weeks we have seen confederate flags coming down from flagpoles and being pulled from license plates and store shelves. This symbolic gesture did not come as the result of a single action. Rather, the cold callous killing of nine human beings engaged in a bible study group was the final blow in a long history of mistreatment. A young man invited in to worship ended the lives of the very people who embraced him in the spirit of kindness and love. And had you or I been there with a neighbor or friend that night we would likely be dead as well.
Let us remember those nine human beings rocked their babies. They went to work with us and paid their mortgage payments. They sent their children to school just as we do each day. They gathered for holidays and sang happy birthday to loved ones. They made ice cream on the Fourth of July. They worshipped together. Those nine people lived among us. They were our neighbors… our brothers… our sisters. They ARE us.
And as difficult as it may be to accept, this young man also walked among us. He attended our schools. He shopped in the same grocery stores. He ate hamburgers and fries in the booth next to us. He nodded when he passed us on the street and waved as he drove through the intersection. He IS us.
WE are ONE. Even with all our differences, the essence of our shared humanity, that which makes any of us human, is present within all of us. Behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes certainly run the gamut, but the essence of humanity is within each of us. We are members of one human family. Let us be humane and lift what is best in our shared humanity.
The people of Charleston, including the families of the nine who were betrayed and murdered, have demonstrated the best of our humanity. We witnessed the power of grace and dignity and love. This is the best of our southern heritage: family, community, caring, grace. May each of us take a lesson, shed our old skin and emerge with our essential humanity intact and ready to move forward.
“In all things be kind and truthful. Cause no intentional harm.”—Lester Laminack