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April 11, 2013 3:40 PM Southern Pride

By Ed Kilgore

Despite being sorely tempted, I haven’t weighed in on the Brad Paisley/LL Cool J saga, in part because I’m only remotely informed about Paisley’s prior work and history (I don’t much listen to contemporary country music, though I love a lot of the old stuff). But I am interested in legitimate and illegitimate ways of expressing “southern pride,” Paisley’s express motive in recording “Accidential Racist,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates hits one important perspective on this matter quite squarely:

Paisley wants to know how he can express his Southern Pride. Here are some ways. He could hold a huge party on Martin Luther King’s birthday, to celebrate a Southerner’s contribution to the world of democracy. He could rock a T-shirt emblazoned with Faulkner’s Light In August, and celebrate the South’s immense contribution to American literature. He could preach about the contributions of unknown Southern soldiers like Andrew Jackson Smith. He could tell the world about the original Cassius Clay. He could insist that Tennessee raise a statue to Ida B. Wells.
Every one of these people are Southerners. And every one of them contributed to this great country. But to do that Paisley would have to be more interested in a challenging conversation and less interested in a comforting lecture.

Paisely is using the term “southerner” when he actually means “white southerner,” and a particular kind of “white southerner” at that. It’s obviously an old habit for white southerners (I’ve fallen into it occasionally, but I hope not lately), for reasons that are very difficult to separate from racism. If you really think about it for a moment, how could you define “southern” in a way that excludes African-Americans? They represent not only a huge formative element of southern culture, but its extension outside the region in a wave more powerful and enduring than all the NASCAR races and country music and megachurches and conservative politics and Paula Deen recipes (you know, the usual tokens of southern cultural imperialism) put together.

If Brad Paisley wants to get more particular in his cultural cri de couer (or as he might call it, a rebel yell), he could talk about being a “cracker” (which I do pretty often), or an Appalachian or a hillbilly or a descendent of dirt farmers, or whatever applies, and you know what? You can do all of that without the Confederate Battle Flag, a symbol that continues to enrage me because it telescopes southern history into four years of dismal failure in a bad cause, which then plunged the whole region into grinding poverty and moral squalor for another century. For God’s sake (if not your own), let it go, boys. If you can’t exhibit “southern pride” without symbols of racism, you are insulting white as well as black southern folk for real. We’re more, and better, than that.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • latts on April 11, 2013 3:59 PM:

    Yeah, I'm a southerner (east MS, originally) who really has very little affinity for the place. The thing I never understood as a kid (and have only recently been brave enough to say) is how the Confederacy could possibly warrant any pride, except perhaps in a pure military-strategy sense because they held out so long. It's just not something to be proud of. But conservatives are like that-- they don't want to differentiate between positive personal qualities and abhorrent affiliations, so if you point out that the South was dead wrong, you're calling great-great-granddad Bubba evil incarnate. Maybe he was a very pleasant man, but the truth is he still fought for rancid ideals.

    Of course, my former lawn guy flies a Confederate flag even though he's a populist Democrat, because of his ancestors' service, etc. Last fall, though, he was talking about taking it down because he didn't want anyone to think he was a right-wing Republican. So that's something.

  • zandru on April 11, 2013 4:02 PM:

    Thanks, Mr. Kilgore, for that reminder that there's more to the South and Southern history than the "War of Northern Aggression" (as y'all like to call it), and there are more Southerners than just white neo-Confederates. Whenever we lib/progressives talk about taking revenge upon the "Red" states in terms of federal services, I think of all the African-Americans living there (whose votes were not sufficient to count, in terms of representation).

    It's morally, ethically, and politically dangerous to view large collections of people in terms only of the worst tendencies of the loudest of them.

  • c u n d gulag on April 11, 2013 4:03 PM:

    I have no intention of going out and intentionally listening to that song, having read about how inane it is.

    It sounds like a modern redux of "Ebony and Ivory," except minus the piano metaphor, which is replaced with the the rediculous juxtaposition of the "Stars and Bars," and "Bling!" - all with some C&W wailin', mixed with some Hip Hop rhymin'.

    Jeez, I'd rather pour acid in my ears.

  • Barbara on April 11, 2013 4:33 PM:

    Yes, indeed. In Virginia, when politicians and others talk about the "real" Virginia, usually to signify that those people who moved into the state over the last two generations don't qualify, I sometimes need to remind even myself that descendents of slaves are among those whose history in Virginia is the most enduring. If you look at an electoral map you see small dark blue pockets all over Virginia (outside of Northern Virginia and Charlottesville and Richmond), and they aren't blue because voters are lacking in ties to the Commonwealth.

  • MR Bill on April 11, 2013 4:52 PM:

    The song is pretty lame, and the rap break from LL Cool Jay seems pasted on.
    And I think it's often the case when we can't deal with issues, we argue over symbols related to the issues.
    For too many of Mr. Paisley's generation, the "Rebel flag" (approximately the Confederate Battle flag that flew at Gettysburg, or the Confederate Naval Jack) is just a signifier of origin in the South. It ignores the history of it's use up into the 60's as the flag of Jim Crow and opposition to the end of the Segregation Apartheid. Understandably, a lot of Black folks still see that flag that way.
    A story: I was maybe 6 years old in the early '60s, and noticed a front car plate of my uncle's: that flag with "Fires Creek NC" on it. I thought it neat and asked my mom if we could get one. She said, "No, son, that's got the old Rebel flag on it, and most folks who use it don't think Black folks should have rights."
    She and my dad had, on the basis of their religious convictions decided that racism was wrong, and Dad, on the school board of Clay county, had voted to desegregate the schools there. He would pay for it in the next election.
    I'm a white southerner, a real hillbilly, an educated redneck; I know a lot of white folks down here have gone out of their way to pretend that history ended at Appomattox, and resembled 'Gone with the Wind' or all those fictions of the late '19th and early 20th century that prettified slavery. I know there are real 'southern culture' that deserves celebration (I'm a fan of the craft and music culture of the southern Mountains, and of course literature...) I know they often want to glory in some slaveholding ancestor (like the ones I discovered in my genealogy studies) and ignore the division that the Confederacy caused: my mountain county was a hotbed of anti Confederate activity and Unionism (see East Tennessee, or Mr. Paisley's West Virginia, which wouldn't exist without its having left the Confederacy..) but the local historians have imbibed in the Moonlight and Magnolias nonsense, and pitched a fit when a historical marker to one of my late wife's ancestors, a fervent Unionist and Partisan was erected this year: http://www.georgiahistory.com/stories/241 “By pushing beyond the myths that have grown up over the past 150 years, historians are beginning to better understand how Southerners responded to secession and how complex loyalty was during the Civil War,” said GHS President and CEO, Dr. W. Todd Gross. “Not everyone embraced separation from the United States. In fact thousands of Southerners opposed the Confederacy. They are a reminder that South and Confederate are not synonymous terms."
    Mr. Paisley has opened the door to examining the politics of the Southern Identity, and it's connection to an ideology that could only exist with a false history

  • BuffOrpington on April 11, 2013 4:53 PM:

    Before Paisley makes another record (Do they still call them records?) he needs to listen to the Drive-By Truckers. Patterson Hood could teach him a thing or two about the right way to express southern pride.

  • MuddyLee on April 11, 2013 4:54 PM:

    Right on, Ed (as we used to say). There is no "South" without African Americans. Some of us who are "white" understand this. For you people in the blue states, please remember this: when a republican wins the vote in a Southern state, it is not unanimous. The so-called landslides for repubs usually means that forty or forty-five percent of the vote went to the Democratic candidate and a lot of that vote is from "whites". Nikki Haley beat Vince Sheheen to become governor of South Carolina in 2010. It was even on election night until her home county of Lexington (one of the reddest counties in the state) reported. While we know that the "black vote" usually goes to Democrats, we know that a higher percentage of "whites" cast votes in the South. We need to make sure that all the eligible voters, regardless of race or income or job status (people who aren't white collar workers don't usually get time off to vote), get a chance to vote. We need to fight the people who are trying to make it harder to vote, and we need to educate people about the importance of non-presidential year elections. We need to let PEOPLE vote - not money.

  • JeffInOhio on April 11, 2013 5:14 PM:

    Nice take, Ed. I enjoyed the TNC piece quite a bit.

    Most of my family is from Tennessee and the heritage that some southern whites try to express is pretty simplistic - when it came to vote for secession, may counties and families from Tn. split between joining the Confederacy and staying in the Union. They are just plain ignorant about what southern heritage can and does mean. I have many humorous stories from childhood of cousins cursing Yankees while my grandmother reminded them that not only did her father enlist and fight for the Union, but cursing in her house got you a thrash across the backside.

    BTW and I hope I'm not to PC, but as a native Bluegrasser, many good thinking people who live in the southern Appalachian mountains consider 'hillbilly' a pejorative.

  • CuConnacht on April 11, 2013 5:27 PM:

    You sometimes hear white Southerners saying that the statues of Confederate generals (e.g. on Monument Avenue in Richmond) are to recognize their bravery and military skill etc, nothing to do with the cause they fought for. So why are there no statutes of General George H Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, on Monument Avenue or anywhere else in the South? (Washington DC does not count as the South for these purposes.) He was from Virginia, and was as brave and as good a general as any of them. But he happened to fight on the right side and so in his home state and the rest of the South he's an unperson.

  • Squid696 on April 11, 2013 6:04 PM:

    I have ancestors on both sides of my family that fought for the Confederacy and we are pretty sure that at least one side of my family owned at least one slave. Growing up, I could identify with the Confederacy when I read about Civil War battles, but as I grew up I had no problem seeing the Confederacy for what it was. Many whites in the South identify with the Confederacy because they associate their own ancestors with it, even thought they really don't know if their ancestors supported it or not. That really is the crux of the problem. Fortunately for me, I had no problem separating my ancestors support for the Confederacy and slavery from my own views. They made the choices they made and I make mine. Brad, you want a white Southerner to take pride in, take pride in Sam Houston. Sam Houston was a Unionist and was removed from office as Governor of Texas because he refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy. I take pride in that.

  • FlipYrWhig on April 11, 2013 6:55 PM:

    For what it's worth, another take on the song is that it's not Brad Paisley speaking as Brad Paisley, but Brad Paisley speaking in the voice of a redneck who needs help (more help than Brad Paisley himself does) understanding the difference between "southern pride" and racist f-cknuttery.

  • mudwall jackson on April 11, 2013 9:10 PM:

    CuConnacht,

    George Thomas paid a steep personal price for his loyalty to his country. He deserves to be better remembered than he is, certainly as well remembered as anyone on Monument Avenue. Thanks for mentioning him. The idea of a unified southern populace pulling together to fight for the Confederacy is pure myth; the Confederate flag as a symbol for the region equally misses the mark. Beyond the contributions of individual southerners like Thomas to the union cause, every state in the Confederacy, with the exception of South Carolina, raised regiments to put down the rebellion.

  • Altoid on April 11, 2013 11:24 PM:

    Thanks, mudwall, that last point was the statistic I was trying to remember. East Tennessee in particular was Unionist all through the war. It was Andrew Johnson's home ground-- whatever we might think of him as president, Lincoln picked him for a national unity ticket-- and its prevailing Unionism was a reason Sherman used it as a base for further operations to the southeast.

    There also was a county in north Alabama that held its own convention after Alabama seceded from the Union, and voted to secede from Alabama. The anti-secession areas tended to be in the up-country where plantations didn't dominate.

  • Bobby Goren on April 12, 2013 7:07 AM:

    1619 - Twenty slaves in Virginia Africans brought to Jamestown are the first slaves imported into Britain’s North American colonies.

    1777 - Vermont and New York abolish slavery and enfranchise all adult males.

    1781 - Articles of Confederation go into effect.

    "...the Confederate Battle Flag, a symbol that ... telescopes southern history into four years of dismal failure in a bad cause..."

    Except that it isn't a symbol of 4 years of dismal failure. It symbolizes the belief in a "right" to oppress and a "right" for states to decide whether it is legal for one group to oppress another. This thinking was present in much of the country in the colonial period. However, it became relegated to the South over time. But it was far more than 4 years. America's Civil War was merely the culmination of years of struggle between abolitionist and pro-slavery factions dating, at least, to 1777 when VT and then NY abolished slavery.

    Like it or not the Battle Flag is a symbol of a long held belief.

  • Slideguy on April 12, 2013 10:46 AM:

    It's a bit irritating to hear people weigh in by saying that they don't know much of Paisley's history, but they're going to comment anyway. Or that they have no intention of listening to the song but they're going to comment on it anyway. For a bit of perspective, here's the verse from his "Welcome to the Future" that celebrates the election of a black man as president of the United States. Paisley got to sing this at the White House in 2009.

    I had a friend in school
    Running back on the football team
    They burned a cross in his front yard
    For asking out the homecoming queen
    I thought about him today
    And everybody who'd seen what he'd seen
    From a woman on a bus
    To a man with a dream

    Chorus:
    Hey, wake up Martin Luther
    Welcome to the future
    Hey, glory, glory, hallelujah
    Welcome to the future.

    "Accidental Racist" isn't Paisley's best song, but it does seem to me to be an honest attempt to say something about judging people by their appearances.

  • Danton on April 12, 2013 10:49 AM:

    I'm a New Englander transplanted to Tennessee. The South's a funny place: you can see bumper stickers like "Rednecks for Obama" on pick-up trucks with Confederate flag decals on the rear windshield. Of course, the weather sucks.

  • smartalek on April 12, 2013 11:51 AM:

    Slideguy, thanks for that point, and esp for the lyrics; definitely helpful context, and a good reminder that we're supposed to be better than the wingers who reflexively attack artists and their works on other peoples' say-so.
    For anyone who wants to read the lyrics of the track in question without giving clicks to any of the YouTube or other pages with the song itself, here you go:

    http://rapgenius.com/Brad-paisley-accidental-racist-lyrics

    On that same page* is a little Spotify audio player that should let you hear the track too, if you wish, but won't start itself without being clicked. It looks to be the whole track, not just a 30-sec "preview."

    *on my device, anyway. I suppose it's not completely inconceivable that I'm seeing it only because I have the Spotify app on my toy; apologies if that turns out to be the case.

  • Werewolf on April 12, 2013 12:00 PM:

    While we're on the subject of Southerners who didn't commit treason between 1861-5, let's not forget Admiral David Farragut, USN, of Virginia. ("Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"-Battle of Mobile Bay.)

  • historyteacher on April 13, 2013 11:16 PM:

    Before erecting a monument to George Thomas, the Union General from VA, you may want to remember that he came from a slaveholding VA family & personally owned slaves. Fighting for the Union did not make a person an abolitionist, it just meant that they chose one loyalty over another (nation v/s state). Plenty of other southerners voted pro-Union, but when time came to choose sides, would not fight against the majority of the people in their state. This post is not intended to excuse racism or slavery, but merely to point out that pro-Union sentiments were not synonymous with anti-slavery sentiments.