Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Southern Culture, Part III

In the U.S. Southeast, it’s not particularly uncommon to encounter cars and pick-ups with various Confederate Flag bumper stickers or other adornments. One fairly common sticker has a Confederate flag and the phrase, “Heritage, Not Hate.”

When white southerners make such claims about the Confederate flag or other symbols of the Confederacy, that that flag today represents simple pride in “Southern Culture” – and where “Southern Culture” represents a subset of southern cultural traits (in terms of Sapir’s discussion of a third sense of “culture” – see my previous post), things like hospitality, pride in family and region, southern food, a laid back approach to life, etc. – and that it doesn’t represent to them the southern past of slavery and Jim Crow, some are simply being disingenuous. After all, it was largely in response to the civil rights movement that displays of the Confederate flag, including its adoption as part of some state flags, became prominent beginning in the 1960s. (Some don’t bother being disingenuous. I once encountered another bumper sticker featuring a Confederate flag that read, “If I had known, I would have picked my own cotton.” At a roadside stand selling flags, I recently saw for sale a Confederate flag with superimposed German Iron Cross. I’m pretty sure anyone who’d fly that flag fully intends to invoke racism.)

Still, many are sincere in that sentiment. It’s not that they’re unaware necessarily of the South’s sordid race history, so much as they find it easy or convenient to elide it, or they don’t see it as an essential component of “Southern Culture” which for them the Confederate flag stands for, or they don’t see the connection between the plantation past and the present, given the wholesale and real transformation of economic infrastructure and cultural ecology in much of the South.

Plantation agriculture and the attendant race system is not part of the way of life, not part of the “culture core” (see my previous post) for most southerners today (with a major exception being for many migrant laborers working in Florida citrus and plantation remnants elsewhere). For many southern whites, the plantation and all it entailed is simply a matter of the past. For many southern blacks, while the civil rights movement clearly improved the situation dramatically, the plantation past is not so easily elided – 250 years of slavery and another century of Jim Crow aren’t so easy to overlook, and while southern economic infrastructure and mode of production have been thoroughly transformed over the past half century, the economic inequalities associated with previous racism continue to have real and serious economic effects for many southern blacks – the past may be over, but the real effects of it are not yet past for quite a few southern blacks.

In my experience, there is actually quite a bit of commonality and agreement between southern whites and blacks when it comes to the positive valuation of much of the content of “Southern Culture.” Most all can agree about the worth of southern hospitality or about the delicious quality of southern food – food in particular seems a particularly “safe” and enjoyable topic for anyone to talk about (As Chris Rock put it, “Cornbread – ain’t nothing wrong with that”). It is more symbols associated with the Confederacy that generate controversy and about which there is a cleavage of interpretation that often follows racial lines. For many southern whites, the Confederate flag simply stands in for “Southern Culture” and pride in it. For that matter, for many “The Confederacy” has come to stand for nobility, virtue, manliness, and defiant self-reliance rather than the secession of states with slavery based economies. For many southern blacks, that same symbol stands not for “Southern Culture,” but for the Confederacy, which in turn is indelibly tied to lack of freedom or self-reliance and to racial tyranny.

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