I am a white person. You may have noticed that from the pictures. I am a white person from the Deep South, born in 1970, and raised mostly in military towns by people who were pretty decent human beings.
What that means is that I was in a military-brat bubble, so I missed a lot of what was happening in civilian neighborhoods around the country in the 70s. I lived in mixed populations, and grew up around people who were from all over the world, and my parents never talked to me in terms of Us and Them, so I can’t say that I was ever truly aware of just how deeply segregated life had been only 10 years before I was born. But your parents aren’t the only people who teach you the terms of Us and Them.
That said, I grew up with a learned pride in my Southern heritage. I made heroes of Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. I had a watch that played Dixie–and I played it til the battery ran out. In my upbringing, and in my education I learned that the Civil War was something that happened to Us. That We were attacked for our beliefs, and made to fight to defend our rights, and that–yes–among these beliefs and rights there was the small thing of slavery, but there were many other, bigger issues, and The North mainly used that as propaganda to fuel a hatred of Us. I thought Gone with the Wind was historically accurate, Elvis was an original act, and couldn’t understand why some people got so upset about Brer Rabbit because that was just how my people talked.
We didn’t talk about the Civil Rights movement in my family. If my parents did, it filtered down to me through the veil of Reconstruction also having been something done to Us. Our South still suffered because of what was done to Us, and We weren’t even the bad guys who owned slaves.
I grew up with a nebulous idea of segregation, exhaustion and fear of people like MLK, Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson, and a complete blindness as to how I was inferring and internalizing the terms of Us and Them.
Previously, I have written about how I didn’t even know what a lynching really was until I was in my 30s, and decided to do a little light reading about the Freedom Riders. So, try to picture me in the middle seat of a row on an airplane, reading a passage about what constituted a lynching, and some of the atrocities inflicted on men, women, and children just for looking at one of Us the wrong way. Because, y’all know I’m a crier. And all I could think while reading was, “That could have been my son. What if someone had done that to my son?”
I had to put the book down, and it took me about a year to finish it. I couldn’t bear it. I started reading other things, though, and talking to other people. And I started seeking out works by black writers. I revisited the Maya Angelou work I had disliked so much in high school and college, and realized that a lot of my dislike was in recognizing that it hadn’t been written for Us/Me. I was so used to being the intended audience, that I couldn’t appreciate, or enjoy a book that was written to the entertainment of a nice, middle class, white girl.
I started realizing I did live in a world of Us and Them.
I started listening to rap music, and old soul, trying to understand where that art came from, and hear the voices of the communities represented instead of being afraid, or off put. I pulled out my Billie Holiday and started trying to hear her as a message, not just as a tune. I made myself listen to the lyrics of Strange Fruit, and hear it, and internalize it.
If something made me want to respond with, “Not all white people!” or, “Not all Southerners!” I tried to dig down to the root of it, and be part of what might help the conversation, not shut it down because it made me uncomfortable–or just shut up and listen. Sometimes, you just need to shut up and listen.
I started asking questions–some of them were pretty stupid, and probably insulting, but when people were insulted, I tried to find out why. I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice, and I wanted to be better.
I wanted to be better for every mother whose child swung on the wrong end of a rope in Alabama.
I wanted to be better for every mother whose child was taken away from her, and sold to someone else.
I wanted to be better for every mother who had to look into her child’s face and know the best that child could hope for was just a different kind of hellish hard.
Because the only way to make sure it never happens again, is to make a change in yourself, and try to raise that change in your children.
I’m digressing–I do that when I think about my kid.
This morning, a DJ (on the sports radio station, obvs) was talking about Chet Atkins, and his particular style of picking. He mentioned that Atkins had an arrangement where he played Yankee Doodle and Dixie at the same time. He said, “He played one song for the North, and one for the South at the same time.”
So, I have a very complicated relationship with Dixie–with my heritage as a whole. I mean, I love that song, but I am aware that people died to the tune of it. A too-light comparison is my complicated relationship with The Cosby Show. I LOVE the Cosby show. I wanted Cliff Huxtable to be my dad. But now I am aware that women were being raped under the protection of Dr. Huxtable’s good name.
My first thought was, “Oh! I love Dixie! My second thought was, “Um…that’s not really a song ‘for the South’. That’s really ‘a song for white people in the South.'” My next thought was, “Yankee Doodle is for white people, too.” And then I thought, “So is the whole Civil War.”
That hit me really hard. It hit me that all this time, when I’ve sat in a classroom, or read a book, or watched a movie and the topic was the Civil War, when we said The South, we meant White People in The South. When we said The North, we meant White People in The North. People of color only entered into the conversation as something to be fought over, denied, or granted rights, or as an interesting side-note to history because they’d been allowed to do something reserved for white people.
I was equal parts horrified, and hopeful. Horrified because that is horrifying! Hopeful because if I can figure it out, other people can, and if we work together, we can change the conversation.
As a woman, I know a lot about what it is like to live in a world where I have to ask someone else to give me things that are already mine. I have to demand, and defend the right to make choices about my own body. I have to demand, and defend my right to equal pay. I have to demand, and defend my right to even feed my child in public because a male dominated, sexually fixated culture has appropriated my breasts.
I know it doesn’t feel good. I know I wouldn’t want it for my child.
Right now, the best I can do is start a conversation. It may be the only thing I can ever do. But here you go. Help me think about this.
And while I’m thinking, I’ll tell you how I work around my complicated relationships with Dixie and Cosby.
Both have brought me great joy, and I can appreciate that joy. I can be thankful and grateful for the goodness, and I can remember how much I enjoyed both, and it’s okay if I get excited and happy at the first thought of either. I can still love the good of The South–which includes everyone. I can still love Lisa Bonet and still call my kid “Bud”. But as much as it breaks my heart to not watch Cosby anymore, I don’t support rapists. And as much as I love Dixie, and as pretty as I think that flag is, I can’t celebrate under the banners where other mothers saw their children tortured, maimed, and killed for the color of their skin.
I don’t want to be an Us unless it means All Of Us.