Friday, April 12, 2013

A Well-Intentioned Accident

Lately, the tubes of the interwebs have been packed by criticism of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J.  I have been surprised how suddenly everyone is an expert not only in race relations but also Civil War history, country music, Confederate symbolism, and urban poverty.  Here at Artery Bloggage, I try to avoid the topical in favor of the timeless.  The reason is that every controversy that sails across the internet passes and I know better than to "feed the trolls."  Yet I can't help but tackle this one head-on.  After all, I find it somehow heartening that discussing Southern identity will still ignite a firestorm 150 years later.

Above: A previous firestorm of Mason-Dixon controversy.

For those not in the know, country music star Brad Paisley released a song called "Accidental Racist" last Monday, featuring rap by LL Cool J.  The song is a plea for reconciliation and understanding between rural Southerners and urban blacks (and potentially Yankees given some of LL Cool J's lyrics).  The song has sent shock waves across the cultural scene, making headlines across the internet and even getting discussion among the talking heads on CNN, among them my favorite NYT columnist Ross Douthat.  This should probably be taken as evidence not of the song's offensiveness or impact, instead only that North Korea hasn't been rattling their sabers for at least forty-eight hours.

Nevertheless, real issues are at play simmering underneath the veneer of yet another country song.  So is the song a defense of white Southerners, the Confederate battle flag, redneck culture, or under-dressing for pretentious baristas?  Let's have a look:

To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the South
And I just walked him right in the room
Just a proud rebel son with an 'ol can of worms
Lookin' like I got a lot to learn but from my point of view
Now this is a bit jumbled and doesn't make our analysis any easier.  All of these themes seem to be on display.  Still, the key line "the elephant in the corner of the South" indicates that yes, the Confederate battle flag is the main issue (bringing worms into a Starbucks notwithstanding).  Yet I feel it necessary to parse these issues out which have been lumped together.  After all, I lost family fighting for the Confederacy.  I actually like the Confederate flag and own several.  Unlike Mr. Paisley, I am not an avid fisherman (the only thing which revolts me more than worms are fish), I am a Skynyrd fan but don't think Skynyrd paraphernalia requires wearing a rebel flag, and don't display the flag in public.  I could write a book on the history of the symbolism of the Confederate flag, but someone already has.  

Paisley goes to great lengths to argue that no modern-day Southerner is responsible for the flag's offensiveness.  He believes that is primarily the result of slavery and secession.

Our generation didn't start this nation
And we're still paying for the mistakes
That a bunch of folks made long before we came
And caught between southern pride and southern blame
Corski argues in his book that the Confederate flag became a symbol of the South more broadly during and after World War II.  I would argue that World War II and not the War Between the States is the most transformative event in Southern history.  For many poor white and black Southerners, this was their first time traveling abroad, interacting with men from other states, and serving toward a common goal with Yanks and Westerners.  The flag emerged as a symbol of Southern units.  And while the use of the flag as a symbol of the South certain did not begin with the war, World War II cemented its place in the popular consciousness of the nation generally.

It was not until Brown v. Board in 1956 that its symbolism became sinister.  Unbeknownst to nearly ever commentator on the display of the flag, the KKK did not use the flag in their rallies until segregation was challenged.  There were two simple reasons for this: 1) they considered the flag sacred (they are all supposed to be Confederate ghosts, remember?) and 2) they wanted national, not just regional, appeal.  The Klan made strident gains in New England and the West at its re-founding in the 1920s by broadening their "hate-appeal" to Catholics, Jews, Communists, and evolutionists instead of merely "uppity" blacks.

So what?  Well, Paisley is flat-out wrong when he asserts that we are simply living with the consequences of our ancestors.  Like they did with cheap ghost costumes, the Klan has also fairly well ruined the rebel flag.  While no one was alive to have owed slaves or have been a slave before the Thirteenth Amendment, many people are still alive who opposed segregation and used the flag to threaten and intimidate young black Southerners who wanted equal access to education.  So the worst aspect of "Unintentional Racist"--even worse than the musical aesthetics--is that it introduces big topics without really understanding or seeking to resolve them.  For Paisley and LL Cool J to issue a mutual "judge not" on doo rags and rebel flags glosses over the visceral issues afflicting race relations even today.

It is ironic to consider because in many ways rural whites and urban blacks are more similar than they are divided.  Both are cultures which struggle with educational access.  Both have been known to ostracize those who leave the community for education opportunities.  Both communities deal with poverty and discrimination; "Cletus" and "Rondell" may find their résumés in the trash can or judged ignorant by virtue of their accents.  They are both geographically-isolated from a more affluent bourgeois culture.  I don't mean to say that one has life any worse than the other, though both would probably dislike being at all compared with the other.

Yet in spite of all this, I really won't join the din of self-important online pontiffs decrying the latent racism of the song.  They tried.  It was woefully inadequate, sure, but did we really expect a pop country-rap collaboration to complete the work of Martin Luther King Jr.?  And should we really expect a bunch of WASPy NPR Yanks to understand race relations on cotton soil?  The most vocal critics of the song seem to be those farthest outside the intended audience.  So let's leave the Ivy League to complain and moan while we Southerners deal with an American problem on the ground.  How can we preserve Southern pride while also acknowledging Southern sins?  And is there some way to create a symbol and a culture with black Southerners--a pan-racial Southern identity--without devolving into feel-good sentimentality?

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