The Duality of the Southern Thing January 17, 2012Posted by Matt in personal stories, race.
Tags: drive-by truckers, duality of the southern thing, Martin Luther King, Mississippi, peace, racism, Robert E Lee, self-righteous indignation, the South
What does it mean to be Southern?
It’s an interesting question and one that I’ve been pondering quite a bit over the past 24 hours. After spending the first 26 years of my life in the great state of Arkansas, I moved across the river to Southaven, Mississippi, which in turn sits within walking distance of Memphis, some eight years ago. The process of leaving the safe confines of small town Central Arkansas and entering the urban/suburban area in which I now reside was an interesting one to say the least.
I’m an educated guy and have long considered myself to be an intelligent, progressive person, one whose mind is open to all sorts of views and peoples, one who believes strongly in justice and peace. That being said, these years of living in Mississippi have been challenging ones in a multitude of ways. In that time I’ve chosen to confront my own inner prejudices lurking back in my subconscious, the byproduct of being raised in a largely homogenous small town environment, and I’ve emerged a better person than before, one who truly tries to practice what he preaches.
But at the same time, having largely conquered feelings of prejudice in my mind, I often find the balance swinging too far in the other direction, that of self-righteous indignation. I think to myself, “I get this. Why don’t you get it?”
This internal struggle came to light again yesterday on Facebook as I wrote with some incredulity about my children’s school letting out for “King/Lee Day.” Yes, that Lee. Robert E. The famous Confederate General. Every year I see that and every year I have a similar reaction, shaking my head with consternation at the perceived backwardness of others, summoning that self-righteousness again to wag my finger in their faces.
This time, though, something interesting happened. Barbara, a friend, mentor, and someone for whom I have immense respect, put me in my place. I don’t think she minds me reprinting her response and I would rather do that than put it in my own words:
Oh, the need to explain that “dual” holiday. The date was historically for Robert E. Lee’s birthday and was a state holiday. When the day became a federal holiday to honor Dr. King on his birthday this is what happened. Now, if you object to honoring REL, a true son of the South, you can honor MlK, another true son of the South. If you want, you can honor both guys. Just think of King and Lee meeting in heaven on this day to share a beer and talk about how things have changed. Maybe not fast enough, but things have changed. I would like to think that we’ve learned that peace and nonviolence is a better way to address our differences (Dr. Kings message) than violence and war. But,I’m a dreamer…..
With my scorn sufficiently placated by Dr. Jones’ words, I decided to again look inward, to reflect on what this meant to me, as a progressive Southerner, one who loves the place and the people, but struggles with reconciling the past with the present. As often happens, this train of thought then brought me to a song, this time by one of my favorite bands, the Drive-By Truckers. “The Southern Thing” is found on their sprawling and incredible album Southern Rock Opera, a personal favorite of mine that once led me on a pilgrimage to Muscle Shoals and then on to the small community of Zip City.
In this particular song, Patterson Hood sings of this internal struggle for reconciliation between pride and shame brewing inside the hearts and minds of those below the Mason-Dixon Line while at the same time trying to deal with those who don’t understand, those to whom this seems so foreign, saying,
You think I’m dumb, maybe not too bright
You wonder how I sleep at night
Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
Duality of the southern thing.
“The duality of the southern thing.” I think that explains a lot. It may be impossible to define “Southerness,” but the inner struggle of those dueling forcing is certainly an aspect that cannot be swept aside.
Things are continually moving forward and changing in the South, and though that does not absolve us of nor does it cause us to forget the past, it aids us in building for a better future. As Hood later says in the song:
Four generations, a whole lot has changed
Robert E. Lee
Martin Luther King
We’ve come a long way, rising from the flame
Stay out the way of the southern thing.
So, while I may never venerate Robert E. Lee, certainly not to the extent of Martin Luther King, I can recognize and respect his place in the history of my people. And maybe, as Dr. Jones said, the two of them are having a beer in heaven talking it over right now.