Monday, November 16, 2009

Deep North Meets Deep South

From Katrina Browne
Sunday, November 15, 2009

I’ve had my first two screenings, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Fitzgerald, Georgia. They generated some really great discussion. I particularly appreciated how the folks in Spartanburg took me up on my asking them to talk to each other in the Q&A, not just to me. And many of them signed up to keep talking to each other after I’m gone. That’s what it’s all about!

What’s been most striking for me has been what I’ve seen outside the theaters. Being a “Yankee” who works on issues of race/racism, who hasn’t spent much time in the South, especially outside of major cities, I can’t help but be stirred up by being here, with a whole conflicting set of emotions. It’s intense to see cotton fields for the first time, it’s intense to see Confederate statues, it’s intense to drive on country roads that I associate with bad things happening during the civil rights era.

It’s most intense to have just gone to my first Civil War battle reenactment. I was confused about the basic question, so I asked someone: “Who plays the Union soldiers (“Yanks”)?” I had the strong impression from all the Rebel flags on cars and clothes and tents that folks who came to this were Confederate soldiers at heart. Turns out that most reenactors have both uniforms, so down here, they take turns with the disappointment of having to play a Yankee soldier. One guy confirmed to me sarcastically (I think) that he was racist, but he felt that black people are too. His view was that black folks don’t want to work, they just want hand-outs and that if you complain about that as a white person, you’re called racist, so that’s racism against whites. Didn’t seem like the best moment to get into technical definitions (prejudice + power = racism). He might not think he has power.

It’s all so loaded (pun intended, having just watched rifles and cannons prepared for firing over and over). The stereotypes are so deep all the way around. I’ve been trying to let go of some of mine. Because there’s no denying that as a Northerner I carry a fundamental stereotype that when I’m speaking to someone white with a Southern accent, they must be racist. It’s like the accent and racism are melded in my unconscious. So I’ve had to reorganize my brain as I talk to people here. I said to a kind man who came to the screening in Fitzgerald yesterday: “So we Northerners tend to assume that any white Southerner who holds onto ANYTHING about the Confederacy, must be motivated by racism, and when y’all (I’m adapting) say that it’s about Southern identity or Southern pride, we just think to ourselves ‘yeah right, that’s just an excuse.’ But now that I’m here and I’m thinking about it, I’m realizing that there is something legitimate about wanting to hold onto an identity, especially after being vanquished in war.” “Is that right?” I asked him. “Yes,” he said.

I want to throw in all kinds of caveats right away, to appease anxious readers of the anti-racist persuasion. There are certainly committed racists among those who hold onto a Confederate identity. But that’s not everybody. While I’m new to really contemplating this, I know there must be many white Southerners who’ve grappled with how to have Southern pride without the racism that can be interwoven. And there is something about being in the “power position” of white Northerner that has those of us in that category just so self-righteous and smug, so much so that we’re not still fighting this war consciously (we don’t need to, we won), while many Southerners are. Literally, here today.

A pastor at the Baptist church I went to this morning explained that during the 60’s his father said, “This change needs to happen, but you watch, there’s going to be explosions in the North too.” He told me that the major white backlash against busing in Boston happened shortly thereafter. “It wasn’t that the South didn’t have work to do, we just weren’t the only ones.”

Fundamentally, I’m deeply re-convinced that we need to talk. Boy do we need to talk. I had so much I wanted to say to the man who was complaining about blacks playing victim (the battle started before we could finish). I also would have had some listening to do. There’s so much to sort through. There are old stereotypes about “lazy black people” at play. There are also funky things that are really hard to talk about. Like the idea that you can never say anything negative about an African-American person or community without being called racist. Our relations are so fragile and tenuous in most parts of this country that we just don’t know how to talk about our messed up dynamics and the real suffering that lies behind all the words. I’ve been trying to imagine that everyone I talk to is a good person at heart.

I’m all stirred up.