I read Gone With the Wind as a teenager in the 1960s. At the time I read it, I was already a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, having been raised to condemn the racism I saw around me every day.
Yet while I rejected slavery and the goals of the Confederacy depicted in the novel, my awareness of those issues did not keep me from reading it with some enjoyment at the time. I’ve never been sure why.
But this week, while dealing with my own rage and anguish at the murders in Charleston and reading a large number of well-reasoned essays by very smart people, I suddenly realized why I accepted that book at face value when I was young. The atmosphere in which I grew up romanticized the South and the Confederacy to such a degree that even though I knew while reading that slavery and Jim Crow were evils that needed to be eradicated, I accepted Margaret Mitchell’s romantic view as the status quo.
Living with such contradictions is inherent in growing up as a white liberal in the South.
The man who killed those nine people was apparently influenced by racist hate groups. But those hate groups are just the ugliest face of the “southern way of life” promoted by those who still insist on honoring the Confederacy. And if you grew up in one of the regions that promotes those attitudes, that erects statues to Confederate generals, that teaches the Civil War as “us” and “them,” that flies the Confederate flag on state government property, it’s easy to see that as normal even when you reject the political implications.
Rebecca Solnit began a Facebook post on the Charleston murders with the phrase, “If only the south had lost the war.” I hate to disagree with Solnit, of whom I am a serious fan, but the South did lose the war. What it didn’t lose was the peace.
Generations of southerners were raised in an atmosphere that not only oppressed Black people with violence and unfair laws, but also glorified a bunch of people who were traitors to their country. Right now at the University of Texas in Austin – Austin, the place in Texas that’s supposed to be different – there’s a campaign to remove a statue of Jefferson Davis from the campus.
Dear God, we should have done that when I was in school! But it never occurred to me back then, even as I was supporting Black political actions. It was a given: we honor those rebels, even those of us who know they did wrong.
That’s what I mean about winning the peace. It is accepted in the South to honor people who committed treason so they could continue owning other human beings, and it’s so accepted that even people who hate everything those people stood for don’t think about the implications of all those statues, all those holidays.
It’s why you get Texas governors making absurd statements – from Rick Perry suggesting Texas could secede (even while running for U.S. president and even though it would be treason to do so) to the current idiot occupying the post giving into the fear that federal military exercises in Texas (home of many U.S. military bases) were somehow a violation of “states’ rights.”
Those statements sound shocking outside of the South, but in the South – even if you didn’t vote for those people and disagree with every word they say, including “and” and “the” – you accept that kind of rhetoric.
The people of the South must stop pretending that the kind of southern heritage romanticized by Mitchell and kowtowed to by white politicians can be separated from slavery and racism. It can’t.
It’s time to move on.