I’m Nobody! Who are you?
For Skylar and Jessica
When writing about my redneck past—born, raised, and now having lived my entire life in the upstate of South Carolina—I reached back to my grandparents and parents as a way to give context to who I am and how I “got to be this way.”
In the waning days of June 2015, in the sort of near-100-degree heat we tend to suffer in July and August, SC has been exposed to the rest of the U.S. and world in a way that is hard for me as a Southerner to face: nine innocent souls slaughtered in a racist rage.
While the domestic terrorist responsible for this logical consequence of a people hopelessly clutching a culture of violence in the form of the right to bear arms and willfully blind to the lingering racism that stains our refrain of “life, liberty, and the pursuits of happiness” sought to start a race war, instead a state and national conversation has begun about the embarrassment that is Southern Heritage, raised like a petulant bully’s middle-finger on the grounds of SC’s Capitol.
I have never felt pride about being a South Carolinian, a Southerner, or an American—these are all mere coincidences of my birth.
It makes no real sense to me, this personalizing geography and then mangling history and ideology in order to create barriers among people.
As a high school teacher in SC for nearly two decades, my students often bristled at my confronting them about the flag fetish among many white students, mostly males.
As a life-long witness to Southern Heritage, I have come to recognize that we are not unique but representative in the South of the worst aspects of patriotism, nationalism, and jingoism—making a commitment to a false narrative to preserve an ideology that ultimately is self-defeating and dehumanizing.
Those most fervent about Southern Heritage and fundamentalist faith in the South have something important in common: an incomplete at best and missing at worst understanding of either the history of the South (and the Confederacy) or the Bible.
There is a selectivity to calling on history and scripture that exposes the real commitments of the fervent: holding onto a world that insures other people remain inferior.
“Heritage Not Hate” is propaganda, and as Aldous Huxley notes: “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”
It is the cruelest sort of irony that Southern Heritage advocates misrepresent history as many fundamentalists misrepresent Christianity because those false narratives seek to dehumanize and divide.
Yes, my family and community shaped who I am and how I “got to be this way.” And I am certain the South and SC have played roles in that story of me as well.
But I have no specific idea if any of my ancestors participated in any way in the Civil War or slavery; I must imagine that those ancestors in the South during those eras were like most people—in most ways directly or indirectly complicit in horrible human acts.
I must imagine that because we are directly and indirectly complicit now in horrible human acts—some so large and pervasive that most cannot see them (our consumer culture that includes the wealth of the few on the labor of the discardable many).
I have no desire to contort reality around my ancestors or the history of the region I happen to be born in as a act of somehow justifying my own value as a person.
Southern Heritage and Pride are abstractions that allow a callous disregard for the very real world around us—a world that is unnecessarily violent of our own making, a world that is horribly inequitable of our own making, and a world trapped in the labels of “heritage” and “Christian” but unwilling to learn from history or act on “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I simply cannot embrace a past that reveals all the ways we have failed each other.
It seems instead that today and every “today” we are called to imagine how the world can be better and then do something to make that happen.
I am grateful in many ways for the life my grandparents and parents afforded me, but my life has also included making choices to set aside many things that redneck past inculcated in me, things that do not fill me with pride, but shame.
The enduring possibilities of human dignity have been my guideposts that I found in literature (not garbled and romanticized history or cherry-picked bible verses): William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison and Alice Walker, Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings, Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera and Adrienne Rich.
But the moral barometers who ultimately saved me remain the voices I hear daily: Kurt Vonnegut and James Baldwin.
Vonnegut writes through Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:
“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:
“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”
Baldwin confesses in “They Can’t Turn Back”:
It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.
I feel no pride in being a South Carolinian, a Southern or an American; I did not choose any of that geography.
But when I read Vonnegut and Baldwin, I am proud to be a fellow human and I feel a sudden rush of hope found in the pages of literature—as author Neil Gaiman recognizes:
You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:
The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.
And this is my confession: While white parents gave me life, black authors saved my life.
I have debts to pay, and I must pay them forward—things I cannot do clutching a past that has failed us all.