Prior to my parents’ generation, my family was diehard Democrat, not because of politics. Like many of those engaging in the Orange County Schools controversy over the Confederate flag, they claimed a Confederate heritage. I don’t know exactly what “heritage” meant to them, but I know it had a great deal to do with race.
As a child, I accepted their views, much to my present shame. That all changed in 1968 with the Kansas City race riots.
We were living in suburban Overland Park, Kansas, at the time, my first urban experience. The pastor of my Southern Baptist Church was a progressive in today’s lingo. He arranged a youth exchange program with an African-American inner-city church. We went to their church, and they came to ours. Through that experience, nameless members of a rioting group became, for most of us, individual human beings with feelings and real lives. Those kids were as distressed and frightened by the riots as my friends and I were. The only difference was they had a front-row seat to the causes behind the violence.
Since that time, the Confederate flag and all the other racist artifacts of the Confederacy have been cringe-worthy to me. I can’t watch “Gone With The Wind” or any of the other historical dramas glorifying the Confederacy without feeling ashamed and disgusted.
Social historian John Bodnar defined public memory as “a body of beliefs and ideas about the past that help a public or society understand its past, present, and by implication, its future.” It’s our decision how we want to feel about our southern heritage. Some are choosing to ignore its dark side by insisting on their right to display the battle flag, continuing the heritage of oppressing African Americans. Whether the flag supporters like it or not, the Confederate flag cannot exist as an emblem of southern white heritage without invoking its parallel history of racism.
What I don’t understand is the need to cling to a public memory that is so hateful when there are so many other rich symbols of Southern heritage. Andy Griffith rightly promoted the reputation of the South as friendly and welcoming. “Y’all come back now, y’hear?” My senior year of high school my family moved to Indianapolis. I was shocked by how cold and unwelcoming it felt. The neighbors didn’t even bring over covered dishes when we moved in! It was a different culture; it wasn’t the warm, neighborly Southern culture I had grown up in.
I value my Southern heritage, even though I reject the Confederacy and everything it stands for. My heritage comes from food and all the traditions around it. As I heard someone say recently “food conjures up the past.” For me, certain foods will always remind me of sweet memories like learning to make biscuits with my grandmother or sitting on the back stoop and having watermelon seed-spitting contests with my grandfather.
I chose the heritage that comes from memories like catching fireflies on hot summer nights and going fishing with my dad. When I pull the quilt up over me at night, all the loving care of generations of mothers, grandmothers, and aunts embraces me. There are plants in my garden that have been passed along from family and friends. My great-grandmother’s cast-iron skillet still makes perfect grilled cheese sandwiches. Elvis always invokes my mother as a young woman.
The elements of my Southern heritage are common to black and white alike. It’s a rich heritage with symbols and traditions that signify love and happiness, a heritage that has moved well beyond the Confederacy.
Terri Buckner lives in Orange County and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.