Lots of discussion going on in the world, and in social media, about race. I haven’t blogged about it much, but not because I haven’t had something to say. I wasn’t sure I had anything valuable to add to the discussion, but that changed last Friday. I hope you’ll take the time to listen, because I think my journey of discovery with respect to race might be useful. And if you don’t, maybe someone will find it useful, because I am done not-talking about it.
First, a little background-I’m white. Reaaallly white. Not just my ethnicity, but my upbringing. White, middle-class, central-Missouri-raised country boy. My mom’s family were Welsh, Scottish, and Swedish (so they claim), all immigrants to the US from those countries in just the last few generations. My dad’s side? Scottish, English, and one thin line of Huguenots, which gets me the “Saxon” part of my rather long, well-documented “Anglo-Saxon” pedigree. They’ve all been in the US for a LONG time… since the 1600s for the most part. My grandma was into genealogy, and she and my aunt traced the Walker clan back 14 generations.
This binder is my family geology on my dad’s side… pretty cool!
I grew up pretty isolated from black people. There were a few in my elementary school class, but none that lived anywhere near me. My parents were certainly not racist, and didn’t raise me to be racist; race wasn’t really on my radar. In high school, racism didn’t show up much, but “Southern Pride” did. I attended high school in the early 80s. While Missouri isn’t known as “the South” in a lot of people’s minds, the town I grew up in was sure “Southern” in culture. Add to that the popularity of country music, led by Hank Williams, Jr and Charlie Daniels, and Confederate flags and all things “Southern” became part of my identity.
Identity. That’s an important word here… You see, for a middle class boy in flyover country, particularly if you’re not a star football player, finding an identity that is more exciting than Wonder Bread is pretty important. “Southern Pride” did that, particularly in the 80s. And the preeminent symbol of Southern Pride was the Confederate Flag. That flag represented a lot:
The Confederate Army: It wasn’t until I joined the Army and was exposed to “Yankees” did I ever consider it a sign of a losing force. I know they “lost” the war, but bear with me… The Confederate Army didn’t “lose”, they fought valiantly, vastly outnumbered and out-equipped, and they almost won!!!
Rugged Individualism: The flag represented the tough guy, the man who could provide for himself off the land, defend against tyranny, and make his own way. One of my favorite movies then (and even now) is The Outlaw Josey Wales starring Clint Eastwood. The movie starts with Josey, a Missouri farmer whose farm is raided and family massacred by Kansas (Union) Redlegs. Seeking revenge, Wales joins Quantrill’s Raiders, a pro-Confederate guerilla force operating in Missouri and Kansas. My absolute favorite movie of that time, True Grit starring John Wayne, also depicts the Duke’s character, Marshal Rooster Cogburn, as a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders. Never mind what actually happened, the image, or identity was something that was larger than life, and something I aspired to.
Leadership: Like it or not, the reputation of Confederate Army leaders, from Lee on down, was one of gentlemen-warriors, chivalrous, honorable men of great moral character and superior strategy and tactics. Union generals, on the other hand, were often portrayed as bureaucrats, poor strategists, and even drunken buffoons (or in the case of the bad guys in The Outlaw Josey Wales, rotten, blood-thirsty scoundrels of no morals). The superiority of Confederate Army leaders was reinforced after I joined the Army, where I was stationed at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg (both named for prominent Confederate generals). There is no “Fort Grant,” and the only Union leader I remember being lauded in my studies was Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg.
But what about the Civil War? That flag represented rebellion against the US!!! No, not according to my history books, they didn’t. See, what I learned, IN SCHOOL, about the Civil War, was that the North took advantage of the South, using Southern raw materials to get rich making products in their Northern factories, then selling the finished goods back to the Southerners at a premium. The poor Southerners could only make their economy work using the labor of slaves, and now those no-good Northerners were trying to take the slaves away… This wasn’t about human rights, it was economic oppression, rotten to the level of Pharaoh taking away the Israelites’ straw used for brickmaking, but telling them to continue producing the same number of bricks! Those poor Southern statesmen did everything they could to try to appease the judgmental Yankees, but they just kept taking, and taking, until finally they left the poor Southern states no choice but to stand up for states’ rights. You see, all the real scholars know that while the North might have used abolition of slavery as a means to rally popular support for a war against the South, it was really all about the North, and the US government, trying to economically and politically dominate the Southern states.
Seriously. That’s what I was taught, all the way through high school, and college, IN MY MILITARY HISTORY CLASS by a PhD in History, at a HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGE!!!
But what about slavery?! You know, actual, people-owning-other-people, SLAVERY??? Yeah, I watched Roots. But what I was taught was that the reality of slavery wasn’t really that bad. Most slaves were well-treated, and even loved their masters. In lots of cases, after they were freed, they chose to stay with their benevolent masters for the rest of their lives… I’m serious–these were the FACTS that I learned.
What about Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement??? Lynchings! The KKK! So, in my American History classes, we quickly glossed over the Reconstruction, where we learned about how those rotten Carpetbaggers abused their victory, and robbed the poor Southern states of the little bit of wealth they still had after the war (“but they never took our dignity!”). From there we jumped right into WWI, the Great Depression (which, as I look back, only apparently affected white folks), and then, after we got back from Easter vacation (that’s what Spring Break used to be), we did a big unit on WWII, and how we defeated the Nazis and the Japanese. A quick skim through the Cold War (which was still going on, where we were in a life-and-death battle against the USSR and godless Communism), and it was finals week. Oh, yeah, somebody shot Martin Luther King, Jr. Terrible thing. James Earl Ray was probably a communist, but don’t worry about that, because the final only goes through WWII.
Through that lens, a heritage represented by the Confederate Flag doesn’t look so bad… might even be something to be proud of!
After high school, I joined the Army. The US Army is one of the most integrated places in our culture today. Southern Pride is thick in the Army. I don’t have statistics to back this up, but it sure seems like there are more Soldiers from the South. There is racism, but it gets squelched pretty quickly and thoroughly. I still remember as a young Private, fairly new to the 82nd Airborne Division, my platoon sergeant, SFC Jeffries, a black man from Alabama, yelled at me one night to “turn that shit down!”, referring to the Hank Williams music I had playing on my stereo while we were cleaning the barracks one night, getting ready for a big IG inspection. Being the good soldier I was, I immediately went to my extensive country music collection and queued up that great Kris Kristofferson classic, “If you don’t like Hank Williams…” and called out, “Hey! SFC Jeffries!!!” just in time for the title line. SFC Jeffries, being the great soldier/philosopher that all platoon sergeants are, grinned, looked me right in the eye, and said, “Walker! Are you prejudiced?” My blood ran cold, and all my false bravado evaporated, leaving me a stammering mess… “N-N-N-NO! SFC Jeffries, I’m not prejudiced!” And I meant it! I wasn’t! “Bullshit, Walker. Everybody’s prejudiced. You gotta grow past it.” The Army reinforced in my brain, that you judged people by their performance, period. And you fought, and died if need be, for your brothers in arms.
After my initial enlistment, I left active duty to go to college. I attended a small Historically Black College in my hometown. What an education in cultures and race. Nestled in the middle of rural Central Missouri is Lincoln University, founded in 1866 by the officers of the 62nd and 65th US Colored Infantry Regiments. When I attended, Lincoln had about 3000 students, about 900 of which lived on campus. The on-campus students were about 90% black, and came primarily from inner city St. Louis, Memphis, and Chicago. The off-campus students were 90% white, from Central Missouri. During my time there in the late 80s, Louis Farrakhan was making news with Nation of Islam, and Jesse Jackson was running for President, bringing issues of race to the forefront in national news, and creating division on campus. There were major protests when the administration rescinded the student’ government’s invitation to NWA to perform at our homecoming concert. Our book store sold t-shirts that said “IT’S A BLACK THING, YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND” and “BLACK BY POPULAR DEMAND.” I got to see racism from the other side… sorta. I walked around campus wearing my cowboy boots and hat, and I knew I wasn’t part of the predominant culture-on campus. But when I drove my pickup two blocks down the street I was back in my world. So there was no real threat. And besides, I was a big deal in ROTC (at Lincoln, every incoming freshman had to take 1 year of ROTC), and I got along with almost everyone. I was even invited to join the Alphas. I left college proud of my university, happy for the cultural experience, and confident that I didn’t have a race problem–I did not judge people “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
OK, so that was more than a little background… but it’s relevant. I get it when people say “Heritage, not Hate.” If you made it this far, thank you. Hang with me. This is going somewhere important, but if you bail now, you’re gonna miss it.