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Friday, July 10, 2015

Looking back in shame

The Confederate battle flag was lowered in Charleston SC this morning in the wake of the atrocities committed by the racist killer Dylann Roof, so I am nervous about putting the above image on my blog - I worry that folks might jump to conclusions.    Like many white people, I have my own connection to this flag,  and it was in the form of the image above.  A framed print of this "Johnny Reb" cartoon was on the wall of my childhood home, proudly placed there by my father.  Oh, and my middle name is "Lee."  My dad wanted me to carry the surname of General Robert E. Lee throughout my life.  Since Lee is a common name, it doesn't attract much attention.  But I know what my father intended.  My father's people are from the southern U.S. (although he moved to California, where I was born and raised).  When we would visit the family in Tennessee, I was startled by their casual bigotry.  They used to call me  a "damned Yankee" (and other things that weren't as benign).

I have avoided digging too deeply into my genealogy.    A complete and detailed family tree could reveal some slave-holding ancestors.  I carry enough shame over the racism of my extended family and my ancestors; I don't want to know if great-great-great granddaddy committed the crime of enslaving humans.  If that makes me a coward, so be it.

When I was a kid, I thought the cartoon rebel dude was kinda cool.  The whole "Southern heritage" thing was part of my upbringing, especially as it related to food.  My dad would occasionally encourage us to eat turnip greens, hush puppies, hot water hoe cakes, fried green tomatoes and Tennessee ham with red-eye gravy.  It seemed colorful and interesting.  But once I hit high school, I began to feel very uneasy about "Johnny Reb" on the wall.  The shame didn't kick in until later.  I began to feel (and still feel) that I should apologize to every black person I meet for the actions and attitudes of my ancestors.  I know it isn't my fault, but I am a product of this legacy.

I am a white male American  born in the middle of the 20th Century.  It is like I started the 100- yard dash at the 50-yard line.  My son-in-law is black.  It is like he started the 100-yard dash 25 yards behind the starting line.  The Confederate battle flag, white Southern heritage, white supremacist terrorism and the basic organization of American life reminds us that the past is not really past. Conditions have improved, but the nasty tribal instincts that create so much evil are alive and well.

But I take heart.  Two of my grandchildren are mixed kids, and they have friends of all shades.  My community is more open and friendly towards various cultures, ethnic groups and creeds than most places. We can continue to improve our understanding of each other.  As the singer Pearl Bailey liked to say, "There is only one race - the human race."

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