Can We Ever Forget?
by Donald R. Barbera
Today I am off to Birmingham, Alabama. I don't particularly want to go. The South holds a natural repellant for me and that is its history. It is not a history that I have ever lived but it is a history bound to me through heritage. I have always prided myself on the ability to see both sides of an issue fairly but when it come to the South I am not so magnanimous. There are a number of reasons I could blame for my admittedly narrow-minded view but it would only apply a facade to the abhorrent feelings I have for the entire area called the South. I have never examined my xenophobic position because I never considered it outside the realm of acceptability-until now.
As a thinking man, I now find my narrow focus to be unacceptable and unfair. I went to school with too many people from the South to give it such short shrift. In the Army and college, many of my black friends came from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana. It seems I had more in common with that group, coming from small town USA, than other blacks from large cities, although I had friends among that group also. Over the years I have met and developed relationships with whites from these areas also.
Lately, I have become aware of my broad-brush approach to that entire area called the South and I cannot justify my thinking in certain areas concerning how I feel about the South. As a person, I know better than to categorize people based on skin color, previous conditions, religion, ethnicity or sex because I know how misleading and how stereotypical any of these indicators can be, but I have had a self-imposed block when it comes to dealing with the South. There are things that I should forget about and move on or at least not give another thought because there is nothing I can do about it now. However, there are some things that I believe should forever be inscribed into our memories so we don't make light of, or forget man's inhumanity to man.
Like the Jewish Holocaust, I believe that the mark of slavery in the United States is indelible and cannot and should not be washed away, but should serve as a reminder of what can happen when economics become the arbiters of social behavior and sculptors of expedient theological thinking. I have not forgotten the "Christian" church which for years actually sanctioned and rationalized slavery. I have not forgotten how blacks were mistreated in the South. I have known about it since I was a child and I have despised the South.
The problem with that thinking is that everything changes. People change and regions change. To condemn an entire area because of where it is located is flawed thinking and similar to the kind of thinking that allowed slavery and white supremacy to exist in the first place which is something I don't want to be guilty of doing nor associated with in any fashion. Also, it would be unfair to blame the South alone for slavery and its degrading effects when the North was, in a large part, just as guilty.
Perhaps, I am not the only one who thinks like this or who has thought this way, but I believe it is long overdue for me to reevaluate my thoughts on this subject. However, before going any further I must dig into my past and retrace my thoughts over the years. I remember listening to comedienne Jackie "Moms" Mabely years ago making reference to Ray Charles "Georgia On My Mind," which was a hit record at that time, by saying that Ray Charles "could have it" meaning Georgia. "Moms" and I thought along the same lines. I hadn't lost anything in the South that I knew of and if I had, I sure wasn't going "down there" to look for it. My thinking was tied to stories my grandmothers' and my parents told me about traveling through the South and being at risk simply because they were black. The lynching of Emmitt Till happened when I was just a kid but I was very much aware of that type of thing happening in the South. I was well aware of segregation and the "Jim Crow" laws that were in place at that time because I lived it. Although I believe the philosophical idea of forgiveness is probably better in the end for alleviating problems of this nature, it is difficult to move from a position of self-protection and defiance to loving my neighbor, especially when that neighbor has been trying to kill me both figuratively and literally. No, forgetting has not been easy and forgiving has been even more difficult. However, that's another issue.
As a young man, I vowed that I would never go to the South, but I was defeated before I started. I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, a fact that I was not proud of even though that is where my father graduated from Meharry Medical School. Why did I have to be born in Tennessee? This was a question too weighty for examination by a child. I used to lie about where I was born. I never wanted to be associated with that area of the country, not recognizing as a child that all the areas of the country at that time were pretty much the same. Before I was even able to walk, I had already been in Tennessee and Kentucky even though I still don't remember it. As a child, I rode with my parents through Arkansas and Missouri to visit kinfolk we had in that area.
As an adult, I found myself living in slavery's "genteel" home in Virginia. Being in Virginia soon led me to West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Before that I lived in Oklahoma and I now am a resident of Texas where the emancipation proclamation was not even know about by the slaves until three years after it was signed into law. Once a resident of Texas, it was only a short hop to Louisiana and its New Orleans Mardi Gras.
There are two former slave states that I have long considered the heart of The Confederacy and that I have come to abhor, rationally or irrationally, and they are Alabama and Mississippi. In my mind, I cannot divorce them from the "Stars and Bars", slavery and white supremacy. Even though I know in my heart that these states hold the sites of some of the most important moments in the history of the civil rights movement and the push for black freedom, I have not been able to release my general revulsion for those areas.
Rebel flags, which often decorate cars, homes and state office buildings in these venues, serve only to provoke anger within me. Yet, I cannot hate a whole group of people simply because they happen to live in an area of the country and I have decided that I will not do it. However, neither will I release those of ignorance who continue to live in a "confederate" state of mind, white supremacists, and general purveyors of hatred or separatism based on skin color. I will fight these narrow-minded miscreants with every once of my strength for they ruin the name of other good people who just happen to live in the same state. Although it is common in the United States for the application of stereotypes to racial groups, I am not going to subscribe to that reasoning because of its inherent unfairness, bigotry and overall announcement of ignorance.
Unfortunately, many of our thoughts concerning The South are media and politically driven and are just as distorted as the people who report them. I will judge on an individual basis, unless otherwise persuaded. Though I will be less biased toward "The South", I will remain forever vigilant because I have lived in this country too long to ever believe that things have changed too much.
The "Stars and Bars" has always been a symbol of racism, slavery, anti-black sentiment and white supremacy to me. It is offensive, derisive and angering. Few things provoke such a quick feeling of anger and loathing in me than seeing that abomination waving in the skies of freedom and justice. I am also continually amazed at how close to the surface these feelings lie. I can go days without such thoughts or anger. I can even discuss racial issues with less personal effect, but the sight of the "Stars and Bars" says all that is repugnant and abhorrent in the world to me moving my feeling to within just an inch of Nat Turner's Rebellion. I loathe that symbol and the people who half-wittedly display it.
I have often wondered "is this feeling I get" the same as many Jews might feel when they see the Swastika displayed. It brings hatred to the forefront. Immediately, my mind fills with thoughts of Cinque, Nat Turner and John Brown. I think of popular icons of my time such as Stokley Carmichael, Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X, Ron Karenga, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. Hate is never a long journey once your house is on fire.