Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion had it right a decade ago.
The massacre in Charleston last week, in which avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof entered Charleston’s Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, joined a prayer group, then pulled out a gun and killed nine of the attendees while spouting anti-African American racist declarations, has prompted yet another one of those so-called National Conversations About Race In America. Unsurprisingly, though, Jon Stewart had the most sober and straightforward response, eschewing his usual “Daily Show” monologue for what appeared to be a spontaneous air-clearing in which he predicted that “we still won’t do jack shit.” (Watch the video of his commentary, below.)
He’s right. That National Conversation will take a familiar arc—including the usual debate about the Confederate battle flag, which is a symbol of racism to many but is a symbol of Southern heritage to others—then be shelved until the next tragedy occurs, and that’s a tragedy itself. Regarding that flag, with which Roof proudly posed in photos as well as other items clearly emblematic to him of white supremacy, I’ve long been aware of the cultural dichotomy that exists.
I grew up in the South and I have ancestors who were staunch Confederates, probably even slaveholders; I also was raised to abhor racism in any form, even the subtlest kind, and have tried to raise my son, now 14, to be color blind. I’ll never forget the time he came home from preschool and happily announced he had a new buddy. What’s he like? I queried. When he got to the part about outlining the friend physically, he didn’t describe him as black or white; rather, he used a shade of chocolate to characterize the child’s skin tone, as matter-of-factly and innocently as I might describe someone as having blonde, red or dark brown hair.
I can only hope that we have an entire generation of children coming up similarly unconcerned with matters of ethnicity and instead judge others based on their merits as fellow human beings. I’m not naïve, though; kids are raised through the prism of their parents’ attitudes, so for every parent out there who is trying to make sure his or her child is color blind, there’s probably another parent, or even a role model that the child looks up to, who is imparting his own bigoted or racist viewpoint. In that regard I’m just as cynical as Stewart.
This morning I found myself searching for a version of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s song “Gervais,” which originally appeared on 2005’s Exploration and is about the Confederate flag that stands in front of the South Carolina state house in the capitol city of Columbia. Sing Guthrie and Irion,
“Still flying the flag up on Gervais,
Was a battle flag, now we can put it away.”
Irion addressed the potentially controversial lyrics in interviews the duo did in 2005 promoting the album, calling it a song “that needed to be written.” Guthrie and Irion were right back then—and they are still right, now more than ever. Put the battle flag away, South Carolina. It’s time, once and for all, to do the right thing.
I mentioned that I grew up in the South during the ‘60s, in a small textile town located on the N.C.-S.C. border. The desegregation of schools in the South was happening at the time, a process that was protracted and painful and included a plan here in North Carolina known as Freedom of Choice that was designed to ease the transition to full desegregation by giving students the option to go to a white or a black school no matter what race they were. If memory serves, Freedom of Choice was in place while I was in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades, and although it was in theory a reasonable enough idea, in practice it meant that only a handful of black kids attended the formerly all-white schools. (I think we had about 5 or 6 blacks at my middle school while I attended.)
Meanwhile, I was lucky enough to have enlightened, progressive-minded parents, including a father who served in the state legislature and a mother who was on the local school board during the Freedom of Choice period. Her position on the board ensured that we received a few nasty, anonymous phone calls, and I remember taking one in which a male voice on the other end of the line growled, “Do you know your mama’s a nigger lover, young man?”
Two other memories stand out.
As a child, standing in the front yard one weekend afternoon, I watched a long line of Confederate flag-festooned cars and trucks driving past our house en route to the countryside. “Can we go follow the parade?” I excitedly asked my father. “That’s not the kind of parade we want to join, son,” he replied, a frown on his face, as he gave me a rudimentary explanation of what the Ku Klux Klan (or what remained of it) was all about. Eventually I would come to realize that some of the kids that I went to school with or played baseball and football with on the vacant lot a few blocks from my house were the children of local Klansmen.
Several years later I was sitting in the doctor’s office, reading a book and waiting to get my bi-weekly allergy shot, when a familiar voice came over the tall partition dividing the waiting room: “Fred, aren’t you going to come around here and join the white folks?” Well, I routinely sat on that side of the room because it always seemed to be empty and I could read without distractions. I’d never given a single thought to the partition or why it was there. That evening at home my mother explained to me how many in our town believed that whites and blacks shouldn’t mingle—Separate but Equal customs and facilities still prevailed in places—and what previously had been a gradually-evolving awareness and understanding of racism suddenly came into sharp, uncomfortable relief.
That voice at the doctor’s office? Remember what I said above about role models? It belonged to my then-current (7th grade) homeroom teacher. I never could look at her again with the same eyes.
Fred Mills is the Editor of BLURT.