The Folklore Project
A Roundup of Thoughts From Our Readers
We had so many submissions in the wake of the Charlottesville attack, we simply could not run them all at full length. What follows is a collection of excerpts from 17 members of The Bitter Southerner Family.
What happened in Charlottesville only makes it more clear that these Confederate statues must come down all across the South. They inspire people with hate-filled hearts and glorify a war Southerners fought against this country for odious reasons. I'm Jewish and Southern by both birth and choice. I love the South. We have so much to be proud of here. Please, let's finally all accept that our Civil War past is shameful. And let's rally around the beautiful things about the South instead of these ugliest of things.
I went to college at the University of Virginia. One of the best classes I took at UVA was Julian Bond's class on the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
In Charlottesville last weekend, we saw that the white supremacists are back out in the open, again convinced somehow that they hold some superiority that authorizes them to deny equality and dignity to others. They are pathetically wrong.
In Julian Bond's class, we hoped we would have marched, that we would have spoken out. We wanted to think that of ourselves, that we were people who would stand up to racism and oppression. This isn't history class anymore, and one lesson from the events in Charlottesville is that we need to be the people we hoped we were, and speak out against hatred — even when, or especially when, it isn't marching around with a tiki torch declaring itself.
As a Southern-born and -raised African-American woman who still resides in the South, I love my region. Yet, I know the brutal history of my region and that it has not always been kind or fair to people who look like me. I always thought that racism would die with the older generation. In my fourth decade, I know that this is false. Until families stop passing down their racist and narrow-minded beliefs to their children — and until “allies” hold their families and friends accountable and call them out on their racist views — this cycle of hatred and intolerance will continue as it always has.
I want to shout it. I am proud to be from Alabama. I am proud to live in Georgia. I never want to leave the South. But that’s the part of me having trouble now. Our history is ugly. It is a history littered with wrongdoings, misguided thinking, and injustice.
And now this. Charlottesville has been a lightning rod to my soul. It has made me sit down and exhale. How did we get here? It wasn’t overnight. Did we do such a poor job trying to fix the past that it was inevitable that the ugliness would return? Did it ever leave? Has it always been there? I dare think it has.
We don’t have a choice. We have to do better. We have to be better. But I also struggle with the fact that using general pronouns is what has kept us in this trouble. When we talk in “they,” “we,” “them,” and “us,” it is easy to forget there is an “I,” a “me,” and a “you.” We have dehumanized the problem. We have to put a face on it. We have to own it and be responsible for our own actions. Change starts at a deep, personal level. It starts when we leave the “us and them” out of the conversation, and return the sir and ma’am to it.
San Francisco, California
I got two “takeaways” from Charlottesville. We need to speak out, not as just white people, but as Southern white people. We have a pretty unique perspective on race and history, especially if you’re old enough to remember segregation and the “Whites Only” signs. But we need to look around at each other, remember the faces of the people around us, maybe even their names. They are allies, and although it is mostly used as a figure of speech, there is quite literally physical safety in numbers.
Like most Southern whites, I’ve always cringed when I’d see a video of a white man ranting about some dark-ages bullshit, his blood blooming beneath his skin, or some mom shopping at Walmart with her ass hanging out of a Confederate flag bikini. But I have another image now, of Heather Heyer smiling at a camera, her young warrior spirit shining in her eyes.
My great-grandfather tried for years to integrate his work crews in rural South Georgia in the 1950s and 1960s. But when he hired black men, all the white men quit. They could do that because my grandfather stood alone. The other white business owners gave those white workers cover in their refusal to work with black men. If the other business owners in town had stood with him, not against him, those workers would've had no choice.
White people have had the steering wheel in this nation forever. Grab that power and use it for something meaningful. Fight the school-to-prison pipeline. Fight the billion institutional walls that keep white people in power at the expense of everyone else. Stop requiring non-white folks to be twice as good to get half as much.
And listen. Don't get defensive. Don't get hurt feelings when the truth is told. This isn't about our egos or whether we are judged publicly as "good people." Humble yourself to the moment. It's as critical as can be. Roll up your sleeves, open your ears, and do the work. Stop embracing the comforting lies. We can do this. We must do this.
John T. O’Neal
My family members didn’t fight and die so fascists could use the memory of one war to tarnish the sacrifices of another. This has to end, and it’s time for all of us, especially white Southerners, to stand up and say “enough.” Enough of these people degrading our names, our families, and our blood. White Southerners have to come to terms with parts of our history, but just as important is we have to protect the future by standing up to this new wave of hatred. We have to prevent others from using the South’s past in an effort to divide us and divide the country. The first step to that defense is by simply standing up and saying, “Not in my name.”
Several years ago, there was a planned Klan rally on the steps of the McNairy County, Tennessee, courthouse, just two blocks from my office. The people who staged this traveling circus of stupidity were not from my county. Rather, they were on a cross-country tour, hitting several stops in North Mississippi and West Tennessee, attempting to spread hatred as a legitimate political platform. My small, rural town has a population of about 5,000, with less than 10 percent people of color. To be completely honest, I was dismayed when I saw the turnout for the rally. I expected the worst.
But when the locals started shouting, they jeered and loudly expressed their disapproval for uninvited racists showing up in their backyard. I am not so ignorant as to believe there weren't people in the neighborhood, and maybe even some in attendance, who tacitly approved of the rally. But that day, the Klan and the skinheads left this place amid boisterous, angry objections to their presence, and animated invitations to spew their hateful, ignorant, race invective on a more receptive audience, which I hope they never found.
Charlottesville’s violence was not about statues. It was about the increasing boldness of fascists and their belief that it’s safe to come out of the woodwork now that the president and his chief strategist seem to support them. We should stomp them out like summer roaches that creep out under cover of night. They are vile and disgusting, and their voices should be drowned out by a chorus of resistance.
Greenville, South Carolina
My wife went to an anti-hate rally today. While I was driving back from drill with the National Guard, she called me. She was walking back to her car in One City Plaza in Downtown Greenville. She had a sign that said "Stand up to White Supremacy." A group of men in trucks with Confederate flags hanging off the back of them drove down Main Street past her. She showed them her sign and yelled, "No hate!" They began to yell at her and told her to "go back where you’re from." (She was born and raised in Camden, South Carolina.) They squealed their tires and yelled some other choice words. Someone sitting nearby yelled at her, "Know your history."
I know those men don't represent everyone, but for many people, this is what the Confederacy represents today: hate, vitriol, and, at its core, a spoiled sense that because of the whiteness of your skin, your life should be easier than it is. I'd guess those men driving by an anti-white-supremacy rally while waving their Confederate flags feel that way. too. So, if you ever wonder why people want to take down monuments, it's not to erase the history books. It's because people like that have effectively ruined the symbolism.
I just don't understand how so much hate can fester in people's hearts. I watch the news, and it looks so much like the ’60s all over again, just captured and transmitted faster and more widely due to technology. And I hate feeling so helpless as I watch this happen in our country. America — land of the free and home of the brave. Land of opportunity. "This land was made for you and me," according to Woody Guthrie. So why can't we find a way to let others live differently in this great country and be OK with it?
San Mateo, Florida
We grew to call Colorado our home, but I always yearned to come back — to the freedom of the forest and the Current River. I missed the humidity, and I missed the lightning bugs. It took me 25 years to get back. And while northern Florida is not the Ozarks, I've always felt like the waterways of the South were home. Now, I raise my kids on the banks of the St John's River.
When I see white folks claim their Southern pride and "heritage" is wrapped up in their hatred and destruction of me and my Jewish children, it's heart-breaking. Do we not also belong here? Where are we supposed to go? I guess we stay and fight.
As I've matured, the realization that violence never solves cultural issues has taken root. Yet still, I see images from Charlottesville, a city that I've grown to love, and I want to run headlong into that fray and push back as forcefully and violently as possible against that kind of hate. It's an action I can remember taking many a time in my youth. This game of identity politics has a cost. The ugly underbelly of white racial grievance that has been tapped for political gain is rallying. I denounce this whole putrid display of white nationalism, from the foot soldiers to the political leaders who've emboldened them.
As I looked at my girls this morning, I remembered that I have the most potent weapon against this kind of ugliness, right at my fingertips. We can Raise Warriors. We can raise children who speak out in defense of love, and denounce hate at every turn. We can combat a long history of calculated disparagement of "others" by educating and reminding our children of this country's history, while emphatically celebrating its diversity.
Step your game up. Engage in the uncomfortable waters of contentious conversation. Fight back with sharp intellect, and a heart filled with fierce morality. Teach your children that this war will not be won with physical combat, but with a spiritual warrior's discipline and adherence to love. Be bold.
We can only fight back against racism, fascism, nationalism, and all other forms of ill-conceived collectivism on both sides by celebrating the individual. The belief that one race, gender, and class should think, speak, and act in one manner is what is plaguing not only the South, but also the entire nation from moving forward. If we do not take the time out of the day to even acknowledge those around us with individual, differing views, we are trapping ourselves in the same whirlwind of misinformation and closed-mindedness as the white supremacists.
Think about your own beliefs and how they were formed; most likely they came from a prominent political or social figure you respected. Now think about how they have changed, if they have changed at all. The change came from an engaging dialogue with a family member, a friend, or an acquaintance. So I challenge Southerners of all backgrounds to step out of their comfort zones. Step out of the bubble of preconceived notions. Step into a new restaurant or barber shop. Step into a church or other organization’s meeting you wouldn’t normally attend. Because before you can love your neighbor, the first step is getting to know them.
Anderson, South Carolina
People of color. Muslims. The LGBTQ community. Immigrants. The religious. Atheists. Without our beautiful diversity, we would collectively live a monotonous existence. There is nothing wrong with differences of opinion or beliefs, but there should be unequivocally no room for hate. We have reached this point because too many have averted their eyes and stayed silent. I will be silent no more.
Once again, there is a dismay that is informed by lack of surprise. I know folks who are white supremacists and am confident some are related to me by blood. With family members, I have tried over the years direct verbal engagement on this topic, to zero positive effect. Hateful ignorance proved a complete barrier to a reasoned argument, so naturally the temptation to lob some ad hominem grenades at the target arose. I can resist everything except temptation. After a while, the impasse seemed impossible, and it was easy to retreat to silence, to change the subject to something less volatile, like the Auburn/’Bama rivalry.
But people are not one way. Goodness can and often does exist side by side with menace. Some of these folks I love. And they love me back. Closing off entire decades of relationship seems counter-productive. But so does silence. Thus, I anticipate some awkward moments at family gatherings in the future.
Expat Southerner here. In a conversation with a black colleague once, I was candidly explaining the casual and ingrained racism of my Southern family and my attempts to navigate it with my children, to whom it was shocking. In frustration, I made the statement, "These are otherwise decent people." And she cut me off: "No. No. They are not decent people." In essence, I was saying, "It's complicated." And her response was, "It actually isn't."