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The Cruelest Month
By Leah Mueller
Ah, April. The scent of magnolia blossoms. The intoxicating warmth of the air as temperatures rise. The joyful cacophony of birdsong. The rhythmic flapping of the Confederate flag in the breeze….
Thanks to Governor Phil Bryant, April is now officially Confederate Heritage Month in Mississippi. On the surface, his reasoning appears sound. Bryant, a Republican, chose April because it is a month associated with both the beginning and end of a “four-year struggle.” He declined to elaborate further about the precise nature of the conflict. Clay Chandler, a spokesman for the governor, commented: "Gov. Bryant believes Mississippi's history deserves study and reflection, no matter how unpleasant or complicated parts of it may be.”
It is undeniably true that US history is marred by countless reprehensible incidents. These incidents deserve serious scrutiny, as does the culture that surrounds them. I live in the Pacific Northwest, an area long considered a bastion of liberalism. Recently, to my horror, I discovered an article on the Gizmodo website which detailed the depth of our region's racist history.
Oregon has the dubious distinction of being the only US state to actually ban black people from moving into it. Existing African-Americans were grudgingly allowed to stay, but their residency was strongly discouraged. This shameful law persisted until 1926, when it was finally eliminated. The vile law exercised its tyranny for nearly 70 years, often marked by keep-out signs such as one that existed at the popular Waddle's restaurant: “White Trade Only. Please.”
By 1926, the Civil War, which sought to “end” slavery, had been over for 69 years. Though the prevalent view is that racism was limited to the South, history shows this simply wasn't true. In fact, the racial composition of the Pacific Northwest today is still overwhelmingly white, though other ethnic groups, especially Asians, have made decisive inroads. The irony of this is obvious. It easily gives rise to the stereotype of the Birkenstock-clad aging hippie with a Microsoft stock portfolio. In other words, a classic guilty white liberal, whose professed tolerance is mostly theoretical in nature. It's easy to be progressive when you're surrounded by people who are just like you.
On the other hand, Oregon and Washington continue to evolve, to adopt viewpoints which distance ourselves from our racist past. In that sense, it helps immeasurably to be aware of our own, unsavory history. I was tempted to sympathize with Bryant's assertion that knowledge of the “unpleasant, complicated parts” was essential for an understanding of any state's past. It is never useful to sweep these bits under the rug, under the guise of a false sense of tolerance.
After further scrutiny, however, I discovered Bryant has his own agenda. He appears to be passionately fond of Mississippi's Confederate heritage. In fact, Bryant is so gung-ho about the Confederate logo that he flatly refuses to remove it from the state flag. Bryant even defends the flag against criticisms of fellow Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Philip Gunn. In a recent statement, Gunn said, "As a Christian, I believe our state's flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi's flag."
Bryant responded in this manner: "A vast majority of Mississippians voted to keep the state's flag, and I don't believe the Mississippi Legislature will act to supersede the will of the people on this issue.” This closes the matter, at least as far as Bryant is concerned, and the Confederate logo will remain for an indefinite period. Political correctness be damned, this is a matter of heritage. But whose heritage, exactly? Mostly, the heritage of white slave-owners, who fought for the right to keep other people in perpetual subjugation.
To be fair, many Mississippi residents don't look at their flag and feel immediate swellings of racism. Their love of the flag is mostly visceral and sentimental in nature. But when deeper scrutiny reveals that the Confederate symbolism represents a shameful period in history, one must re-assess one's allegiance to that flag. The Southern states deliberately sought to form their own union, one which violently defended enslavement of African-Americans. Is it really appropriate for Mississippi to continue to display the symbol of that hatred, and proudly claim it as its own?
Governor Bryant seems to think so. For now, anyway. He's fighting back against his detractors, and now he has a whole month to think about how much he values Confederate history. If he forgets, there will be plenty of flags around to remind him. I suspect Bryant is secretly a bit bothered by those damned “unpleasant, complicated parts “of his heritage, however. Perhaps they even haunt him, just a little, and creep into his brain as he's falling asleep. One can only hope.
#Real #Essay #ConfederateHeritageMonth #Racism #Slavery #History
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