Buttermilk, Bluegrass, and Bullshit Conceptions of Heritage
Whenever people say that a Confederate monument or flag represents history and heritage the retort always seems to be that they actually represent hate and white supremacy. Obviously that is true, but no one ever seems to consider that they can mean both. No one challenges these people on the history and asks them why they represent heritage. No one asks what values they cherish that the Confederacy represents. What about the confederacy are they proud of? Which aspects of Robert E Lee or Jefferson Davis's character do they aspire to?
Perhaps the flags and monuments and namesakes are symbols of both heritage and hate. Maybe hate is part of their heritage. Perhaps they admire the kind of person who marshals armies in defense of slavery and returns blacks captured in the field to slavery regardless of their legal status.
“Heritage” and culture have nothing to do with biology (Richard Spencer and the neo-nazis marching in Charlottesville would tell me different, but I digress). “Heritage” and culture derive from common experience, collective memory, and shared morality. Perhaps we don't choose what to remember and we certainly don't choose a lot of our experiences. But we certainly have a measure of control over how we react to those experiences and what we experience in the future. We certainly have control over which memories we choose to hold fondly, glorify proudly, force others to memorialize with us. We certainly have enormous control over who we choose to be around. Whose memories we add to that collective.
Most of all, our morality is ours to choose. The things we value, the principles we hold dear, our level of compassion and empathy, and the way we choose to act toward others. Our morality and our values determine how we remember others and how we filter our experiences. We choose our culture and our heritage. We choose the things we value and how we represent them and they say an awful lot about our character.
I am a white southern man. I live in New York City and am extremely progressive. I wear hipster glasses and studied music in college. But I listen to Buck Owens and the Allman Brothers and have a healthy respect for Dwight Yoakam. My favorite food to cook is buttermilk biscuits and I like pork in my green beans. I had a Kite’s Country Ham shipped to Brooklyn. I have extremely exclusionary opinions about the quality of “garden ‘maters.” I still say “y’all” on occasion and I went to church three times a week for most of my childhood. I grew up without much money and worked after school jobs since I was old enough to do so. One of those jobs in the summer was on a farm.
My heritage has nothing to do with the Confederacy. The Confederacy lies in the past and requires reckoning and introspection, but I want no part of this elevation of its values. My heritage is cornbread, stained glass bluegrass, a decent work ethic, a healthy respect for a good book and a comfortable chair, an abiding hate for the New York Yankees baseball franchise, and a sense of right and wrong informed by the powerful moral example of others (with many of whom I have profound disagreement). I believe that people should be treated as such. I believe that compassion and generosity are always virtues. I believe that their opposites are loathsome.
“Heritage” is a damn choice. What we choose to pass on to others (friends, siblings, children) is absolutely a choice. If the confederate battle flag resurrected as a symbol of opposition to the civil rights movement or a stone statue of a slave owning white supremacist general is a crucial representation of your “heritage,” it's because you chose it to be so. It's time to stop expecting others to honor that in their public spaces when it’s already been tolerated through a century and a half of Jim Crow, discrimination, and inequality. It's time to make better choices.