The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

November 11, 2015

My Yankee Blood at Vicksburg

Living in Vicksburg, Mississippi for three years, I was not particularly welcomed by all in town.  I drove up with New York plates on my car, and even though I baked all my neighbors cookies, only one very sweet woman across the street stopped by to thank me.  The rest seemed to sneer about me half behind my back but with enough scorn for me to catch their disdain for me.

I made a few friends, but they were the exceptional people in town — an African-American woman chemist, a pioneer in her field, a white woman attorney for the ACLU and her historian husband, a retired nurse, and a few others — but while making friends for me has never been hard, in Vicksburg it was like trying to crack a joke at a non-Irish funeral.  My efforts fell flat. The second my Yankee accent poured out of my mouth, I was less than perfectly welcome.  I used to joke that since the neighborhood was so cold to me, I ought to show them how little I cared by getting four big German Shepherds and naming them after Yankee Civil War Generals.  That way at sundown, I could call them inside every day — “Come on, Tecumseh!  Come on Ulysses!  Time to eat!”

Sometimes, historic doesn't involve so much reenactment as simple enactment.

Sometimes, historic doesn’t involve so much reenactment as simple enactment.

I thought that if they were going to treat me like an occupying invader, why not act like one?  After all, what had I ever done to them?

It’s true that Vicksburg is filled with the evidence of a siege to this day.  My wedding was celebrated in the antebellum mansion occupied as Yankee headquarters during the War Between the States.  There are still holes in the floor from Confederate cannon ball fire.  We consummated that marriage in a bed where General Grant slept, though they had changed the mattress since his departure.  Annual reenactments take place on the battlegrounds of the Battle of Vicksburg, and there is a huge Civil War cemetery and park in town.  While many tourists come to Vicksburg for the casinos, some come to remember that battle and to pretend to be in it.

I never thought that the battle had a thing to do with me personally, until my cousin Marcia did a little research on one of our great-great grandfathers, Andrew Gast.  Apparently, as an eighteen year-old farmer in Indiana, he decided to join the Grand Army of the Republic.  He marched through Tennessee, Alabama, and he eventually ended up in Vicksburg.  He was honorably discharged in Vicksburg, possibly by Grant, possibly as he signed papers in the room where I consummated my marriage.  He lived to be old.  His corpse was not left on a Civil War battlefield.

Our family, like so many Yankee families, has never had much reason to reflect on the Civil War, unlike so many Southern families, who either gained their freedom or lost their primacy over others, maybe lost limbs or lives, maybe lost pride, during the conflict.  For my great-great grandfather, it seems to have been a momentary adventure, neither tragedy nor trauma.  The fact that he walked away in one piece from the siege of Vicksburg implies he probably took down a Confederate or two, that he at least fired a few volleys in their direction.

I suddenly imagine my great-great grandfather, then a teenager, striding vigilantly through the marshy reeds near our house, stepping carefully around the places where he might make noise.  I imagine him waiting for orders, getting bored between commands the way my college freshmen students do in my class.  I wonder if he slept a night in the big house where my wedding was — Yankee soldiers slept there if they were sick or wounded, and he took sick while he was there, a severe fever, one which he survived.

I see my Vicksburg neighbors’ dislike of me in a slightly different light. I was an invader after all.  My arrival in Vicksburg was a reenactment of my great-great grandfather’s invasion, only without uniforms and guns.  I was once there, or my blood was, to kill them. It wasn’t history.  It was me.  I was the enemy.  I remain the enemy of the Confederacy, though not of the South or contemporary Southerners, which I still love.

I cannot know my great-great grandfather Gast’s motives for joining the army, but given the subsequent politics of my family, I can imagine easily that he was against slavery.  I, too, would wade through a marsh vigilantly to help end it, were that necessary.  Where Vicksburg remains any kind of bastion of bigotry, I remain an enemy invader.  Where it is a free city, one where there are many highly educated people, a thriving black middle class, and a place of new ideas, I am a friend, not marching but frolicking.  My marriage South, it respects the traditions that do not oppress.  After all, I may have sojourned in the very house my ancestor sojourned in Vicksburg.  I certainly came there with peaceful intentions, but I occupied just like he did.

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July 19, 2015

Quit Calling Me a Racist While I Wave My Racist Flag at You! — South Carolina, Oklahoma and Confederate Flag Backlash

My colleague James Travis Rozier noted on Facebook that it was very hot yesterday in Columbia, South Carolina, where members of the KKK were assembling to protest the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from the State Capitol.  He said that he was almost feeling sorry for them if they were dressing in those white hoods and robes in that weather.  I remarked that it might be hot in July in the South, but it’s nowhere near a hot as it will be for those Klansmen when they arrive in Hell, where they are surely going.

Just preserving heritage? Who are they kidding?

Just preserving heritage? Who are they kidding?

The people who assembled in South Carolina in favor of the removed flag — and allow me to say briefly how glad I am it was removed — were “just trying to preserve their heritage.”  The problem with that logic, even if I ignore their shouts of “white power,” and the gorilla gestures some made (like the man pictured front and center with his hand held high did) at the many African-American counter-protesters, is that having appropriated the Stars and Bars as its banner, the KKK could only be protesting the removal of its own flag from the capitol.  Of late, the Klan has tried to reframe the way people identify it.  It claims to be a Christian organization — but how many churches burn a cross on an enemy’s lawn?  How many lynch and burn other group’s churches?  They are no more a Christian organization than the Nazis are a quaint youth group designed to promote the outdoors.  They have claimed to be in favor of white heritage the way that other groups in America promote the interests and advancement of people of color, but that’s a sad joke, too.  The NAACP, for instance, doesn’t define its success in any way by the exclusion of others but by the inclusion of people of color in places where they were largely excluded by social standards, and they have never been advocates or perpetrators of violence.  The Klan was founded as a way to terrorize dark-skinned people, Irish immigrants and Jews.  The purpose of the sheets they wore was to protect the perpetrators of crimes from identification in the commission of acts of terrorism.  The only way they have ever tried to advance white people is by killing, burning, maiming, and frightening others.  And the Confederate Battle Flag has been their chosen flag for all they stand for and want to accomplish.

But that flag is supposed to represent Southern pride, right?  Pride in what, pray tell?  I love the South and could rattle off hundreds of things for which I believe Southerners are rightfully proud — but that flag was designed by a man who explained to those who first flew it that its purpose was to represent the white race’s supremacy over enslaved black peoples in Southern States.  Those who chose to fly it understood and accepted this as its message.  A century hence, some Southerners say it only represents North versus South tensions, not racial tensions — but why wave it in Oklahoma as the first Black President of the United States drives by if not for racist expression — particularly since Oklahoma never flew that flag during the Civil War?  What else could that flag possibly communicate to anyone other than the flyers of the flag hate it that President Obama is black?

President Obama has not gotten embroiled in the flag-changing politics surrounding recent responses to racism in the South.  He has never had much to say about  that flag as President.  So what would be the political purpose of flying the flag other than the Klan’s purpose — to somehow say that Obama as a black man should fear white Oklahomans?

Have these people no shame?

I saw something sad that someone posted on Facebook — a photo of a young black man, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts near an open pick-up truck’s flat bed from which flew a Confederate Battle Flag.  The person who posted it did so to demonstrate that the flag wasn’t racist at all.  After all, if one black person is willing to stand next to the flag, that must wipe out centuries of oppressive meaning for black folks, right?  How idiotic!  I feel sorry for that young man by the battle flag and for his momma, too.  He is doing nothing new, in fact.  Franz Fanon, author of Black Skins, White Masks, would call him internally colonized — a young man living (one might likely think) in East Texas among white people who use the n-word to insult him and others.  So why would he adopt the symbol of the white community for himself?  Well, as Fanon says, the oppressed believe the worst about themselves, and, “the colonized [person] is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards.”  Fanon, who was himself a black man from a French colony, talks about people internalizing Frenchness and disdaining those things considered African and therefore disdained by the colonists.  Any young man of color who poses next to the Confederate flag (unless he just took it down from where it was flying — like Bree Newsome did — though she had no time to pose before she was arrested) has adopted the oppressive attitudes of racism about black people.  I feel sorry for him and wish he had been at the counter-protest in Columbia with people who knew that the Confederate Battle Flag is a symbol both historically and presently of racial oppression.

Fortunately, many white Southerners, the people who run NASCAR, Ole Miss Football Coach Hugh Freeze, and others, are able to see the harm this symbol does to the present-day South and the evils of the past that it preserves in lieu of those many things that the South might rightfully be proud to call its heritage.  They are calling from the removal of the flag as a symbol of official things.  They are aware of its use by violent people to violent ends and its original expression of support of slavery.  Today, many Southerners, like South Carolina State Assemblywoman Jenny Horne, a Republican and a descendant of Jefferson Davis, understand the battle flag symbolizes something absolutely NOT Southern — a lack of hospitality toward all.  As she tearfully argued for the flag to come off the flagpole at the capitol, she talked about how the flag was insulting to her colleagues and her friends.  Southerners as a whole value hospitality and cordiality well above foolish and petty ideas of non-existent racial superiority, well above the Confederate Dead, who are, however tragically, moldering in the grave and won’t be attending any more cotillions.  It’s the present Southerners, Horne and others have argued, who need to be welcomed, one and all, to the important and the impressive things the South does right.  The best way, they argue, to preserve heritage is to continue be who Southerners have always meant to be — kind, strong, resourceful, polite, faithful, dignified, and free — and to do so in a manner that embraces every Southerner’s history, not just the plantation owners’ history, but the history of those whose backs were whipped on those plantations, and those who lost limbs and eyes fighting to keep those plantation owners rich while they returned to poor subsistence farms and tried to make sense of a senseless war, a tattered battle flag in hand, youth destroyed with no sufficient explanation for the madness of the brutality they had faced.  The flag that the Klan clings to is a symbol of dishonor rather than the real honor of people of people not hooded but hoodwinked by a system that made the few rich and oppressed the many.

I will fight to the death for the rights of individuals to wave that flag, however misguidedly, but I am thrilled that the flag has been pulled down and is being pulled down off of government institutions.  As John Oliver said so well, the Confederate flag ought to be a marker for the rest of us to recognize the most horrible people in the world, not a symbol of any state where the descendants of slaves pay taxes.  And the racists are nice to let us know they’re in town so we can cross to the other side of the street if we like to avoid any lightning bolts God might like to throw at them.

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