A word for the Old South

As a boy, I played with a Civil War set like this.
As a boy, I played with a Civil War set like this.

Because my parents loved me, they gave me a Civil War set to play with when I was small. It came with dozens of army men in fighting poses, molded from blue and gray plastic.

Many climactic battle scenes involved loading a handful of blue figures onto the spring-loaded bridge. Things looked grim for the Confederates, but with help from a boy’s finger on a hidden button, the bridge would “explode,” sending Union soldiers flying and dying onto my bedroom floor.

Growing up in Texas in the ’60s and ’70s, I was a child of the South, and the South always won.

Last week’s tragedy in Charleston, S.C., has a lot of people doing a little soul-searching about their Southern roots. Words like “Southern pride” and “heritage” are bandied about, while others grow apoplectic about the “sacred history of the Confederate flag.”

As a boy, every year I would watch the old Blue-Gray Football Classic with my father and every year we’d root for the Gray. They were good Southern boys with Southern values, and I was a child of the South.

Sometimes my family would go for a drive, and I remember Daddy telling us to roll up our windows and lock the doors because we were driving through “Nigger Town,” that part of San Antonio just north of the New Braunfels Avenue bridge, over the rail yard and onto “the wrong side of the tracks.” I’d shrink down in my seat and stare out the window at the black faces, watching for any sudden moves.

Mama was not much better, though her invective was usually directed at the “Mexkins.” One time while we were out driving, she turned in her seat and told me, “those Mexkin girls have such pretty skin, but don’t you even think about bringing one home!” I was probably 8-10 years old at the time and not interested in girls, Latina or otherwise.

I was a child of the South.

By most accounts my parents were pretty good people. We went to church on Sunday and Mama or Daddy would put a money-filled envelope into the collection plate. We had sit-down dinners with steak, sausage, corn-on-the-cob, fresh tomatoes and fried okra. We’d put sugar into our iced tea and stir it with long-handled spoons that made clinking noises against the insides of the frosty glasses. We’d watch television, say “I love you,” go to bed, then wake up and do it all over again.

I was a child of the South and I came by it naturally. In fact, I come from a long line of slaveholders. One enduring memory is the old photograph on the wall at my grandparents’ house. Here it is:

I've highlighted the picture of Tom Sullivan at our family reunion in 1931. The little guy highlighted to Tom's right is my father.
I’ve highlighted the picture of Tom Sullivan at our family reunion in 1931. The little guy highlighted to Tom’s right would later become my father.
Tom Sullivan was 16 when he was sold to one of my ancestors. Here he is, featured in a newspaper article about his life.
Tom Sullivan in a newspaper article about his life.

A rite of passage for new members of the family was to be taken up to the old photograph with Tom Sullivan sitting front and center. Tom Sullivan was a former slave, you see, but the point was to make the newcomer believe Tom was a family member so they’d be suitably horrified and think they’d married into a family with some black blood.

After the initial shock, the truth would be told — Tom Sullivan was just a former slave, not really part of the family at all. Then all the grownups would laugh. Ha ha!

Tom Sullivan, in fact, gets a lot more ink than I do in my uncle’s exhaustive family history. It turns out he was bought for $1,600 by one of my ancestors — $100 for each of his 16 years at the time. He was eventually brought to Texas, later emancipated, and apparently bore no ill-will toward his former owners, who fought for the Confederacy.

Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten.
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land!

As a child of the South, I was steeped in those old times.

I can sit here today, confess about my parents’ prejudice and my slaveholder ancestors, yet still say that I loved them. Yes, I feel conflicted, ashamed, forced to justify. You see, despite their failings, I still think my parents were pretty good people and I don’t enjoy feeling guilty for saying so.

Here’s the way I look at it. Each generation has to evolve. We love our parents, honor them, but we have to be better than they were. I need to be able to look in the mirror and say that in some ways, at least, I exceeded them: I didn’t become a racist son-of-a bitch.

Obviously, my parents weren’t perfect, but they gave me the gift of an education, and it was that exposure to new ideas that allowed me to broaden my mind, explore new places and meet new friends from a rainbow of different cultures.

Ultimately, my parents gave me the gift of discovering that they were wrong.

For god's sake, take it down!
For god’s sake, take it down!

Child of the South, do you want to truly honor your heritage? Then for god’s sake take down your flag! Cut the cloth into strips and use them for bookmarks. Read! Learn! Meet! Discover! Honor your ancestors by demonstrating your intelligence. In a word, evolve!

Old times there are not forgotten.

No, maybe not. But they should be.


Add yours →

  1. I can’t believe Mot actually said that. I wonder what they really thought when you brought home a Catholic….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A truly powerful post! “Honor your ancestors by demonstrating your intelligence.” Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Eloquently put. Hard to believe, sometimes, that this blog is written by the same guy I used to drink Lone Star and whiskey with at Spurs Icehouse on South Rice in the dim reaches of my fading memory. As for that playset, I would’ve played with one like it if I’d had the chance as a boy. Mine were cowboys and Indians, GIs and Nazis. If that Civil War set came with a Confederate battle flag, though, it wouldn’t be found on eBay today.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We’re making progress. I can only hope that my descendants will be so understanding. What is considered to be mundane today, could be completely unacceptable in future generations. Auto-tune comes to mind.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Yeah, it’s time for the Civil War to end. The South lost. I must say, though, that as a native Texan I never really felt like we were a part of the South. I felt like I was from the West.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My parents brought us up in a slur-free home, and I so appreciate that about them. It was a deliberate thing, I believe. I know my mom came from family who used the “n” word freely. I heard them say it when we visited, but it always made cringe and think less of those relatives. I guess my parents are an example of progress between generations; they demonstrated their intelligence.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Well done Glenn. It brought back a lot of old memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Jason Fredric Gilbert June 27, 2015 — 12:24 am

    Terrific piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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