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:
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.
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.