Voices: Republishing ‘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.

Editor’s note: This week you’ve read posts from old friends and former colleagues, as well as some new friends I’ve met in the blogging community. In a new series called Voices, writers have been expressing their thoughts about the presidential election in the United States, and about Donald Trump, who rode a campaign fueled by racism and misogyny to victory. I expect more Voices next week, but today you’ll hear my own voice again, as I continue the conversation with this reprint of a post from June 23, 2015. Written in the wake of a vicious attack on a church in Charleston, S.C. in which nine people were murdered because of the color of their skin, events of the past week have made it as relevant today as it was back then. The post concludes with a new afterward.


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.

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, Hispanic 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 glasses. We’d watch television, say “I love you,” go to bed, wake up, and do it all over again.

Yes, I was a child of the South.

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 that he was a family member, so they’d be suitably horrified that they’d married into a family with some black blood. After the initial shock and a few laughs, the truth would be told — Tom Sullivan was just a former slave, not really part of the family at all. 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.

confederate-flag-at-the-trump-rally-x750AFTERWARD: The governor of South Carolina signed legislation in July 2015 to finally remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol. About 16 months later, South Carolina was just one of many states that went solidly for Donald Trump, and it would surprise me not one bit to see the Stars and Bars fly on the capitol grounds again. Just wait and see. But this post isn’t about singling out South Carolina. The Confederate flag was featured at Trump rallies all over the country, a symbol of hate as much today as it ever was. I drive to work every morning past a house in Northern New Jersey that often features a Confederate flag in its front yard. How ironic that it’s less than a mile from the town square of Newton, New Jersey, with its granite Civil War memorial dedicated to the defenders of the Union. If we’ve learned one thing from this presidential election, it is that racism isn’t a North or South problem — it is America’s problem — and with a virulent bigot set to move into the aptly named White House, it’s now clear that the Civil War never really ended, and as a nation we still have a long way to go.


Add yours →

  1. Thank you for this. It would take an incredible amount of fortitude and decency to be able to squarely look into your own family’s history and see it for what it was, but it is yet another to take it to the level you have.

    I come from people, the Indigenous, who very rarely are noticed as even still existing, despite this continent being our own homeland for time immemorial. The struggles for basic recognition all the way to finally achieving the full agreement of the government of the United States and its citizens to honor its treaty agreements with our nations is still very much the daily reality.

    It will take the perspective and the voices like yours to make these desired realities a truth. I hope many, many more people will read your words and garner even a small bit more of understanding and at best, the will and energy to stand up for decency for all.

    Hiy hiy.

    Liked by 2 people

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