Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Heritage not Hate Dodge

South East Michigan has many people (both black and white) who have parents, grandparents or great grandparents that came from the South. This was because of the 20th century automotive industrial boom. So many Southerners migrated here that certain Detroit suburbs or neighborhoods got the pejorative suffix "tucky" as in "Kentucky". The southern (white) migrants also brought a virulent racism which would be a causal element for riots in 1943 and 1967, not that Michigan was a sauna of racial tolerance before they arrived. I haven't been down South in a while but I always thought it was odd that I've seen more Confederate Battle flags in Michigan than I ever did down South. Usually that flag is attached to a pickup truck bumper or displayed in a gun shop or military surplus goods store.

My earliest memory of the city where I now work was two white men in a pickup truck with a Confederate Battle flag attached, slowing down to spit and hurl racial slurs at my then babysitter as she drove me and another child home. Such brave men, yes? So I usually associate that flag with racial hatred, white supremacy and above all, losing. The South lost the Civil War. I'm glad they lost because that meant that my great-great-great-grandfathers/mothers no longer had to live in slavery. So this was an unambiguously good thing as far as I was concerned.
Not everyone feels that way.
Some think that slavery was a good thing or at the very least not all that bad and black people should stop whining talking about it and find the positives. Others will, at least in public, not defend slavery or white supremacy but nonetheless will try to find some good things about the antebellum South and connect this to a pride in (white) Southern heritage. One such person would be Gary Rossington, famed guitarist of the reconstituted Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

CNN news anchor Fredricka Whitfield—who, it may not be irrelevant to mention, is African-American—mentioned the history of the band using the Confederate flag in concert and album art, saying, "We don't see that anymore. At what point did you make a decision to lose that, or what was the evolution of that?"
Rather than tell her she was mistaken, Rossington—the sole remaining member of the group's classic 1970s lineup—launched into an explanation of how the flag has been misappropriated. "It became such an issue about race and stuff,"
Rossington explained on camera, "where we just had it at the beginning because we were Southern, and that was our image back in the '70s and late '60s, because they kind of branded us from being from the South, so we showed that. But I think through the years, you know, people like the KKK and skinheads and people have kind of kidnapped that Dixie or rebel flag from the Southern tradition and the heritage of the soldiers. That was what it was about, and they kind of made it look bad in certain ways. We didn't want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agree with the race stuff or any of the bad things."
Singer Johnny Van Zant, who replaced his late brother Ronnie in the group, chimed in: "If nothing else, we grew up loving the old blues artists and Ray Charles. We just didn't want to be associated with that type of thing".


Since the early seventies the band has been associated with the Confederate Battle flag. So many fans gave a rebel yell at the idea of their band changing the imagery that Rossington was forced to reverse his stance and repudiate his comments. Having had tragicomic accidental exposure to classic rock radio at an impressionable age I actually liked a few Lynyrd Skynyrd songs. In some areas during the seventies/eighties it was literally impossible not to hear the mournful slide tones of Freebird or the boogie of Sweet Home Alabama somewhere on the radio or blasting out of someone's Firebird. Somewhat ironically the hook for "Sweet Home Alabama" is so catchy that other musicians like the Geto Boys used it. Even more ironically Black women singers provided backup vocals for "Sweet Home Alabama".

Just as some rappers and artists have sought to take what is referred to as "the n-word" and put their own meaning into it, others have tried to redefine the Confederate Battle flag as not being symbolic of a struggle to maintain slavery and white supremacy but as a simple pride in Southern heritage, not backing down from a fight and standing up for your beliefs. Some more honest people also try to attach a "non-racist" white pride to it, claiming that if everyone else can be proud of their ethnic heritage and ancestral deeds, why can't southern (or southern identified) whites?

I think this argument is sort of disingenuous though on the surface it's somewhat compelling. The Confederates initiated an armed rebellion against the United States, one which even today remains the bloodiest war the US has ever fought. And they did so precisely because of a fierce belief in slavery and white supremacy. Don't just take my word for it, look up what they wrote about why they were rebelling.

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

The Confederates wanted to make sure everyone knew what they thought about blacks.
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.

And like I said..they lost. When I see that flag I think of a racist loser. So I see nothing to honor or be proud of.
It is true that the Confederate Battle flag has been associated with white power movements, the Klan, and American Nazis. Rossington is correct about that. What he misses, most likely deliberately, is that there's a reason for that. It's not so much that the Confederate Battle flag has been misappropriated as it is that it's an almost perfect beacon for many of the beliefs that white power movements, the Klan and Nazis have.
There were many brave men who fought for the Confederacy. I have no doubt about that. There were also many brave men who fought for Germany in WW2. Some Waffen SS men laid down their lives trying to protect German civilians (and especially German women) from rape and death at the hands of the Russians. But if a German woman hoisted a Swastika or Waffen SS flag today and claimed that she is not supporting Nazism but is merely honoring the bravery of her ancestors, would anyone believe her? Probably not. Those symbols are fixed in their meaning. And despite the bravery of individual soldiers the cause for which they fought was so wrong that even attempting to honor them feels wrong somehow. They weren't the good guys.
The problem is that the South, unlike post war Germany, never had to admit that it was wrong for starting the war or wrong for having slaves. There weren't war crimes trials which ended with slaveowners dancing at the end of a rope or overseers being lined up against a wall and shot. There were never generations of education in the postbellum South which emphasized the wrongness of human bondage. And of course there were never reparations paid to the slaves. There was a brief attempt to ameliorate some of slavery's effects which was met with sullen and later openly violent Southern white resistance. The North shrugged its collective shoulders and by the 1890s or so the South had been left to handle its own affairs and write its own version of events, one which surprisingly enough was generally accepted by the North, at least insofar as black people were concerned. Slavery had nothing to do with the war. Slavery wasn't that bad. The South were genteel farmers who were were resisting an invasion by northern industrialists. Slaves were fat happy people who loved giving relationship advice to white people. And so on...
At a time when Confederate Battle flag enthusiast Kid Rock gets an NAACP award and says he loves black people and is not racist, is it time to look past imagery and judge people more by actions? Or is some imagery so disgusting that that's impossible to do. The great Southern writer William Faulkner famously wrote "The past is never dead. It's not even past'. I think that quote is quite applicable here. The Civil War and slavery still cast a heavy shadow over America, in part because some of the issues we thought were resolved then haven't quite been. And because historically speaking the Civil War wasn't that long ago it's not necessarily easy to let go of certain things. I doubt, by way of comparison that too many British are still too sensitive over the Norman invasion of 1066 or the War of the Roses. Why? Because those things are long long past. The winners and losers have merged. You can't tell a Norman from a Saxon. The issues have been forgotten or no longer matter. None of that is true in the American context of state's rights, discrimination, race relations, etc.


1) What does the Confederate Battle flag mean to you?
2) Is it possible to redefine symbols like the Confederate Battle flag?
3) Is it possible to have white pride without being racist?
4) Had you ever heard of Lynyrd Skynyrd before?

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