LOS ANGELES, April 22nd, 2013 — When I first heard mention of country artist Brad Paisley’s new song, “Accidental Racist,” featuring L.L. Cool J, on the morning shows last week, my intellectual nostrils flared with the scent of a cheap gimmick.
So I didn’t go out of my way to listen to the song; rather I took for granted that the derision the song provoked from black and white alike was likely justified.
But then, in a web-based moment of bored curiosity, I took the time to pull it up on YouTube, just to see what it was. Very quickly I realized that this piece of music was not what I thought it was, and was not what so much of the commentary relating to it seemed to indicate.
Buried in the midst of this storm of criticism and misunderstanding is a song that tries harder than any piece of music to come along in a long while to address not just some of the differences of understanding between black and white, but between the white south and a modern America defined by two centuries’ rejection of the racial values of the south.
We cannot understand the United States of America today, nor can we begin to solve her problems, if we do not understand the mindset of the children of the defeated south. For that lies at the heart of the divisions in our country.
I can understand why this song would be teased. The opening line “to the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand when I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan,”…granted, it’s a casual way to introduce such an explosive topic, and the redneck imagery alone makes it inaccessible to many.
But listen past that and hear the question: what does it mean, when you see a person wearing a Confederate flag?
To most of us, certainly to us black people, the rebel flag stands for racism. It stands for slavery. But to Brad Paisley, and to most southerners, that part of its meaning is but a shameful subtext to a broader legacy which they still wish to look upon with honor and dignity.
You northerners, us westerners, you liberals and progressives, we blacks and minorities…very few of us understand this broader feeling. To us, that flag is a symbol−the symbol−of everything that is and ever was wrong with America. But it is worth acknowledging at least that to those who wear it, there is a fuller history to which it is attached that we would do well to understand.
I too balk at the Confederate flag. As a black man, as a Lincoln Republican, the ill for which it stood is an offense to me on all fronts.
But perhaps I am better positioned to understand its greater psychological contours because I am the son of, not just a white man, but a white southerner.
My father wore the rebel flag as a boy in Tennessee. And though he is a Jazz musician whose heroes in life were Willie Mays and Muhammad Ali, the pride of the south still is in my father, and in some indirect way is in me (though I’m from Los Angeles).
History claims us all, after all, and the history of my name traces through the south; clear through Dixie and the Confederacy to the very lap of Robert E. Lee (who one of my grandfathers was supposed to have known as a boy).
The fiercely independent spirit of the south, the deep roots of her traditions and her religion, the very romance that flows between the southern heart and the wide county fields and pastures that they have settled and cultivated through generations largely separate from the mainstream American history that the rest of us, to some extent, have in common, I know very well that all of these elements are interwoven in the fabric of that flag.
The perceived need to defend these things underpinned a catastrophic struggle one and a half centuries ago, a devastating effort from which the south could take nothing…save the right to cling to that proud, beaten banner, after watching all that she held dear (far beyond slavery) be demolished. Yet the modern southerner knows that the South deserved to be beaten, both in the 1860s and the 1960s. The modern southerner, on many levels, is glad that she was.
The modern white southerner is an American, and knows (or at least is trying to comprehend) the dream of diversity and equality in this country. That’s what this song was about. So listen to it again. Understand what Paisley was saying, the conversation he and LL were trying to start, and what it means to be “caught between southern pride and southern blame.”
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