A month ago, I hopped in my car and made the drive from the big city to the small town where my mom lives to celebrate the Fourth of July. Along the way, the spires of Atlanta give way to the foothills of the Appalachians as the signal from the Alternative radio station fades and I make the switch over to Country. Once I exit the highway, I cross over the railroad tracks that brought people here after the Cherokees were forced out; the same tracks that were rebuilt after Sherman’s army came through town. If I go right, I’ll be at a quarter mile stretch of red brick stores with giant old time Coca-Cola advertisements still painted on their sides. If I keep straight, I’ll pass the police station, football fields, and the local clinic. Whichever direction I choose, there will be plenty of churches.
The July 4th celebration happens on the edge of the lake north of downtown. Crowds gather along the water for 30 minutes of colorful explosions and patriotic anthems by John Philip Sousa and Lee Greenwood alike. All around, there is every race and creed this country has to offer. Poor white retirees mix with middle class black families. Children speaking Korean play in the water and splash Hispanic teenagers. After the show, we all walk back toward town carrying our lawn chairs and blankets as the fireflies flicker and cicadas set the soundtrack for a warm summer night. This is the South. This is home.
It is part of who I am. I’ve taken it with me as I’ve traveled the world. It has influenced who I am and how I see the world. It pains me then to see fellow Southerners try so hard to defend its ugly history instead of accepting it for what it was and embracing the South’s beauty today. It hurts to see anyone so caught up in an issue that they’ve grafted it onto their own identity and come see any disagreements as a personal attack. It makes constructive debate that much more elusive and further grinds our political system to a halt.
Just this past weekend, there was yet another pro-Confederate battle flag rally, this one at Stone Mountain. When asked why they were supporting the flag, many protestors gave the tired old line “it’s heritage, not hate.” They’re proud of their Southern heritage they say and the flag symbolizes that, nothing more. I understand their desire for a symbol of Southern pride, but the flag’s history is steeped in racism and, try as anyone might, that history stays with it like a fowl stench.
These protests show an ignorant side of the South, but more so they highlight what people do when they feel that they are under attack. Many here have taken criticism of the flag as an attack on the South and, by extension, an attack on themselves. Those defending the flag are wrapped up in it just as much as it is wrapped up in them. Clinging to the flag has become a way to cling to Southern identity.
That identity has been rooted in Southern culture for as long as there has been a South. To some, we’ve always been fighting for it. Harper Lee looks at this in her latest book, Go Set A Watchman, as she revisits the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama that was also the setting of the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. This time, we see Maycomb through the eyes of a 26-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as she returns home for two weeks in the 1950s. She soon discovers that her father – her hero – has been associating with local racists and she seeks advice from her uncle, Dr. Finch.
He tells her that Atticus’s actions and attitudes like his are a result of trying to uphold the Southern way of doing things against the forces of the Federal government and all those who don’t understand life here. He takes it as far back as the Civil War, explaining that, back then, Southerners were fighting to preserve not only their political identity, but their personal identity as well. Along the way, the two became so intertwined that it’s now impossible to untangle them; politics and personality are one here.
Southern historian Shelby Foote painted an even clearer picture when he told the story of a Confederate private surrounded by Northern forces during the Civil War. The Union soldiers asked the private why he was fighting and he responded simply “because you are down here.” An attack on the South became an attack on everyone here.
The current debate echoes that soldier’s answer as some today hold tight to the symbols of a racist past. Those defending the flag are unable to separate their politics from their personhood, just as Harper Lee suggests segregationists were unable to do or as Shelby Foote believes Confederate soldiers were unable to do.
This imperfect union of politics and personality has the potential for a troubling outcome: if our politics are called into question – or are flat out wrong – it puts our personal identity at risk. It takes an issue to a higher level with more serious consequences. It also erodes the foundation for politic discourse because an attack on one’s politics becomes an assault on one’s self.
It also means that we are all too willing to defend a political position with every last ounce of our being. We cannot give an inch; it would only prove that we are weak. We feel that we must stand by our beliefs and vigorously defend them against all odds. In reality, however, we may just be Canaanites standing on the walls of Jericho.
With this kind of stubbornness, how do we move forward? How do we determine which ideals still hold merit and which may be wrong? How do we listen to others’ concerns and help discover what is best for everyone? How do we have conversations about our problems without feeling like we’re being attacked?
These aren’t just questions for Southerners. This has become a real issue for Americans and those in countries around the world. Because we are too willing to make our politics our identity, we are less willing to seek out compromise and the greater good.
We see it constantly in the national debate as we divide ourselves by which party we vote for, which religion we practice, even which news station we watch. We construct personal identities based on what groups we associate with and feel deeply threatened when those groups are called into question. Even within these groups, we fail to be critical for fear that we might look foolish if we discover something is wrong.
If we ever hope to break through our current impasses, we must build identity outside of just what we believe or what groups we associate with. Our beliefs help shape our worldview, but we need to give ourselves the space to survive if those beliefs turn out to be wrong. We have to be ready to shift and adapt as we learn more and make that ability part of who we are and how we identify.
Identity doesn’t have to come from our politics or any other association, be it Southern pride or your favorite football team. We must find a value in ourselves and in each other that stems from a basic understanding of identity. An understanding that while identity extends into all the incredible avenues of humanity, it still begins with the simple understanding that each of us is human and, in that, there is intrinsic worth in our very being. And celebrating that worth is what will move us all forward.