Sunday, July 6, 2014

Southern Love, Without Apologies.

I was born in Richmond, a city in the South, the capital of Virginia. I lived in a few other places including in the Midwest before eventually making my way back to RVA, where I’ve lived for the majority of my life. I take pride in being from the South, in the same way that anyone takes pride in being from their region. For me, I think living in the South is wonderful, and what’s more, I think Richmond is an amazing city.

There’s no getting around a fact though: 153 years ago the American Civil War was declared, with the last shot was fired four years later in June of 1865. Richmond served as one of two capitals, the first being Montgomery, Alabama.

Though it’s been 149 years since the last shot was fired, sometimes it feels as though we are only decades beyond the beginnings of Reconstruction. I often read travel articles about Richmond (because we all like to hear good things about ourselves,) and frequently find the first sentence goes something like this, “Coming out of the shadow of its past as the Capital of the Confederacy, Richmond is well on its to becoming a destination.” Don't believe me? It’s as though we’ve only just rebuilt the city after the retreating Confederate army burned it. One doesn’t read articles about Chicago that start off with, “Rising from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, this city is now a place to not to be missed!” Of course you don’t! Because it would be absurd to write about an event that took place in 1871 as though it happened in the last 50 years.

Like any place that has historical significance or interest, history plays a role in encouraging tourism. We tell people that if they’re a fan American history or have a particular interest in the American Civil War, there is no better place to be in the South because Virginia has it all: Battlefields, the White House of the Confederacy, birthplaces of famous officers, burial sites and cemeteries, retirement camps, ruins, chapels, the site of the end of the war, museums galore, and historical markers every 10 feet. There is so much history here! I love history! And for the same reason I like going to Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York, etc., because they all have something interesting to teach. And I think that’s where many miss the mark when they think about Richmond, Virginia, and the South.

There’s a condescending attitude that we are interesting despite our history, not because of our history. Despite our history, we are a destination, a good place to visit or to live. Despite.

I was interviewing one of my favorite musicians a few years ago for a local news site. The singer happens to be from New England. I received the following instruction from the person who assigned the interview to me: Make the article relevant to Richmond; ask about what it’s like to play in Richmond, what makes it different or special. So I asked the singer, and his answer was more than a little awkward, and he stumbled as he tried to come up with an answer. “Well you know, it’s great being in the South, Capital of the Confederacy and all…” And inwardly, I sighed.

The South is more than the former Confederate States of America, but we can take pride in it being a part of our history, a part of what makes this place so great. Living in the South or being Southern is not something one needs be ashamed of.

There’s an old regional joke that refers to Northern Virginia as Southern Maryland, and it’s not because of how they vote or how much money they have. It’s because sometimes it seems like Northern Virginia would rather not be associated with the South. A simple Google search will you this is not a minority opinion; a lot of people put a large wedge of separation between Northern Virginia and the rest of the state. But then that idea started making its way down interstate 95: Towns like Stafford and Fredericksburg were becoming “less Southern.” The idea is starting to permeate Richmond now and I’ve found is common around “moved-here’s.” I had a person who moved here a few years ago say to me, “We’re not really that Southern.” Of course we are! But there’s an inherent sense of shame for being from or living in the South that seems to have held on for the last 150-ish years, and leaves me disappointed.

Like so many things, the South is stereotyped, making us one extreme or another. I don’t need to outline the stereotypical Southerner, but needless to say,  “reality” shows like “Honey Boo-Boo,” “Duck Dynasty,” and “Buckwild” are not documentaries. They no more representative of Southern life than “Real Housewives of New Jersey” or “Jersey Shore” are of New Jersey. I think in trying to avoid being seen as a stereotypical Southerner, people go the opposite, extreme direction, rejecting much of the South when possible, and that includes an interest in the local history.

Recently, Mom and I were standing on the porch of the Confederate Memorial Chapel at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The museum stands on the grounds of the former Confederate Soldiers' Home.

I had toured the building with my parents and grandparents. The place is beautiful, not to mention pretty neat when you pair the place with old pictures and a diorama of the camp. There’s a lot of history. Mom looked over at me and said, “I wish there was a way to be interested in history without the feeling like one needs to apologize.” I knew what she meant. There was an air of defiance in the tour guide’s voice as he explained the different artifacts and displays, “It’s not too popular these days to--” was said multiple times when referencing the celebration of history. Being a Southern history enthusiast seems to require a balance between justifying your interests and apologizing for them, because otherwise people will think you’re one of those Southern history enthusiasts. You know the ones that I mean--the ones who use the Stars and Bars as a poorly disguised code for racism or the Flaggers who have hoisted a historically inaccurate flag over 95 outside of Richmond.

Therein lies the problem: Because so many people associate the history of the South with the Confederacy and the terrible things that went with it (slavery, destruction of families, farms, towns, economies, deaths and injuries of over a million, ultimately the assassination of a sitting President, tell me where to stop…) and later racists or people who do inflammatory things, one can feel the need to disassociate themselves from the South and even disparage it.

I know that I had multiple ancestors who fought in the Civil War, on both sides, including my great-great-great-great grandfather Williams Evans Davis Sr., who is buried in Hollywood Cemetery.

We hope to have a headstone placed at his unmarked grave with his name, ranking, and dates of birth and death.

I take pride in his sacrifices because I know that any human being doesn’t take lightly the act of taking up arms, going to war, and killing others. Everyone knows the conditions were appalling, the environment, unforgiving, and the treatments available to those injured, nothing short of horrifying. Why should I feel any amount of shame for having him on my family tree? Because he was on the wrong side of a war that was fought over slavery, under the guise of states rights? Because if that’s the case, then the natural conclusion is anyone with roots in the South should be ashamed of their ancestors and history--and I say, no, that’s not okay.

It is possible to have an interest in the history of the South without being a supporter of all the negative things associated with the Confederacy; therefore there is no need to be ashamed.

Being from the South does not require an apology, and neither does loving it. It’s a balancing act and requires compromise, an open and reasonable mind, and compassion for your fellow man. Carpetbaggers and people from the North alike can leave their baggage at the door when they’re here, and Southerners, you can too.

Come to the South if you’re want to experience a lifestyle of hospitality and good manners. Speaking for Virginia, come for days on lazy rivers and rapid ones alike. Visit museums with exhibits that’ll only make one east coast appearance--and it’s not in New York or Washington! Enjoy amazing food from nationally recognized restaurants and chefs, and great wineries and breweries scattered all across the Commonwealth. Take in festivals for everything you can imagine, great performances and concerts, local arts and music scenes, roadside attractions, natural wonders, theme parks, and fairs. Visit local artisans, farmers, craftsmen, and cooks who sell their wares in general stores and farmer’s markets. And yes, take in the history. Because we have plenty of it! From the tribes that hunted and gathered on the land, to the first successful American settlement, to the American Revolution, to the American Civil War, to civil rights, to well beyond. We are Southern, we are proud, we love our home, and we look forward to sharing it with you.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous, as always. And much better put than I managed in our discussion. I am too cranky.