My Southern Heritage Doesn’t Require a Flag

…or a monument.

Summer is upon me.  According to John Phillips, “The Mississippi River runs like molasses in the summertime.”  I know the summer humidity is as sticky as molasses…just like discussions about my heritage. 

The steamy humidity is a part of my heritage, as are lightning bugs and mosquitos, or violent thunderstorms, and the refreshing cool afterward.  Cutting sweet corn off the cob and salting it with the sweat off my brow.  Seems much of my heritage runs the gamut between opposite poles of good and bad.

My Southern heritage is being debated across the far reaches of this country…again.   The left is celebrating a statue of General Lee and Traveler, along with Stonewall Jackson being whisked off to a museum and the Right continues to debate the evils of Critical Race Theory, a theory I believe most have never studied…including me.  CRT is a graduate school or law school course that has been around for some forty years and is beyond the scope of what is being taught in grade schools.  Some people are confusing the truth about our checkered past for CRT.  I notice the folks crying the loudest about General Lee are also crying the loudest against CRT.  Maybe they aren’t confused at all.

These statues were erected to glorify men so gallantly in their Confederate gray or butternut.  Many monuments were bought and paid for by the Daughters of the Confederacy.  Statues bought and paid for by our grandmothers and great grandmothers can’t be bad, can they? 

The problem is many were erected in the badly segregated South of the Jim Crow era, celebrating men who caused the deaths of so many and who brought havoc and destruction to the South.  Erected by those who advanced a segregated society for another hundred years after the war. I find nothing to celebrate on this issue.

I believe there is much to celebrate about my Southern heritage. What I celebrate doesn’t increase the resentment associated with enslaved people bullied and beaten by gun bulls and patty rollers on tall horses.  The enslaved whose present and futures were lorded over by Southern aristocrats whose propaganda led poor whites to their deaths on distant hillsides.  Our heritage doesn’t have to involve a Battle Flag that flew over an army in the employ of a rebellious cluster of Southern states intent on keeping and expanding their “peculiar institution.” A “country” that only lasted for four years.

Is there nothing else we can celebrate regarding Southern Heritage?  Is there nothing else to be proud of?  Is there nothing more than flags flown from pickup trucks and belt buckles and bumper stickers proclaiming “Forget, Hell!!!!”  Are we simply the sum of our rebellious past?

We have a rich culture that doesn’t have to harken back to “old times there are not forgotten.” If you are going to lionize the exploits of soldiers on a battlefield, why look past the Revolutionary War?  More Revolutionary War battles were fought in my state than any other and some of the greatest military leaders of the war fought here.  South Carolina born and bred, Sumter, Marion, Pickens, and Moultrie, along with adopted sons like Morgan, Greene, and Shelby left their mark, not only on my state but on the nation as a whole.

Wait just a “cotton pickin’ minute.”  Weren’t some of these men slave owners? Yes, some were and despite this fact, we should neither purge them from history books nor should we discount their contributions.  As some of my right-leaning friends have told me, “It’s history”.  I agree, it is history and history should be taught warts and all.  It shouldn’t be sanitized, nor should it be taught as propaganda like my eighth-grade Cold War Civics class. History is simply what was. We shouldn’t cover it up and we shouldn’t hide from it.

We have a rich Southern culture and heritage going back centuries despite our “peculiar institution” and resulting Jim Crow…let me rephrase that…” including our peculiar institution and resulting Jim Crow.” It’s history.  We don’t need a flag or statues to worship under any more than we should deny the existence of mosquitoes and high humidity in our travel brochures.  They are facts we can’t or should not attempt to escape.  Facts are facts and history is history.

We have a rich and diverse heritage in my state alone.  Gullah language and art from the coast to Appalachian culture in the mountains and foothills and to German Lutherans in the “Dutch Fork” middle.  Native American tribal influences from the Catawba River, across to the Savannah, and down to Pee Dee just to mention a few.  We have art, music, and literature that sprang from slaves and sharecroppers. Beautiful cities and small towns.   Architecture, music, visual arts, cuisine, sports, a heritage that shouldn’t include praise for men enslaving other men or men who fought for them. 

When I say “shouldn’t include” do I mean we should ignore it?  Certainly not.  We shouldn’t heap praise upon the heads of my long-ago, dearly departed great, great grandfathers for fighting under the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia.  Whatever their motivation, they rebelled in the name of supporting slavery. If there was any honor in that flag it was lost when it was co-opted by the KKK and like minded white supremacists while we or our parents did nothing.

My grandfathers were poor men with little education.  Maybe they bought the propaganda about the state’s rights that included the right to enslave.  Maybe they believed in an unfair tariff that was placed on goods raised on the backs of the enslaved.  Maybe they believed it was a War of Northern Aggression.  I doubt they thought much past the surface.  Wars are started by rich, old men and fought by young, poor ones.  Still, they fought and died under the wrong banner and should not be memorialized or immortalized. 

No, I’ll stick with being proud of a heritage that includes BB King from Mississippi singing the Blues, a Southern invention.  I might sip a bit of Jack Daniels from Tennessee with a bit of Coca-Cola invented in Atlanta, Georgia.  Maybe later I’ll select from a menu that includes Cajun or Creole food from Louisiana or BBQ from anywhere in the South or shrimp and grits, from my state.  I’ve eaten enough Soul food to cause my arteries to collapse.

Afterward, I might go sit on my front porch, a Southern culture trait in itself, while smelling honeysuckle, jasmine, or gardenia with a Pat Conroy, Ace Atkins, or a James Lee Burke novel.  All notable Southern authors who follow a lineage of fine Southern authors from Faulkner, Walker, O’Conner, and Williams to name just a few.

Depending on the season I might watch my favorite sports teams, The Braves from Atlanta, The Tigers from Clemson.  I might catch a NASCAR event, a sport begun in the South that sprang from moonshiners and dirt track racers.  We have a Southern heritage attached to our sports teams and college football is a recognized religion with an attending congregation in the millions on any given Saturday.  Why can’t we Southerners be proud of that?

Again, and with fervor, my Southern Heritage doesn’t involve a battle flag or statues saluting dead Confederates.  My Southern Heritage is too rich for that.   My Southern heritage is about beautiful and historic homes and cities, sharecropper shanties, and Sears cottages. It’s about kudzu, cotton, and long-abandoned textile mills.  It’s about old men, white and black, plowing behind a mule on the river bottoms.

It is about rich music from Nashville or Muscle Shoals and even richer food from New Orleans, Atlanta, or anywhere on the coast. It’s great literature that can be as heavy as Southern humidity or as light as the scent of Jasmine.  My Southern heritage is about beautiful flower and vegetable gardens, and cotton fields bursting white in the fall.  It is about sitting on the front porch with family and friends after church and a Sunday dinner. 

My heritage is about friends and families of all races.  It is about celebrating diversity.

If I haven’t turned you off, further works by Don Miller may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0A3XCeFAUGkHotYyrBgt6V-v3Rl-6mVzt2hmVK3o_4rtITkiH874sjYQs

Image of Lee’s statue by Paul Mayer, Office of the Mayor, Washington, DC.

Stories I Need to Tell My Grandchildren

“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

An Introduction

The time and place of my birth and early life seems alien today…the middle of the Twentieth Century in a Southern, rural, farming community. There is little resemblance of my childhood world to the modern one. A Baby Boomer, I might have grown up in a foreign country…or another planet. I did grow up in a different century. It is certainly not your world, my grandchildren, my loves.

I feel the need to tell stories. Hopefully you will recognize the language, hopefully you will learn that your roots run deep.

The hands of the clock moved slower then…there had to be more than twenty-four hours in the day.  Not because we were bored but because it seemed we did so much in the time that we had. Days so rich and so filled, there had to be more minutes in the day than the 1440 we have now. 

In the time of my youth, cotton was still king with cotton gins and textile mills running at full capacity.  Pulp wooders were still stripping the hills of pine trees to feed the hungry paper mill just across the river from my home.  John Deere tractors pulled disc harrows or hay bailers toward the river bottoms. There were more cows than people, when “backyards” included vast pastures and mixed forests. There were no traffic lights and few stop signs.

Dark-skinned truck drivers were still carrying huge loads of red clay past our house to Ashe Brick Company in distant Van Wyck.  Distant…which was just down the road a piece but might as well have been on a different continent.

Little white boys with crew cuts and flattops standing out in their yard giving the black truckers a universal sign of pumping fists they smilingly returned by blasting us with their air horns.  They seemed to never tire of it, I know we didn’t.  Huge grins blindingly white against dark complexions.

My little brother playing in a sandy ditch using his voice to mock the trucks as they shifted through their gears, pushing his Tonka Toy Truck as he did.  My parents worried he would destroy his vocal cords if he didn’t quit. I might have wished that he had…but just a time or two.

Sitting under a huge pecan tree on a hill above a two lane blacktop, watching the sparse traffic and being able to recognize the cars of friends, family, and acquaintances, some by their distant sound.  There was always a stir when a new model cruised by. Knowing who the occupants were just by the cars they drove. Everyone waved and smiled.  It truly was a different era.

It was a different time because my family was still intact, and the place of my youth still existed.  Family and place are important. Two hilltops and two ‘hollers’ filled with extended families.  Grandparents and Great Grandparents, uncles and aunts, all making sure we always toed the line. The old Nigerian proverb ‘Oran a azu nwa’, “it takes a community or village to raise a child,” certainly was true.  

Cousins to play with even though I was between generations.  Younger than one generation and older than another, I sat dead in the middle, alone. It didn’t matter.  My closest friends of the same age were just across the road or just up the road apiece, all within walking distance.  I am amazed at how long an hour of playtime was during those days.

Forays through our mixed forest into the piney woods across the “crick “ to the Morris’ home or across the road, walking past the scary kudzu shrouded ravine to the Jackson’s.  An active imagination wondered what might be lurking there. What animal or monster, or if the kudzu might reach out and kidnap me. An unofficial club house in a privet shrouded share cropper’s home that sat abandoned next to my house.

If we had a penny we might trek to Pettus’ or Yarbrough’s store for a small Sugar Daddy or BB Bat. “You be careful crossing that road, now, Stop, look, and listen.” Traffic was sparse but our parents still worried.

There were few families in my little world I wasn’t related to.   If the last name was Griffin, Pettus, Perry, Rodgers or Wilson, our family trees probably merged at some point…sometimes becoming quite tangled or maybe without limbs at all. An aunt on one side of the family was also an aunt on the other side of the family, and also my third grade teacher. I need to ask questions because I don’t exactly remember how that came to be. The last name, Miller, was a rare one but then my Dad was a transplant from Fort Mill, thirteen miles away.

Playing football or baseball in the stubble of harvested hay, or corn, or cotton in the field across the road.  At least we didn’t have to worry about avoiding cow patties, but we never learned to hook or popup slide, either. 

Corn cob fights around the corn crib and barn where we did worry about cow patties.  The forts and tree house we built on a bluff above a stream that led to the distant Catawba until cut by one of Bowers’ lakes…not so distant after all.  Playing war in the eroded red clay banks between the cotton and corn fields.  Our parents threatening to tan our hides because of the ruined clothes, once white tee shirts forever stained by the red clay.

Walking or riding my bike down the dusty “river road” to Bowers’ ponds teaming with blue gills, largemouth, and the occasional catfish.  On to the river that seemed so distant then…probably no more than two or three miles away today. Could it have moved closer?

I wish I had asked my grandparents more questions. “What was it like during the depression?” “What did it feel like to see your first car?” “What was it like to work on the railroad.” “How did you make your biscuits so moist on the inside and buttery crisp on the outside.” Hopefully these stories will answer some of your questions after my soul joins “The parade of souls marching across the sky.”

I’m going to tell stories that will be alien to you.  I hope you will take the time to read them sometime.  Hopefully, they will be educational.  Hopefully, you will want to read them.  Maybe you should read them to your mother and father, too.  Some will be humorous, some painful, some will just be.  All will be written with love.

An introduction to Stories I Need to Tell My Grandchildren, a work in progress.

***

Don Miller’s Amazon site: https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0jXxoLIhO8m6Oz6EZ3yUhX3TS3YHpsX0ldPJIFZxBDXQNB8JiA4in1Sgw

Quote from Goodreads.

Image produced by Canva

Quote “The parade of souls marching across the sky.” from the song Wheel Inside a Wheel by Mary Gauthier.