June 20, 2015

On Rebel Flags: Lower Alabama & How I Kissed a Black Man

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I’m proud of my big southern family. I’m from Mobile, Alabama, which is about as deep south as it gets. I was raised in a southern culture that included Alabama/Auburn football, mosquitos & fire ants, hurricanes, low country shrimp and crab boil, hush puppies and cheese grits, cotton fields, cracking pecans under beautiful old live oak trees, Spanish moss… and last but not least racism.

The first thing I want you to understand is what southern heritage feels like. Our family was considered “old money”. Our family has been a fine upstanding, loving, Christian family for generations in Mobile. “I’m a Greer” was my calling card as a youngster, and it garnered respect, a kind I am still proud of. When I used to tell my great aunt who I was dating, all she cared about was his last name. These “old family’s”, where everyone is someone’s cousin, and the charm of generations sticking around in one place, is a beautiful and very southern thing. Our roots run very deep. My great great great grandmother grew up on a plantation in a rural county in Alabama, before the civil war. There were 100s back in the day. My grandad  told us he he visited the a African American family who lived with his great grandmother near the time of the civil war. The family was  very emotional and he had never seen, in his entire life, the love the expressed for his grand mother by these people. This is the side of the south you don’t hear much about. I would love to go into the whole story, but basically, this is the foundation of my southern heritage.

To my grandparents generation they were “colored folks”, colored people or the “n” word and to my parents generation they were “black people” and the “n” word though many cut that out after the civil rights movement. I was talking to my sister the other day about how “black people” are different in the south and how we miss it. It starts with the obvious linguistic difference. The way people talk is different and it stands out. But let’s face it, in Mobile, the southern drawl is still there, and many people talk different (que scene from Forest Gump). There’s a difference between the way black people talk, and the way southern white people talk and that sets them a part and creates an instant stereotype. (I’m sorry to use the generic word “they” so please forgive me, I’m trying to tell a story.) The amazing southern black names “Queen La Fefe, Shequan, LaQuesha” , thank goodness I spent sometime in public school. Also set people apart from our proud last names and “Williams” was an extremely common black last name. The way our families were seemed very different and it really was because our communities were separated we really were raised different, but we were not taught to explore those differences much less understand them. We had a maid named Edda. I’m calling her a maid, because there were not PC terms for it back then. She cleaned our house and took the bus back and forth to our white area of town, Spring Hill. Once she missed the bus (probably our fault) and we had to take her home. I sat in the back seat of our woodie wagon next to her and she pulled out a big bottle of cheep cocoanut butter lotion and rubbed it into her hands. I remember staring at her hands while she did it. We took her to neighborhood called “happy” something, but it was not happy and I remember feeling scared. This was not a crazy long time ago it was probably the late 1980s.

So that is a brief history on southern culture, now onto privileged high school with one token African American in each grade and the mystery and separation of the black culture. Now on to the confederate flag, we called them “rebel flags,” and they were a symbol of rebellion, and kids stuck them on the window of their big Ford Blazer trucks with giant mud tires, and wore them on camo hats they hunted in, on thier beer coozies while they snuck out and drank natural light. Someone had a horn that  would toot out “Dixie” (doo der doot doot dooty doo dee doot doot dooder) when they arrived to school. This was south Alabama. Though I always hated the flag, because no matter how much southern pride was rapped up in it. I knew it symbolized a fight for slavery and I didn’t see any black kids wearing it. The flag for some may have represented a rebellious teenage nature. The rebel flag further north might be considered red neck, but in the 1990s, when I was in my preppy white school, it was equal to putting an Alabama or Auburn sticker on your car. I went to a Lynard Skynard Concert in Mississippi where they dropped a massive rebel flag on stage and then sang “Sweet Home Alabama.”  I’m southern. I’m gonna say I was ignorant because of where I was, no one taught me. It was the way it was. I never hated black people but there was a cultural boundary many were not given the skills to cross (or didn’t have the confidence too).

There were some life changing moments that I want to share that changed my perspective almost instantly on racism, a drive from Selma to Montgomery, kissing a black boy, selling rebel flags at a race in Bristol, Tn, and visiting the MLK museum in Memphis. Yep.

The first was taking a day trip from Auburn, Alabama where I went to college to a little town out side of Selma to deliver some artwork to a gallery (my first ever show). I had learned many times about the Selma March. I didn’t really think much about it, until I drove from Selma to Montgomery in the middle of summer with no AC. I didn’t take the trip to learn anything about the civil rights movement, but there I was. It was far and hot and there were not sidewalks, it was interstate. And when I thought about people walking that distance to the horrible racist place called Montgomery, AL (aka Monkey Town) I began to cry. They were freaking brave!! They must have really been mistreated to go through this. Still today I think Montgomery (our state capital) is a poor, sad, racist place, if it is bad now, what was it like then. Horrible. I felt the pain and was horrified that I was such a fool to go along with this white girl ignorance.

When I lived in Atlanta, GA it was the first place I saw a different type of southern black culture. It was an awesome one, and empowered one with a black mayor, thriving African American-owned businesses, and amazing hip hop and new soul, and even a vegetarian soul food place. It was rich and alive and not so separate. I met a guy who was a great comic book artist, he was funny, smart and cool. We really hit it off. It was hard meeting guys in Atlanta because many of them are gay (and fabulous). We went on some dates and I finally he asked if he could kiss me, and man I was nervous. All of a sudden all my fears of what would my family think came up in my head, wait he’s black, so I closed my eyes and we kissed. From that moment on, I saw no difference between “white” and “black” people from a human perspective, kissing is kissing and love is love. I hope that makes sense. This might not sound like a big deal to you, but it was a huge, symbolic deal to my southern white girl heritage. I am still so glad I overcame that silly ignorant fear that I couldn’t fall in love with another race. It’s crazy to think back on it now.

Next lesson about racism was selling a whole trade show booth of “rebel ware”. Basically if you could print a confederate flag on it we sold it and those thousands of people waiting for the car race in Bristol, TN loved it. So, even when I was there in the midst of the merchandise, I couldn’t believe I was there, yeek, but I learned about all the stereotypes of our fated southern flag. I was dating a really sweet guy who’s family owned an on demand hot press t’shirt company. It was a family business and I appreciated that. There was a wall of designs, some with bird dogs, deer and “southern girl” type phrases, but most included the rebel flag graphic. None of the shirts had racial slurs, meaning it wasn’t klu klux clan, crazy supremacy stuff. You picked a design and we hot press printed it on a t’shirt. I loved seeing who checked out the iconic rebel flag bikini and who liked what. It was a cultural study for sure. The guy I was dating was not from Alabama, I met him in Asheville and he lived on 300 acres of family land in the sticks (or as we say in NC the “hollars”) of Rutherford County. I finally broke up with the guy, mainly because he would not admit that rebel flags were a hate symbol. I thought in the beginning, well maybe they are all about southern heritage, and maybe the flags were at one point. But now in 2008, people have them for the ugly horrible reasons and I saw that first hand when I watched droves of people buy them at a huge red neck racing event, (and I say that lovingly, burp).

The next event was Memphis for a AIGA design conference. I was in Memphis to commune with 1000s of graphic designers from all over and learn about what was going on in the industry. Plus Memphis is such a cool place with things like Graceland, Sun Records and Beale Street. I could have done many a cool thing on my short stay there, but I’m so thankful for a trip to the National Civil Rights Museum. I knew it was at some motel, and some people were calling it the Martin Luther King, Jr. museum, that was enough for me. I was excited to fly by the seat of my pants and learn. I read everything on the tour. The story was printed with a timeline of events and giant photos, objects and even the bus Rosa Parks road on was there. This was a side of southern heritage that was not covered in this much depth anywhere I’d seen. I walked through with a giant lump in my throat. How could people be so dumb? How could they treat people like this? This is crazy! And I also felt remorseful and awful at my tiny part of it, by remaining ignorant of it for most of my southern life. But man, the hope was really building in the civil rights story, told on the walls with Martin Luther King Jr.. But then I walked into the part of museum that was actually the real Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther was shot. I started balling crying. It was too terrible.

So that is my story of overcoming my own ignorance and finding humanity, understanding social justice and what the confederate flag means to me. I was an idiot when I was young and I guess there is still more to learn, but I’m trying. Southern heritage went that deep into our existence in lower Alabama. I’m a regular, average upper middle class southern girl who is appalled by the recent hate acts in Charleston, SC, 9 people shot. If taking down our rebel flags is one thing we can do to show our human solidarity against these hate crimes take them down please! This flag is a symbol of hate please pack them up! Burn them! Its time to show our community that we are all in this world together and suffering is suffering, and caring is caring. There are many reasons to not like another human being, but skin color should not be one. AND how dare someone fly our rebel flag and create hate crimes under it, but they did. So get over it. TAKE DOWN THE FLAG and kiss a black person. That ends my rant.

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