Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Once upon a Southern April

Somewhere I read that to write a Southern story you have to put a mule in it. Since I'm lacking a mule for my story it can't be classified as such. But it's a story of the South nevertheless.

More specifically it's a story that comes about by our timing in going South. We were there when the shots fired at Ft. Sumter made the news. I'm not referring to that April day in 1861 when, as every schoolkid used to learn, and probably still is taught, the American Civil War began in Charleston harbor.

Taking ourselves to Georgia recently, in part to enjoy beautiful springtime weather, we were paying little attention to anything other than the lovely sunshine. Then the headlines told of a reenactment event at Ft. Sumter. We were gearing up for home, making our way north, as we skimmed the article over coffee and motel breakfast. We were leaving the South just as commemorations for the Civil War's 150th year, such as they will be, began.

The newspaper article made us realize the Civil War is getting some new focus. It caused us to recall things from our Southern visit that struck us as out of the ordinary. Confederate flags flew in roadside cemeteries. We marked this as different from previous trips. The tall poles with the Civil War-era flag at the top did something to alter the landscape.

From the car, in that week of moving about, we saw what looked like hand-painted signs alluding to the Confederate States of America. We couldn't explain it but it felt funny. It was as if veneration to Civil War times was being set before us.

Therefore, it was an Aha moment to pick up the Montgomery, Alabama newspaper and read about the Ft. Sumter ceremonies which had occurred earlier. The visual clues along the road which we weren't able to make sense of, because we didn't know the context of their presentation, now collected into one picture.

I admit that seeing the Confederate flag makes me uneasy. The flag looks out of place as if the past has returned.

The flag makes me fidget for various reasons. The first reaction many have to the Confederate flag is that slavery equates with the Old South and the Confederate flag is the symbol of the determination to uphold Southern rights. I can't think of anyone who finds it valiant or honorable to commemorate a system that holds bondage as acceptable and even necessary.

Even more so, in the justification of slavery, to devalue a person based on the color of one's skin or any other consideration, seems so wrong. Did then, does now.

The Confederate flag makes me restless because it makes me face my prejudices. My forebears came to this country after the Civil War. I could say, along with millions of others whose families arrived after the Civil War, that the Civil War is old stuff - not our business.

It turns out that where you grow up, and the facts you absorb at an early age, shape you more than than where your family comes from. My great-grandparents chose to attach themselves to a culture that, coincidentally, was the victor in the war between the states. As children and students we naturally pick up the view of the story that approximates the closest interests of our own culture.

Pondering the disquietude the Southern flag has for me, it comes to me that it zeroes in on the guilt at having escaped so lightly. Our part of the country was spared the huge physical losses of a nation torn in two. It was a war basically fought on Southern ground, its conclusion in April 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse eradicating segments of the Southern lifestyle as then known.

It's like having something flourishing yanked up and left beside the gaping hole with no one much concerned one way or the other what happens next. It takes years to mend such wounds.

The experience of being in the South at the commencement of commemoration events has led to discussions about how proper is it to fly the Confederate flag. "Let's agree to disagree" said one friend following my attempt to explain why some Southerners may want to raise their flag through this memorial period. She wasn't having any of it. The flag, with its connotations to slavery and the old regime, shouldn't be flown she stated emphatically.

I've switched back and forth arguing for and against the Confederate flag as commemorative symbol as I try to establish my own position on it. If the commemorative activities are done within the framework of giving honor there are valid reasons to pause wherever we are and note this 150th year event.

In some places, as in cemeteries where those who fought under the Southern colors are buried, it perhaps brings a sense of peace or purpose to those who tend the tombstones, visit or have family interred there to identify the resting ground with the Confederate flag.

When we aim to put ourselves in everybody's place, both 150 years ago and now, we may find we have conflicting opinions on many aspects of the war. This is healthy. It means we're debating something pretty important here.

We may wind up with no one firm opinion and this can be good too. Sometimes the more irresolute we are about something the more it is a show of respect for all sides involved. This study of the Civil War may bring us farther along the road of understanding. We may consider in a new light something once considered from a narrower view.

Driving home through the rural Georgia and Alabama countryside was to see April at its most winsome and gentle. The rolling hills, the greenness, the pines pressing to the farm fields, red soil being worked by farm machinery, was as pretty as a dream.

Was it a spectacular April day like this that the small-scale farmers and plantation owners, the slaves working the fields, the village merchants arranging goods in their store fronts, and the boat captains with their crews loading bales of cotton awoke to, stretched and commented favorably on?

Did the news, as it trickled in, that war was started with the North, hit like storm clouds to darken their horizons? Surely the war news would have been seen as that, had they surmised the pain to come.

The tornadoes tearing up the South this past week, with loss of life and horrible destruction, echo the pain of the years of civil strife. Fierceness of fighting has been replaced by damaging winds and lightning strikes eerily reminiscent of the clash of arms across the embattled countryside.

Seen in its quietude as we drove the beautiful hill region, and experienced in the roar of tornadoes wrenching hold of the land, one can better appreciate the flag as an emblem but not the ultimate glory. The glory is the human spirit that puts us all on one side, and this is to protect, respect and advance for the sake of all. In this we are one.

Ro Giencke - April 2011

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