“Accidental Racist?”

… or simply racist? It is clear that the legacy of the Civil War is still with us 150 years after the first shots were fired. For all of its poor word choices and cringe-worthy moments, Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s song actually provides a glimpse into something quite revelatory. Memories are created, not self-evident. Oftentimes the memories we create about our past are used as coping mechanisms to make sense of events in our past that make us feel bad about our history and our ancestors who may have been complicit in perpetuating that history. Sometimes the goal of our memories is to also forget the past, as evidenced in the lyrics “let bygones be bygones.”

There are other interesting word choices in the song as well. The statement “Caught between Southern Pride and Southern Blame” is something many white Southerners have had to address at some point in their lives, I’d assume. Being a border/slave state native who has pride in being from that state, it’s something I’ve certainly thought about before.

It is interesting how Brad Paisley conflates the “Confederacy” with the “South,” which is something many people do without realizing that they are two separate things. Paisley himself actually represents this dichotomy quite well. He was born in West Virginia, a state that was created during the Civil War (1863) in response to Virginia’s secession from the United States. Not wanting to secede from the U.S., these 41 Virginia counties formed their own state and supplied many troops to the Union military (which also suggests that a conflation between “Union” and “North” exists as well). Thus, West Virginia does not equal “Confederacy,” although most would argue that it is a part of the “South.”

It would also be interesting to ask Paisley whether or not there are any black people included in his reference to the “Southland.” Who is allowed to call themselves a “Southerner?” What defines Southern identity? Aren’t there many Black Southerners as well? What is their version of the “Southland?” I also don’t appreciate LL Cool J’s reference to “Mr. White Man” or his ridiculous stereotypes about White people wearing Cowboy hats (or the assumption that that’s a bad thing) and all Black people coming from the ghetto and wearing saggy pants and do-rags. I understand that the intention of the song is to call for more understanding between different people, but it seems to me that it actually perpetuates hackneyed stereotypes about White and Black people instead. They seem to be arguing something along the lines of “Hey, this is the way we are, so let’s try to understand our stereotypes a little better.”

Enough from me. Listen to the song and make your own conclusions.

To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south
And I just walked him right in the room
Just a proud rebel son with an ‘ol can of worms
Lookin’ like I got a lot to learn but from my point of view

I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame

They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years
I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin
But it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin

‘Cause I’m a white man livin’ in the southland
Just like you I’m more than what you see
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
And we’re still paying for mistakes
That a bunch of folks made long before we came
And caught between southern pride and southern blame

Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you’re livin’ in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold but I’m still misunderstood
I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the south into firewood
I want you to get paid but be a slave I never could
Feel like a new fangled Django, dodgin’ invisible white hoods
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinkin’ it’s not all good
I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book
I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air
But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here

I’m just a white man
(If you don’t judge my do-rag)
Comin’ to you from the southland
(I won’t judge your red flag)
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be

I’m proud of where I’m from
(If you don’t judge my gold chains)
But not everything we’ve done
(I’ll forget the iron chains)
it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
(Can’t re-write history baby)

Oh, Dixieland
(The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’)
I hope you understand what this is all about
(Quite frankly I’m a black Yankee but I’ve been thinkin’ about this lately)
I’m a son of the new south
(The past is the past, you feel me)
And I just want to make things right
(Let bygones be bygones)
Where all that’s left is southern pride
(RIP Robert E. Lee but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean)
It’s real, it’s real
It’s truth

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10 responses

  1. Nick,
    This is something I wonder about a lot as well. The Confederacy is so often conflated with the South it would make someone think they were the same thing. As a Yankee who has grown up in the South this is something I’ve wrestled with as well. How do you tell the truth about Confederate history without really offending (to the point that they no longer listen) while still being honest.
    Thanks for your posts, I’m really enjoying following them. Good luck.

  2. Thanks a lot, Nathan. I think coming to grips with the legacy of the Confederacy involves using songs like this as opportunities to discuss how the Confederacy has been remembered over time. We can compare, contrast, and connect these memories to the history of the Confederacy and attempt to understand the ways in which history and memory intersect to create our perceptions of the past. Showing students the contested nature of Civil War memories over time could possibly help. I’ll have more of my ideas in a future post. Thanks!

  3. This is a well-written and thought provoking post (and blog in general). Definitely looking forward to more, Nick.

    -Nick Johnson

  4. great line, “Sometimes the goal of our memories is to also forget the past.”
    The more interesting the more I think about it.

  5. Reblogged this on The Quintessential Leader and commented:
    As a Southerner I’ve often had to face some of the challenges presented by Nick Sacco on this thought-provoking blog. But the questions he raises here are bigger than the American Civil War and the stereotypical views of Southerners and Northerners in the United States based on that conflict.

    The subject of racism has, over the last twelve years, as someone who led multinational teams in New York City after 9/11/01 – after watching the World Trade Center towers fall up close and personal – and had to manage and counsel in depth understandable anger in juxtaposition to the reality that “not one size fits all” big-picture view that encompassed the multinational team I led and and served, has weighed heavily on my mind.

    It weighed heavily on my mind growing up in the South. When I saw prejudice first-hand in my teenage days in blueberry fields in eastern North Carolina, I took a stand against it. I suffered a considerable amount of grief for my stand, but I wasn’t fired. I realized then that those giving me grief simply didn’t understand why what they were doing was so wrong. That, for me, was where I began to learn forgiveness.

    We live in a world that divides. As quintessential leaders, our job is to bridge the divides as we are able. However, we must never compromise nor sacrifice the heart, soul, and mind of what quintessential leadership entails to effect a false or temporary or meaningless peace.

    We must exercise the wisdom, the discernment, the understanding to know the difference.

  6. […] Racist,” which also features the rapper LL Cool J. After listening to the song, however, I couldn’t help but share a few thoughts on how people remember the past, how easy it is to conflate seemingly like terms that are not […]

  7. “Thus, West Virginia does not equal “Confederacy,” although most would argue that it is a part of the ‘South.’ ”

    Most people think this. However, about two-thirds of the state of West Virginia is composed of counties that voted for the Confederacy, from central West Virginia, Braxton and Webster counties, up the eastern panhandle and all of southern and southwestern West Virginia voted for the Confederacy. Although Paisley is from Wheeling, one of the most prominent and gallant companies of the famous “Stonewall Brigade” was Wheeling’s own Shriver Grays. Most of West Virginia below Clarksburg had more secessionists than Unionists. The state was created by a minority government as part of a war effort, most West Virginians never wanted to separate from Virginia. You only have to look at what Pierpont wrote to Lincoln (which is in the Library of Congress) “The Union men of West Va. were not originally for the Union because of the new state.”

  8. Hi Bob,

    Thanks for commenting. I will gladly admit that I am not an expert on the history of West Virginia or its origins during the Civil War, and your points are well taken and appreciated. I’ve read that people in Northern West Virginia, who were the ones really pushing for a break with Virginia, were not crazy about uniting with Southern and Southwestern WV in creating a new state, and it seems that some people in the latter wanted to remain a part of Virginia. And of course there were people from Western Virginia who fought for the Confederacy. Yet the fact remains that process of breaking away from Virginia–what you describe as a war effort–was a build up from years of animosity between Western and Eastern Virginians, and that process led to the creation of a new state that was recognized as the lawful government of the state of Virginia by the United States government. Furthermore, the delegates from the future state of VW voted 30-17 against the Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession on April 17, 1861, which is telling.

    I am originally from Missouri, where there were 30,000 thousand soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. Yet there were 109,000 soldiers who fought for the Union, and the state never officially seceded (although Claiborne Fox Jackson and his cohorts tried their damnedest.) All of this reinforces the fact that the “Confederacy” and the “South” are not the same, and that includes West Virginia. Brad Paisley is welcome to embrace the Confederacy today if he so chooses, but many people from his state during the Civil War made a different choice.

    1. “Furthermore, the delegates from the future state of VW voted 30-17 against the Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession on April 17, 1861, which is telling.”

      This is a good example of what I mean. Most of West Virginia’s delegates to the Richmond Convention signed the Ordinance of Secession. This is how twisted historians have made West Virginia history. Once the decision had been made, most West Virginia delegates supported Virginia’s secession from the United States. 29 of West Virginia’s 49 delegates signed the Ordinance in June, 1861. Not a large majority, but a decided one. And their signatures are there in black and white at the bottom of the ordinance in Richmond.

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