The Teachable Moment in “Accidental Racist”

Segregationists Protesting in MontgomeryI must admit that I was not expecting to spend any time commenting on Brad Paisley’s song “Accidental 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 actually alike, and what it actually means to be from the “Southland.”

I think many of Paisley and J’s lyrics in this song perpetuate old racial and cultural stereotypes. I also think it was hopelessly naive and extremely ironic to title the song “Accidental Racist.” Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory has dismissed the song, stating, “I don’t have anything insightful to say about the song other than that the music and lyrics are both the work of amateurs.  To be honest, it seems to be much to do about nothing.” Likewise, Keith Harris, another historian whose work I enjoy, remarked on Facebook that “there has been a lot of whoop-dee-do over the recent Brad Paisley song concerning racism and southern heritage. My question: why is Brad Paisley relevant? Next.”

Forgive me for indulging in more discussion about the song then, but I think both of these comments miss the point entirely. Perhaps these are quick responses to the barrage of emails these busy people received from their followers asking for their opinions on the song. I don’t know. However, in my opinion, there is something to be learned here, and we should not completely dismiss this song. There are teachable moments worth exploring.

Just last month, I participated in a conference at Gettysburg regarding the future of Civil War history. One of the panels I attended focused on the question of “Civil War Memory” and the possible ways we can incorporate the concept of “Civil War Memory” into the classroom and museum settings. One commenter remarked that the study of memory has generated much interest in the scholarly world, but that this interest has not resonated with the general public. How do we fix this?

Well, guess what folks. “Accidental Racist” is a reflection of Civil War Memory. We can ignore it, but if we do so, we may lose a chance to engage with people about the nature of remembering the past.

The point is not that Paisley and LL Cool J are amateurs or that they are no longer relevant. To the contrary, whether you like them or not, they hold an immense amount of power in the music industry and our popular culture, much of which emerged from the fact that both are professional lyricists. They write songs for a living, songs that many people know the lyrics to by heart. That is power and influence. The point is to ask why such a song was written in the first place and explain why it is mistaken.

I want to point out two notable themes within the song lyrics. Then I’d like to provide some ideas on how we could use these themes to start a discussion in a classroom or museum setting about the ways in which people create memories about the past. The first theme reflects the tensions between pride for homeland and the realization that the history of this homeland has a dark side. To quote a few lines from the chorus:

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
We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame

Paisley acknowledges that the past is everywhere around us in the present. We create memories about the past, and those memories influence how we interact with each other. While our memories of the past sometimes give us great joy and comfort, they can also prevent us from moving on with our lives and from developing a better understanding of people who have had different experiences from us. In my opinion, Paisley views the memories of the past as a problem, a barrier that prevents different people from truly understanding each other. If we can just forget about everything and stop using our memories as tools for judgement and prejudice, maybe we can avoid misunderstandings and “accidental racism” in the future. It is clear that Paisley has thought about prejudice long and hard, and these particular lines reflect the anxieties of many Americans, especially White Southerners. I think it would do us well to acknowledge that fact before dismissing the song completely.

Second, we get this business about the Confederate flag, namely the ways people attribute meanings to symbols:

When I put on that [Confederate flag] t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan

This is one of several instances in which I think Paisley is mistaken. To me, the Confederate flag is one example of the fact that memory and representation change in meaning over time. Once upon a time, Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens rallied behind the Confederate flag to justify the creation of a nation founded on the basis of slavery. 100 years later, many people opposed to segregation in the South waved the Confederate flag to represent that intense opposition and invoke the memories of the Civil War, as evidenced by the picture above. Somewhere along the line, Lynyrd Skynyrd adopted the Confederate flag (as did many others) in order to promote its business interests, namely the selling of albums, concert tickets, and t-shirts. The flag probably means something else today. Paisley seems to think that by creating new meanings and memories of the Confederate flag, other meanings and memories are eliminated. “I’m just talking about Skynyrd,” he implies. Such a process, however, is impossible. The Confederate flag takes on new meanings over time, but those meanings are layered on top of old ones, and it is next to impossible to remove the old meanings without the new ones falling apart. Yes, you might be talking about Lynyrd Skynyrd, but someone else might be thinking about George Wallace, Jim Crow, and Alex Stephens. Despite Paisley’s wishes, we cannot escape the past, nor should we. You can wear that Skynyrd shirt if you want, but make sure you understand how that symbol has been used before. And just to be sure, this whole discussion applies to our beloved American flag as well, not just the Confederate one.

So how do we make this discussion practical for educational purposes? It seems to me that “Accidental Racist” provides an opportunity for teachers to introduce the study of memory into the classroom and a chance for students to share their ideas on how to improve upon some of the poor word choices of Paisley and LL Cool J. Several activities can be created around two central queries (although many more can be created):

1. What sort of emotions do you feel when you think about the past? Happiness? Sadness? Both?

2. Describe a way or ways in which different people can do a better job of understanding each other.

Students could then pick one of these themes and choose from several different creative outlets in which to express themselves. They could write a revised version of “accidental racist” (with a new title as well) with lyrics that reflect the student’s relationship with the past. They could create a YouTube video documentary, or they could write a reflective essay on racism today. I personally think it would be neat for students to study the history of their family and then use that research to reflect on something “bad” that may have happened with an ancestor. Maybe someone owned slaves before the Civil War. Maybe a Great-Grandfather deserted the field during WWII. Maybe Grandpa did drugs during Vietnam. Maybe someone engaged in a shady business deal or did something horrible to another family member. How do we deal with these dark episodes while loving our family members as if they were perfect? Likewise, how do we deal with the dark episodes of American history and maintain a degree of pride for it while keeping our moral compass straight? To what extent should we hold the past accountable for our troubles today, and to what extent do we owe the past a degree of forgiveness and sympathy?

These are just a few ideas. I could be wrong. But it seems that “Accidental Racism” is a teachable moment. Memories are created everyday, and they are teachable. “Controversy” excites me because “controversy” in general is teachable. Sure, not all controversial topics are worth discussing. I could really give a damn where Beyonce and Jay-Z spent their anniversary, for instance. But having honest discussions about important topics is what we do in the humanities. We humanize people. We intend to create a culture of understanding and empathy between a diverse range of people. “Accidential Racism” failed as a song, but, like many other things in life that may seem unimportant, we could learn something from it if we tried hard enough.