Monday, July 13, 2015

On Being Part Of The Problem

Yes, I’m guilty.

I’m a Southerner by birth, just not so much by sentiment, any more. If that makes me two-faced, or a turncoat, or a carpetbagger, well, so be it.

When I moved to Vestavia Hills, Alabama in 1975, I left behind the rumblings of racial unrest in Oklahoma, where a small town black minority had grown tired of the legacy of Jim Crow that still permeated the culture there, and made it clear that the promise of civil equality must move closer to reality.

A sixteen-year-old enrolling in my junior year at VHHS, I was therefore amazed at the lack of racial tension in my new school. It took a while for me to realize the reason: that the student body and the surrounding community were overwhelmingly white and affluent. What students of color there were had to be bussed in from miles away, in order to satisfy federal guidelines of racial equality.

Even in those days there were occasional objections to the use of the Confederate battle flag and “Rebel Man” as school emblems. These concerns were routinely dismissed then, as now, on the grounds of ‘tradition’. They had nothing to do with slavery, or oppression. Even our black athletes performed proudly under the colors and symbols of the Confederacy.

But our country is waking up, and in it’s wake (sic), many of us are begrudgingly owning up to the understanding that our long-held protections of privilege are wearing thin.

I myself am the product of slave owners. My twice-great-grandfather once held some twenty human beings as chattels, listed so in the census of 1860, making him at the time a man of no small means. By 1870, of course, his material wealth had been reduced to whatever he and his sons could load into a wagon, their lot degraded from wealthy Alabama landowners to hardscrabble Arkansas dirt farmers, struggling to feed their own. Whatever privilege they enjoyed by way of the traditions of Alabama was long forgotten by the time my branch of the family returned to the state a hundred years later.

Yes, I knew that there were racists in Alabama. I had encountered them growing up in Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. The echoes of the Sixteenth Street bombings still resonated in 1970's Birmingham. I did not think that I, or my Vestavia Hills classmates, were among them. If Confederate emblems appeared on my yearbook, that did not mean that I embraced them, or the actual traditions that they represented. They were part of the past, employed as any mascot would be, selectively representing perceived strengths, while ignoring inherent weaknesses.

As I grew older, and the false philosophical dichotomy of image and tradition became more apparent, I still believed it was the business of the Vestavia Hills community to decide how their school would be portrayed. We Southerners, traditionally, do not take kindly to outsiders’ opinions, and if some folks didn't like our school mascot, they didn't have to come to our football games.

Still, given enough time, I had hoped that the community of Vestavians would recognize the mixed message they were projecting to their students and to the world, and might one day make the inevitable change for a more appropriate mascot.

But the momentum of tradition is strong, and when the Vestavia Hills band approached me several years ago to help them with a fundraising campaign, I was more than happy to assist. I designed for them my own version of the Rebel Man, composed of images related to academics, sports, music – and the Confederate battle flag. I was proud of my work, and the fact that it allowed me to contribute meaningfully to my high school alma mater. It was easy to wrap myself in the happy memories of a high school student, and to faithfully represent the culture that had quite literally educated me, and had done so very well.

But education is an ongoing process. The steady accumulation of information cannot help but lead to a re-examination of old beliefs. So it has been with my growing awareness of the discord between our traditional cultural biases, and the daily realities they represent. The image of a stereotypical plantation owner – my double-great-grandfather, if you will – is no longer a benign gent who can rally the troops in Vestavia without grossly offending people there and elsewhere who clearly understand the historic underpinnings of that tradition.

It is for this reason that I have chosen to remove the Rebel Man from the DS Art catalog. 

I will honor my contract with the VHHS, however I will no longer sell “Rebel Man” prints from our studio, nor will I authorize a reprint of the drawing. Neither will I accept any portion of the proceeds from sales of existing copies.

I can imagine great-great-granddaddy Stewart rolling over in his grave just about now. And that’s okay. 

It may be his tradition, but it’s not his picture.

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