What You Didn't Know About the South: Surprises from a White Southerner
Yesterday I read an article by Peter Birkenhead, a Californian, who recently visited Louisiana and found “The South” a benighted land dominated by misty-eyed racists in denial of their slave history (See " Why the White South Is Still in Denial About Slavery"). His experience at a slave cabin-turned restaurant leaves him outraged and ready to send back his gumbo, never to return to Dixie.
I know the feeling. The South is my birthplace, and there are times when I'd like to cast it off, too. But my southern drawl and my heritage come along with me wherever I go. So we've had to come to terms with each other, despite an adulthood spent in New York.
I can't deny that in many places in the South, rebel flag-wavers abound, prejudices survive, and memory dissolves into myth. This is a pathology that must be confronted at every opportunity. But travelers have a way of taking a small slice of a place and creating a monolith, and Birkenhead’s account –despite its insights—leaves room for illumination and for recognition of the complexities that make this region of the country –and the history of slavery -- a challenging object of study.
As a white southerner, details of my own history challenge what most of my northern friends envision when they think of “The South,” an idea too often wrapped in a fog that emanates from the left as well as the right.
So pull up a chair. You may be in for a few surprises.
As a child in Raleigh, North Carolina, I could be forgiven for thinking that white southerners were mostly liberal. My father, the historian Thomas Custis Parramore, made it his occupation to knock the rose-colored glasses off the nostalgic “moonlight-and-magnolia” southerners Mr. Birkenhead rightly condemns. My dad spoke candidly about the horrors of slavery in his classes at Meredith College and wrote accounts of the same in his books, two of which were adopted as state-wide textbooks. My liberal Baptist church – yes, I said “Baptist” – was presided over by the Reverend W.W. Finlator, the great liberal preacher and civil rights activist who made Pullen Memorial the bane of racists everywhere. Our close family friend, the newspaperman and columnist A.C. Snow, then editor of the Raleigh Times, was also a foe of prejudice and a believer in the equality of all human beings.
I learned that all white southerners were not liberal when the president of Meredith College took exception to my father’s civil rights sympathies and attempted to fire him. A dark cloud passed over our household. My father considered that his “goose was cooked,” and I later learned that he felt such despair over his situation that he briefly considered suicide. A hard battle was fought. Civil liberties lawyers were called in and prevented the college from firing a tenured professor on such grounds. My dad’s job was saved. But the president froze his salary for, oh, a couple of decades. Many were not so lucky. Mr. Birkenhead writes contemptuously of the need for southerners to speak of white “unsung heroes” of the civil rights past—and indeed defense and denial can play a role in this (I agree with him that "The Help" was absurd). But the reality is that there were whites who fought for truth and justice – at great risk to themselves. This was the exception. But such exceptions are part of history.
I grew up knowing that to speak the truth of history was to invite punishment. And I am grateful to my father for presenting the example of one who did so anyway.