A deep dive into the Deep South

We recently returned from a vacation to the Deep South that I’ve decided to write about as a series of vignettes. I realize that’s not much of an inducement to keep reading, but I hope you’ll bear with me.

Since our home is now in Virginia — former capital of the Confederacy — one might legitimately question how we could travel to the Deep South when some might assume that we are already there. Virginia, however, has avoided the Deep South label according to most sources, a distinction that is probably more geographic than having anything to do with hearts and minds.

Even that statement might not be entirely true, as the northeast quadrant of Virginia is more Democratic and liberal leaning than is evident here in the southwest part of the state. But I digress. We made the decision to drive South, and this is what we saw:

DOLLYWOOD IS AN AMUSEMENT PARK, BUT NOT ALWAYS AMUSING

My wife likes country music and is a big fan of Dolly Parton, who is one of the best people you could ever aspire to meet. Me? Country music makes me gag after even a small dose, but as deaf as I am I figured I could cope, especially if it meant riding roller coasters, which Dollywood has in abundance.

We arrived in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., in the late afternoon and checked in to our hotel. Soon it was time for dinner, and it was then that I noticed the first problem: Damn, where are all the black people? I want to point out here that we weren’t on the Dollywood property yet, but at probably the most popular restaurant in the area, with literally thousands of people milling around outside waiting for a table, or happily getting fleeced at the abundant tourist traps that dotted the landscape.

What should I have expected, right? I was at Dollywood, for crying out loud, and to be perfectly stereotypical about it, that’s probably not among the top destination choices for most black people. For the record, I’m a white guy and an old one at that. Truth is I might not even have noticed the lack of local color if not for the fact that I’ve been sensitized to such things since the advent of Donald Trump in 2016.

Another thing I noticed was that it seemed like an awful lot of my fellow white folks were wearing some kind of Christian paraphernalia. There were his-and-hers crown of thorns t-shirts, second-coming prognostication shirts, even some kind of Jesus shirt playing off a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup logo that still has me puzzled.

I’m usually pretty good at snapping surreptitious photos of miscreants, but on this occasion — and again the next day at Dollywood proper — I thought better of it. I didn’t want to risk a confrontation with any of those people who seemed extremely motivated to proselytize and even might have been downright dangerous.

I’m not opposed to people following their religion of choice, truly I’m not, but at the same time I’ve never understood the need to advertise your faith on your body or on your car bumper. I find it tacky, but maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, our name was finally called for dinner, and it was then that I spied all the black people — they were slaving in the kitchen.

GOD, GUNS AND NAKED AGGRESSION

Next day, bright and early, we entered through the metal detectors into Dollywood, and it didn’t take long for me to give thanks for that precaution. After the previous evening’s experience I was prepared for more of the same, and for the most part, was not disappointed.

Yes, I did see a few black patrons at Dollywood, but by and large it’s a playground upon which white people frolic, and there’s just no getting around that fact.

Another thing I expected to see – but didn’t – was a plethora of Trump Trash, but surprise, surprise, I only saw one t-shirt supporting the treasonous former president. Worn by an old white guy with a game leg, the shirt sported a picture of Trump that read, “Miss me yet?”

I should have answered the question then and there, especially since it was unlikely that old guy could have caught this old guy, but again, I thought better of it. Perhaps I’m finally mellowing in my old age.

The thing I saw that was highly disturbing was the patriotic zeal on display from many would-be patriots, and it wasn’t what I would call ordinary patriotic zeal, but a more aggressive variety that left me breathless. You’d have been hard-pressed to find the good old red, white and blue on anyone’s clothing that day in Dollywood, but if it was attire featuring screaming eagles, pseudo-American flag shirts with black stripes, or the signature, racist “Blue Lives Matter” flag with the solitary blue stripe, you’d have been in luck.

Remember my relief at seeing all the Dollywood guests going through a metal detector? That was reinforced when I saw the guy wearing a t-shirt with an American flag motif, but with the red stripes made up of AR-15s placed end-to-end with bullets on a blue field, or my personal favorite shirt that read, “Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones But Hollow Points Expand on Impact.”

This, my friends, is ‘Murica.

A recurring conversation in The Shinbone Star newsroom is about how we snowflakes need to take back the American flag that has been largely co-opted by right-wing pudknockers, but believe me, what I saw being displayed by so-called ordinary people in Dollywood was not the Old Glory you and I grew up with, hanging in front of our second-grade classrooms. This was a mean, nasty, I’ll-rip-your-lungs-out type of “patriotism” that I want no part of.

ALRIGHTY THEN, LET’S HEAD DEEPER SOUTH

The real meat of this vacation was now upon us. My wife and I wanted to tour some of the key historic sites in the fight for civil rights, a fight that sadly has not ended in this country and probably isn’t even close to being over.

My wife walks across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As usual, I was following along behind.
Edmund Pettus, asshole.

Our next stop was Selma, Ala., home of “Bloody Sunday” and the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

I want to say this straight out, Selma sure ain’t no Cancún and I don’t know many people who would include it in their travel plans, but there aren’t many places in the United States that are more important. The city has clearly seen better days, as there are lots of boarded-up businesses and not a lot in the way of small-town charm. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is right there at the edge of town, named for a former Confederate infantry commander and grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. I did not know that disturbing little factoid before this trip, but to hell with him, the bridge was made famous for a quite different reason.

Yessir, we were certainly in the midst of it now.

State troopers swing clubs to break up a civil rights march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (in the foreground) is being beaten by a state trooper. Lewis, a future U.S. congressman who died in 2020, sustained a fractured skull that day.

The U.S. National Park Service rightly maintains a storefront office and small museum near the foot of the bridge. Walking over it was a simple matter and I thought I’d feel a chill or something as I trod across the Alabama River on that famous span, but I didn’t. Even knowing the history, I felt that it wasn’t my history, not exactly, though it SHOULD be a part of every American’s history, no matter his or her color.

In fact, however, my history is a very different history. Here’s a genealogical account written by my late uncle. It recounts exactly how my ancestors felt about civil rights:

It’s not a good feeling knowing my ancestors were not the oppressed, but the oppressors. But what could I do about it in 2022? Well, walking across this bridge was one thing I could do, but believe me, it isn’t enough.

After the bridge it was on to Montgomery, Ala., driving the same 54-mile route that the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers walked in 1965 when I was 9-years-old and blissfully unaware that anything racially related was even going on. Yes, age 9 is mighty young in terms of placing blame, but white privilege begins at birth, and that’s a fact.

In Montgomery there’s lots to do, including the Rosa Parks Museum and historic site where she courageously defied segregationist laws that forced black riders to the back of the bus so that whites could take their seats. The museum is filled with interesting facts and even the actual, typewritten letters requesting FBI assistance in turning up dirt on Parks and others who sparked a black boycott of the bus system.

What Parks and others did in Selma and Montgomery, the verbal and physical assaults they endured took guts, the kind of guts that dolt walking around Dollywood in his sticks-and-stones-and-hollow-points t-shirt knows nothing about. I’m pretty sure he’s not ashamed, but I feel ashamed for him.

AND SPEAKING OF SHAME, THE HIGHLIGHT OF THE TRIP

In Montgomery is The Legacy Museum, and I really can’t describe it better than what Wikipedia says:

“The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is a museum in Montgomery, Alabama, that displays the history of slavery and racism in America. This includes the enslavement of African-Americans, racial lynchings, segregation, and racial bias.

The first thing you see upon entering the museum are large monitors of a seascape, mountainous waves of blue water that sometimes left the camera briefly submerged. This is the view, you are told, that the sickly captives and sometimes children would have seen when they were pitched over the side of the slave ships making their way from Africa to the Americas.

The next thing you see – I really don’t know how to describe it other than to call it a sculpture garden – shows dozens of busts of Africans cast upon a beach wearing shackles and iron collars, some with bells so they could be easily found if they tried to run away. The fear and anguish on those faces was heart-rending, and to be honest, I was on shaky ground from that point through the rest of the museum, barely holding it together while I saw shattering sight after shattering sight, including holographic images of black humans inside “slave pens,” crying for help and talking to me while I stood outside their barred cages. A hologram of two black children cried, “Sir, have you seen my mother? Can you help me find my mother?”

I’m tearing up again as I write this, just thinking about it.

The brutality was just unbelievable, yet it was all too real. The museum is constructed on the site of an old warehouse, the actual slave market in Montgomery where these horrific events played out.

I wondered if my ancestors visited that place wanting to buy slaves. I don’t know, but it’s definitely possible and the thought burns in my gut like a hot coal.

At the end of the museum is an art gallery, a chance to decompress a little.

In this room, wearing the suit and tie of a museum employee, was a black man about my age, perhaps a little younger. He was talking to my wife about the museum and I guess he could see that I was standing there, struggling, barely holding it together. He looked at me and I looked at him and I said, “It’s just overwhelming. I just can’t help feeling guilty.”

He put his arm around my shoulder and rubbed my back a little. He said, “It’s okay. We don’t want anyone to feel guilty. You didn’t do this. We just want everyone to know that it happened.”

EPILOGUE

I could go on about how we visited the lynching memorial a few streets over from the museum before driving to Atlanta where we saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace — and not far from there, his grave and that of his wife, Coretta Scott King.

I could write about how the great United States of America created an environment that saw Dr. King gunned down for championing civil rights.

I could write about a whole lot more, but for me, the trip really ended that day in the museum when a man slipped his arm around my shoulder and said it would be okay. The museum made a basket case out of me, and hey, I’m someone who was already aware, or so I thought.

Yes, I’m already a snowflake who abandoned a whole bunch of people who sided with hate in November 2016. I started The Shinbone Star, not to champion civil rights specifically, but because the enemy, in word and deed, works against civil rights and so much more. I cannot and will not support those who treat people differently based on the color of their skin, and I will not honor ancestors who did those things, even if “everyone was doing it” prior to the Civil War. You for damn sure don’t need a magic time machine to know the difference between right and wrong.

Feeling guilt might not have been anyone’s intent, but for millions of Americans, guilt is entirely appropriate.

This morning as I visited my local post office there was a pickup truck in the parking lot with a couple of bumper stickers. One said, “Trump Won the Election,” the other said, “Pi** on Joe Biden.” I reflected that I’d seen a whole lot less of that kind of crap in the Deep South than I see every day near my southwest Virginia home.

People of good conscience, we still have a lot of work to do.

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11 thoughts on “A deep dive into the Deep South

    1. Oh gosh Glenn, that article and the sights you saw in it in the museum is a sucker-punch to the heart. How anyone could do those things to another person is beyond fathom, and yet barbarism still happens all the time – we only have to look at the wars in Yemen and Ukraine to see it writ-large.
      There is something so wrong in the minds and deeds of so many humans, to inflict cruelty on another human, and of course on animals treated inhumanely too. We as a species need a huge elevation in consciousness and conscience.

      You write so powerfully and it’s great that you are doing so here, but maybe also consider submitting your articles to other platforms – journals, newspaper magazines etc. What you write is so important and your writing is so good.

      In the north of my country, the civil rights movement was inspired by that of Martin Luther King and the Selma-Montgomery marches as a peaceful response to discrimination, violence and suppression of legal rights of one community by another, leading to decades of tit-for-tat violence and extremism. While a peace agreement was eventually arrived at, the legacy of that history is still not entirely resolved. As you wrote “People of good conscience, we have a lot of work to do”.

      It is always timely to have a reminder of what people were fighting for – the most basic civil liberties and parity of esteem that every person wants and should be entitled to, and the cessation of violence against people because of their colour, creed, or background.

      Your article moved me to tears in your description of the museum exhibits acknowledging this was the reality of people’s lives then and the imprint of that legacy is still evident today.

      And it moved me to laughter at your caption on Edmund Pettus’ image!

      -moving emotions to physical effects is the mark of powerful words, deeds or music and your writing does that.

      As for Dollywood – maybe communicate what was on sale in the giftshops to her via her representatives? I am sure she would not stand for that type of “aggressive patriotism” on display in her themepark, let alone be available on sale in franchises there.i doubt very much that she approved it.

      Well done on a powerful piece of writing. Looking forward to more.
      B

      Liked by 4 people

  1. My God, Glenn, you sure have a way with the written word. This writing gripped my soul. You must find a way to reach a wider audience with your writing. Keep at it, Glenn. Many of us are reading.
    Ann Pompelio

    Liked by 3 people

  2. My comment disappeared. Such is life, I guess. Here’s a recap:
    When we cleaned out my in-laws ‘ house we found a bill of sale for an enslaved human. I think it is likely that it had been purchased as a collectible, since there were many such things. I was gobsmacked when I read it. I was asked if we’d sell it. I declined. I think it needs to go somewhere—-this was someone’s ancestor, and the paper sure doesn’t belong with me.
    Thank you for continuing to write, and to talk about the hard things, too.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you for making this journey and writing about it. That moment with the man in the museum store is so profound.

    I wish we as a nation could go through a reconciliation process regarding slavery and Jim Crow. But we aren’t there yet, very sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

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