Wow, that was quick. Less than a week ago, members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd were giving an interview on CNN in which lead guitarist Gary Rossington explained that the band had disassociated itself from the image with which it’s long been known – the Confederate battle flag. Just a few days later? Rossington, the last remaining member of the original band, all of a sudden got his Confederate memory back and told fans on the band’s website “The Confederate flag means something more to us, Heritage not Hate.” He needed to do something, because the band’s fans threatened to secede from Lynyrd Skynyrd nation and take their dollars with them.
Actually, he was right the first time when he told CNN that the image had “became such an issue, about race and stuff.” Yea, race and stuff.
That stuff, as he initially pointed out, was that groups like the KKK, skinheads, and let’s go ahead and say segregationists (please) had, in his words, “kidnapped the Dixie or rebel flag from the Southern tradition and the heritage of the soldiers.” Well, yes, but it’s more complicated than that.
THAT flag, as we know, is one of many Confederate flags, but it’s the one that draws the most ire. Yes, it was used by southern soldiers as they headed into battle, but let’s be clear: by 1863 the war was over the institution of slavery and the Confederate army was there to protect it. States’ rights? Yes, a state’s right to maintain slavery. There’s no getting around it.
So, let’s say you buy the idea that this was simply about southern soldiers and therefore the “Heritage, Not Hate” slogan works for you, because you don’t want to be thought of as a racist. Then what can you say about the heritage of that symbol since the Civil War? The war lasted 4 years, but the battle flag has often been used over the last 150 years as a symbol of racial hatred. What about THAT heritage?
Lynyrd Skynyrd is free to do what is best for its fan base and especially its bottom dollar, but as the saying goes “don’t get it twisted”–in this case, the history. Gary Rossington was right the first time when he said that the negative connotations of the flag had to do with “race and stuff.” The vitriol with which the fans have responded over the band’s initial decision to quit using the flag is proof enough that race is still at issue.
And just because you say it’s about “heritage, not hate,” doesn’t make it so.
As Charlotte inches closer to playing its role as host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention (DNC), stories of what makes it a southern city (or not) have been trickling in over the last month. Many of the local news stories, and even stories appearing in other online news outlets, let us know that business owners in the Queen City are actively playing the southern card.
In this case, it usually means using phrases like “southern hospitality” or “southern charm” to describe what’s being sold. As is often the case, these terms are tossed around without considering their historical antecedents in the plantation South. Today, however, such terms are co-opted for purposes of profit, which is more in keeping with Charlotte’s identity as a “New South” city.
So, what does the “southern card” look like?
The Sacramento Bee (among many other news outlets) published the article “Fashion Travel Tips for the South” informing both RNC and DNC delegates what they should wear to their respective conventions. “Whether you’re a first-timer or a convention pro, you may still be new to modern, Southern style,” says Arlene Goldstein, vice president of trend merchandising and fashion direction for Belk stores–headquartered here in Charlotte. Now we know this was a Belk PR piece that was picked up in several news outlets and ties back into the company’s re-branding of itself as the store with “Modern. Southern. Style.” Still, what is “modern, southern style” except brand messaging with a nice ring to it.
Then there’s Charlotte’s SouthPark magazine, which recently published the article “The DNC Means Big Business.” In it, Kelly Koepel, owner of the branding agency that created the Charlotte DNC logo played the southern card this way: “Woven throughout the image is this message: ‘Charlotte is a beautiful, clean city with a high quality of life where you’ll find both the expected comforts of Southern hospitality and exciting evidence of a forward-thinking, can-do Southern culture.'” There’s the hospitality again, with some “can-do” thrown in.
African American business owners are also playing the southern card in ways that may surprise you.
Rhonda Caldwell, owner of The Main Event, was hired to host a party at Rosedale Plantation for delegates from Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. “I’m such a history buff, and I wanted to take the history behind Rosedale Plantation and incorporate it in every detail,” Caldwell exlained. “I wanted to make the guests feel like they were back in time.” Does this mean there will be slave interpreters waiting on folks? It is a plantation, after all.
Local television station WCNC recently showcased another African American business owner in the news feature “Southern charm on Display at delegate welcome party,” focusing on a venue in the city they claimed “oozes southern charm.” The Wadsworth Estate in Wesley Heights will be hosting a party for the DNC. Historically, ideas of “southern charm” and “southern hospitality” have been associated with well-to-do white women–quintessential southern belles. Yet, the Wadsworth estate is owned by a black woman, Shirley Fulton, and even she is playing up the southern card of old.
As she puts it “I think it’s going to be a lot of genteel southern hospitality because we want to show them Charlotte, [in] particular, and North Carolina in general,” adding “People know that they’re stepping back in time and if you look around at the furnishing, there is almost nothing modern here, so you get that feel of southern charm.” Genteel. Southern hospitality. Southern Charm. Stepping back in time. Say what?
I wonder if she considered what “stepping back in time” means for African Americans like herself? As a business owner Fulton is indebted to the southern civil rights movement such that I doubt she really wants to step back in time, because instead of owning the estate she’d be cleaning it. Yet, it’s a savvy business move since most of the delegates to the convention are white, some of whom probably expect to experience a version of “southern hospitality.” (The white reporter added, “no doubt they’ll be saying ‘y’all’ on their [the delegates] way out.” Um, I doubt it.)
Clearly, Charlotte-area businesses believe that playing the southern card is good for their bottom line. Still, as a historian, I know that what people believe is “southern” can cut both ways–and not just the way of hospitality and charm. I’ll be looking at the flip side in a future blog post.