I’m a white man from Tennessee and I love the state. The people are friendly, the food is great, and the land is beautiful.
I’m a white man from Tennessee and I’m ashamed of the state. It birthed the KKK, people there wax nostalgic for a system of oppression that ended a century and a half ago, and the institution of the state is not welcoming to the LGBT community, to say the least.
I know that not everyone in Tennessee is racist. I know they’re not all homophobic. They don’t all belong to the same political party, and they’re not all white. Just as not everyone in New York City is some progressive paragon of inclusion. There’s plenty of racism here too. I don’t want to operate in generalizations any more than necessary, because generalizations helped get us here in the first place. But I do want to talk about the things I grew up around, and explain how they feel very different than the sorts of things I see outside the South.
I knew plenty of kids who had a Confederate flag in their bedroom. I saw it daily on pickup trucks, cars, hats, and shirts all over town. I spent time with a boy whose stepmother taught him and his friends how to make nooses (he also huffed gas, so make of that what you will). My friends down the street turned the drainage tunnel across from my house into a hangout where they’d smoke. They spraypainted something to the effect of “N*****s keep out” over the entrance. I trashed it when they weren’t there and stopped spending time with them. A kid in my biology class was arrested with his friends for terrorizing African Americans in the area with arson, theft, threatening letters and property destruction with guns. A fraternity at my college was banned from social activities for a year for showing up at the homecoming parade in blackface. Our freshman year two of my best friends lived across the hall from two white guys who would shout the n-word at random intervals. Someone on campus tied nooses to a tree in what they claimed was some sort of art, but in that environment how can you tell?
I spent six years in East Tennessee, a short drive from the Smokies. It’s my favorite part of the state. Most of my childhood vacations were to the mountains there, in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Several years ago I took my then-girlfriend/now-wife to Gatlinburg for the first time. Walking down the main drag, passing one of the many t-shirt stores, we saw a shirt front and center, for all the tourists to see, which had a Confederate flag over the text “Never apologize for being right.” We spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how the “heritage not hate” crowd would justify a shirt like that and came up empty. That shirt was made by someone who regretted the South’s failure to uphold a tradition of treating like property other humans of a distinct background. It was made by someone who believed in that cause, for other people who believed it. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most-visted national park in the country, and Gatlinburg is one of its gateways. And there’s that shirt on the main drag, like a cigarette burn on Starry Night.
In 2008 I was so excited for Barack Obama’s election because I knew it meant kids across the country would grow up taking for granted the fact that a black man can be president. Black children would grow up seeing a face like theirs speaking from the Oval Office. White children would grow up knowing that it’s perfectly fine for someone who doesn’t look like them to lead their country. I felt one of the pillars supporting the racial tension in this country crumbling.
But if what I said is true for those children, then what things do children take for granted who grow up surrounded by the things I saw in Tennessee? What are the other pillars holding up the tension we have here? What does it mean for a child in South Carolina to know that the flag of an illegal nation that existed to defend its right to own humans as property flies over their current capitol? What sorts of things do they take for granted? I think the events in Charleston have answered that question.
And what in the world can I do about this? I’ve lived my life mostly right, I think, thanks to my parents. That doesn’t feel like enough now. I can do my best to raise someone else the same way, when the time comes. I can shut down anyone who thinks it’s OK to make light of things like this or spread their ignorance. But it doesn’t feel like enough.
Seeing the things I’ve described here collected in one place, I realize that I was taking them for granted as well. I have taken for granted that there will be people who act like the people I’ve seen, who say the things I’ve heard people say and display the sorts of things I’ve seen displayed. Taking something for granted can make you think that it will never change, so maybe that’s something I can work on. I don’t have to take it for granted. The world doesn’t have to be that way. It might feel like dismantling a beach one grain of sand at a time, but I guess if enough of us move the grains we can make something different.
I don’t want to leave you thinking Clarksville is some sort of wasted battlefield on the front lines of a race war. It’s full of fine people. It made the people who are still my best friends. It made my mom and my grandmother (Dad’s from one county over, so). It made me, and I don’t think I’m part of the problem—but then, who does? It gave me a great childhood and I’m always happy to go back there. But like any other town, it is not without its faults.
I love the South and I hate it and I’m proud of it and I’m ashamed of it. F. Scott Fitzgerald said “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” I guess I’m a genius.
Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he’s an actor and writer.