To Be Black and Southern

06/23/2015 03:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

You'll be hard-pressed to find a black person who calls herself a Southerner. "I'm from the South," she'll say casually, bracing herself against the inevitable remarks about luxurious verandahs framed by Magnolia trees and the sweetness of our tea. I spent eighteen years of my life in a suburb of Atlanta and the next three years as a college student in Alabama. My entire family originates from some remote part of Alabama or Georgia, and yet, we are all loathe to openly label ourselves as Southerners. The South is a strange and beautiful place, home to the highest concentration of African Americans in the United States, but also to some of the most devastating images of human poverty, particularly in the majority-African American Black Belt region.

Many of the traditions that the rest of the nation perceives as being universally "Southern" are not experiences that I or many other black people in the South enjoy or participate in. These activities include romanticizing the Confederacy, constructing monuments, museums, schools, and buildings dedicated to Confederate soldiers and general racists, and clinging to the hateful tatters of the "War of Northern Aggression." And if a black person in the South wishes to take part in any of these stereotypically Southern activities, it is made implicitly or explicitly clear that this history is not theirs to partake in. The dream of this fabricated, lily-white South is contingent upon ignoring the "Strange Fruit" that Billie Holiday sings of, as well as the children of the black survivors of that era who continue to call the South home. In the South (at least externally), there is a very clear division when speaking of historical narratives and how they are presented. For white Southerners who take pride in the brief and treasonous life of the Confederacy, their history is displayed to excess in textbooks, songs, and statewide celebrations.

Yet, for the black people who reside in the South and are descended from the individuals upon whom the Confederacy built their wealth, power, and nostalgia, their history is often overlooked or intentionally obscured from public knowledge. Fully acknowledging of the horrific nature of American slavery would mean admitting that the Confederacy itself was founded upon a perverse fascination with human suffering and exploitation. This, unfortunately, would probably put a damper on the Robert E. Lee-Andrew Jackson Day festivities. (and for anyone asking about why the South got involved in the Civil War, I'll settle the answer once and for all: It was about states' rights. The states' right to own slaves. People. Humans.)

Of course, the South has a long and violent history of suppressing black economic progress and attempts to make the history of American slavery and Jim Crow segregation more visible. In 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina was a prosperous, majority-black town that featured black businessmen, black civil servants, and a thriving black newspaper run by Alex Manly. What happened in Wilmington in 1898 is typically incorrectly referred to as a riot. The town's prominent white residents were rankled by a combination of Manly's progressive articles and the existence of an integrated governing body. Thus, they drove out Wilmington's black elected officials, teachers, and middle-class residents as they burned the black area of the town and openly gunned down black people in the streets.

What happened in Wilmington over a century ago was immeasurably tragic, but also unfortunately highly unremarkable when discussing acts of terrorism committed by white Southerners against black people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. News of lynchings, rapes, intimidation, and violence from the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups became a grim and expected daily occurrence for black people in the South for centuries.

To be black and Southern is and always has been a curious and precarious way to exist. Black people built the South, quite literally, and have given the South some of its most memorable literary, musical, and artistic trademarks. Yet, the stain of the antebellum years, the Confederacy, Jim Crow segregation, and the people who insist upon manipulating history to appear not as it was, but how they wish it to be make it difficult for a black person in the South to align themselves with a tradition of racism and intolerance. It is impossible to hope that one day the South will "rise again" because it means your wrists would be bound in iron shackles and not in a freshly pressed gray Confederate uniform. No black person yearns for the revival of the "Old South" because that simply means the perpetuation of a set of values that condones anti-black terrorism and the creation of people like Dylann Roof.

Dylann Roof is not a remarkable man. He is a Southerner--one who loves his guns, his Confederate flag, and the unearned power that he believes those two objects afford him as a Southern white male. His beliefs, which he explained in detail in his manifesto, are not incredibly different from the beliefs quietly expressed in some all-white Southern environments. Dylan Roof is unremarkable because he is a racist, and we should examine why it was so unremarkable for Roof to make "just racist slurs" to his white roommate or to own multiple Confederate flags. We would all like to think that the lowered visibility of the stereotypical images of American racism such as the Ku Klux Klan means that we have solved the issue of race in America.

But it isn't true. In his manifesto, Roof wrote that "we have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me." As long as the South cultivates an environment that equates "Southern pride" with violent racism and exclusionary practices, individuals like Roof will continue to possess a toxic sense of their own supremacy and convince themselves that they have the right to take more black lives.