Friday, July 25, 2008

Beauty vs. "Ugliness" in The South

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I was born and raised in the Southern U.S. To be more specific, I was born and raised in Southeastern U.S., in the land of plantations and iced tea, steeped in a history of slavery and irrational political decisions and stirred vigorously with the sword of religion and the wand of a variety of magical pathways. It is the Deep South – a land of intense beauty and even more intense ugliness. On a daily basis I find myself struggling to find a rational balance between the two. Often I would like to ignore them both and pretend I live where everything makes sense, but I cannot do this. As I struggle to create a balance within my life and the area in which I live, I often find myself in conflict. How can I admire the beauty of the thick-limbed magnolia with its brilliant, heady flowers that cannot stand the touch of one finger, knowing that trees of its kind were used to hang those who committed no transgression other than to be born with the “wrong” color of skin? The words of Billy Holliday echo in my head – that “strange fruit” swinging from the trees. I ache at the injustice that has been committed here – that is still committed here.

Yet there is great beauty here. From the coast to the mountains, the swamps to the plains, there is wondrous beauty all around us. There is more than natural beauty that exists here, for despite the prejudice that often raises it’s ugly, hate-ridden head, there is also the product of those who fight against the hate and often win.

After attending a lecture on black Southern authors at one of the university’s here, I was struggling with the concept of how they were forced to write in order for anyone (any white one) to take their work seriously. As I was tumbling these thoughts around in my head, weighing the pros and cons of writing for an audience rather than writing for self, I pulled up to a stop light and glanced in my rear view mirror. There I saw an old model, red mini-van with a vanity plate of a confederate flag. I changed lanes after pulling way from the light and the driver of the mini-van pulled up beside me. She was a young black woman, dressed in an African print turban and dress. She had a beautiful smile on her face and she waved brightly at me from her window. I waved back and found myself questioning if I had seen the vanity plate on the front of her vehicle correctly. She turned down one block and I turned down the next. Oddly enough, she wound up behind me in traffic a couple of blocks further into town. I had not seen wrong – the vanity plate was definitely that of a confederate flag.

Here was this beautiful, young black woman, dressed in bright African prints, with a wonderful smile, driving a minivan sporting a confederate flag. I could not make any sense of it. Yet she was obviously at peace. Whether she had to borrow the car because she own broke down or she owned the car herself, she had no qualms about driving around with a symbol that is deeply offensive to many on her front bumper. She was living her life, doing what needed to be done, and she refused to allow the ugliness of a particular symbol color her world.

I know nothing about this young woman. However, I do know that if she could reconcile her existence and the claiming of her heritage with a symbol that inspires hatred, anger and social unease, then there is no reason why I cannot find a way to achieve a balance between the beauty and the ugliness of the South. Until then, I will make a point of using my own smile – in remembrance of hers – to make my day, and possibly the day of others, a little easier. Until there is peace…

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