This weekend my home state held its annual Mississippi Book Festival. I didn’t go. It’s a long way from Denver to Jackson, but my mother gave me a full report. She told me Ellen Gilchrist was super funny and charming at the morning session. No surprise. She told me about young adult author Angie Thomas and the road to publication for her debut The Hate U Give. I can’t wait to read it. And she told me about the powerful speech from Greg Iles. Iles, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is the author of more than a dozen bestselling novels including the acclaimed Natchez Burning trilogy.
Like most thoughtful southerners, Iles has an opinion about the symbols of the Confederacy and their place in the modern world. He expressed those opinions at his panel in Jackson, Mississippi. Let me tell you, it is no easy thing to speak up and speak out in the south. Most southerners pride themselves on being hospitable and having good manners. The images of angry young men shouting and marching with Confederate flags around Confederate statues probably caused a good deal of pearl clutching amongst a certain segment of southern society. It’s just so unseemly to shout and rally. Make no mistake, though, there are plenty of pearl-wearing, church-going southerners who agree with the ideas behind these rallies.
Iles talked about this during his panel at the festival. I can’t quote him, but my mother and I discussed it at length. Iles’s point was that the marchers like the ones in Charlottesville aren’t the people we should be most worried about. The real threat, he warned, comes from a more powerful segment of society. He spoke of women in their forties who quietly bring up their children in all-white neighborhoods and all-white schools, who never shout or express an unpopular opinion. These women vote and they control the money and the hearts of their households. They quietly, politely spread their racism to the next generation and the one after that. I know the women he’s talking about. They look just like me. If we were at a party together, you wouldn’t be able to tell us apart. Hell, I wouldn’t be able to tell us apart. None of us would talk about race or politics. We wouldn’t debate whether statues ought to be torn down or left in place. It isn’t good manners to talk about such things. I have female friends and family members who have never expressed an opinion to me about anything political. I know how they like their tea and which college football team they support, but I couldn’t tell you how they feel about that statue of Robert E. Lee.
It isn’t easy, but we need to talk about these things. We need to denounce racism and make sure the next generation doesn’t grow up believing the whole world is a mirror. We need to break down the insular walls of one family’s values for the greater good of our society’s values. The next generation needs to understand that sometimes Mama is wrong.
After talking with my own right-minded southern Mama, I went searching for a transcript of the session with Greg Iles. I didn’t find one, but I did find a video someone shot from their phone. It’s from the end of the session, well after Iles made his point about matriarchal power. The sound quality is poor and some woman has a coughing fit halfway through, but the speech is worth hearing. Iles talks about the Confederate symbols and how we need to let them go. If you watch this, you’ll hear some enthusiastic applause when he talks about getting rid of the Confederate flag. I know from my mother’s report that there were also people who crossed their arms and sat back in silence. These people, the silent ones, are the dangerous people.
Iles urged Mississippi to take the lead in denouncing the flag and the monuments. He said:
“As a white Mississippian speaking to white Mississippians, let’s don’t be the last ones clinging to the flag and the monuments. Because, folks, we’ve been the last in everything for so long I can’t remember. And if we keep clinging to that crap, we’re going to be last for 75 more years and you might as well just give it up and move away.”
Greg Iles is absolutely right. Southerners, even southerners like me who no longer live in the south, need to be vocal leaders in the fight to rid our country of the hateful racist symbols of a violent and shameful past. Getting rid of flags and monuments doesn’t erase history and it won’t set everything right. But it’s a start.