No “Sir,” No “Ma’am”

The Journey of a Yankee from the South

David Brower

My story begins in the South, although I was not raised as a Southerner. 

Born in Nashville, I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. I have observed in life that people are usually either direct products of their upbringing or direct products of their resistance to the culture of their origins. My mother was from North Carolina, my father from Tennessee, and I think one thing they found in each other was their resistance to their Southern heritage. 

When I was a child, for vacations, we used to go visit our relatives in the South. Sometimes we would meet whoever could show up at Myrtle Beach and fight the undertow and eat shrimp on the beach. Most times we would go to the 40-acre farm where my mom grew up, play in the hay barn, wade in the creek, and roll in the fields of poison ivy. 

My granddaddy gave me a ride sometimes on the tractor, which I assumed he used in the rather large garden they ate from. I later learned that he actually worked in the shipping department of a Marshall Field’s furniture factory. The garden was tended by Buck and Dolly, who worked for Granddaddy and lived in what had been the old slave house at the back of the farm before Granddaddy bought it. I don’t know if they came with the real estate deal or later. I never saw the house, but I met Dolly once in Granny’s kitchen. I don’t know if Dolly or my granny made it, but it was the first time I had country ham and red-eye gravy.  It was also probably the first time I actually met a Black person. I was probably five or six years old. 

When I was 10 or 11 years old, an uncle, by marriage on my mother’s side, gave me a Confederate flag, probably three by five feet. It was accompanied by a pep talk about how this was my heritage and how proud I should be of it. I hung that flag on the wall in my bedroom for a while, because it looked so cool. My parents, I now think oddly, didn’t say anything about it. Somewhere along the way I learned what that “heritage” really stood for, and without fanfare, to avoid the shame I felt for displaying it in the first place, I took it down. It’s in a box somewhere to this day, as an invisible reminder of the choices we have, I guess.

I don’t know how I learned not to have a prejudice against Black people, but I think it must be taught as much as the hate is taught. Maybe, as children, we do not have these prejudices to begin with and it is only the hate that is taught.  In any case, in our society, not teaching hate seems to need to be an active endeavor. My parents never discussed race or African Americans specifically or generally. Yet somehow they managed, while having little exposure to people of color at all, to instill in me that we are all equal. History class taught me that, too, in the Constitution, though people of color rarely showed up in the lessons. But to me, “all” meant all. 

Diverse Prejudices

In my sheltered community the Poles were the ones looked down upon, including the family directly across the street from us. Their daughter was my sister’s best friend, so I guess I thought nothing of it; decades later they are still friends. But I remember the playground jeers of ‘Polock’ that her brother, closer to my age, endured. And the bullying. As a bullying victim myself, I had empathy for those kids and could not understand the ire they received just because their hard-working parents spoke with a slight accent. 

In hindsight I realize that the Catholics were also looked at slightly sideways, though there were so many of them in my neighborhood that it made no difference to us kids. I only became aware of the distrust of Catholics during the John F. Kennedy campaign. The fact that religion can be the root of hate, especially when it is directed at people who believe in the same God, baffles me to this day, as all religious texts stress the opposite.

My parents, having been exposed to Unitarianism in art school in Nashville, claimed to be Unitarians, which conveniently meant that we didn’t go to the Unitarian church that did not exist in the town. We never really discussed religion, our family, or the neighborhood kids. The two Hispanic kids in my high school class of 786 seemed to fit in well enough as far as I could tell, and Hispanic was not in my vocabulary to explain their minor differences, though Felix got some grief about his name in grade school, thanks to the cartoon.

I commuted to college in Chicago. While in school I worked as a photographer and darkroom technician in a research facility, through the Electron Optics Lab. I printed electron microscope images for many smart, highly educated people from all over the world who worked there. Many of them were East Indian immigrants, and in my dealings with them in particular, I did not tend to like them. I found them arrogant, intolerant, condescending and rude. That impression, or I should say prejudice, extended outside the realm of work—until I began working in the film business and eventually took a trip to Southeast Asia, which turned into a three-month circumnavigation of the globe. On that trip I spent a couple of weeks in India, where I was smitten with the beauty, horrified by the poverty, met many lovely people, and was almost constantly besieged by poor, starving people. I was, by my very presence as a traveler, a wealthy person, and while I could spare a few rupees for a starving child, I did not have the means to feed thousands of them. I found myself becoming impatient, intolerant, and having the feeling that I deserved to be insulated from this suffering somehow. The longer it went on, the more I recognized myself becoming arrogant, intolerant, condescending and rude, just like those Ph.D.s in the lab that set me off so. I still didn’t like that behavior, but I also understood where they were coming from and so had to ratchet my judgmental feelings toward them down many notches. My experience in India also brought into focus how many different ‘kinds’ of Indians there were in India, never mind the caste system. How ignorant I was to brush them all with the same stroke. My eyes were opened wide to the fact that wealth disparity is as much, or more, a factor in prejudice as “race” and is as codified in many societies. I was also made painfully aware of my own ability to feel and express prejudice.

Cowboy Moves West

Having been to a wilderness camp and ridden horses in Wyoming when I was 15, I dressed like a cowboy through college. I had loved westerns, played cowboys and Indians as a child. I vacillated between cowboy (good guy in the westerns) and Indian (underdog in my view at that point). After college I moved into Chicago proper and lived in a fairly run-down neighborhood, not far from where my parents first moved with the other poor, white Appalachians two decades earlier.  People used to ask me if it was a dangerous place to live. I told them that there were so many different kinds of people in the neighborhood that nobody stood out as a threat or potential victim—Asian, East Indian, Middle-Eastern (like my roommate), white American and European, Black, and the largest population of Native Americans outside a reservation. We were all there together, and as far as I could tell, none of us thought much about it. Maybe I was just naive.

A few years after my move to Chicago, while my brother was in college in Ohio, my parents moved themselves and my sister to warmer climes in South Carolina.

A couple of years after that (which was not long after my trip around the world), I moved to Phoenix at the behest of a mentor and promptly quit dressing like a cowboy, feeling somewhat disingenuous, as well as having become aware of the injustices we perpetrated on the native population of this continent. Moving into the land of reservations, representing my “heritage” in dressing that way seemed a little like “flying” that flag on my bedroom wall.

When I quit the commercial business for a short while and focused on black-and-white still photography, I had the opportunity to accompany a social worker into the fields and dwellings of migrant farm workers to shoot images to accompany an article in Phoenix Magazine. It is probably still some of the best work I ever did, thanks in large part to the trust granted me through that social worker, in that I was simultaneously able to capture both the poverty and the dignity of those workers. It gave me a whole new perspective on our country as a nation of immigrants.

“Return” to the South

While in Arizona I eventually married, and we had our first daughter. A few years later I found a job in Birmingham, Alabama, about 1500 miles closer to my parents, as the crow flies. When my new employer called and asked me to come, my first question was; “Everything I know about Birmingham is bad. Why would I want to live there?” I can’t really recall how they convinced me, but move we did.

In many ways Birmingham was a great place to raise two daughters, but at the same time, I could not, or rather would not, embrace my Southern heritage during that time. I refused to buy into college football as a religion, or religion as a religion, for that matter. I, too, flew under the radar as a would-be Unitarian, but thankfully there was a Unitarian church in the town, where my girls could learn how to deal with being told in carpool they were going to hell because they weren’t baptized; where they could see the Bible-belt hypocrisy of “following” Jesus and only loving thy neighbor who looks like you; and where people modeled, as my wife and I did, acceptance of all people, in surroundings where there was plenty of exposure to people of color, LGBTQ, foreigners, and Yankees, as I was often referred to.

Shortly after moving to Birmingham someone asked me why we Northerners didn’t refer to ourselves as Yankees. My response was, “We call ourselves Americans. The war ended a hundred and fifty years ago. You lost. Get over it.” Needless to say, I didn’t make it easy on myself, or on my family. For my kids’ sake, I did not make a point of being a devout atheist before they were grown, but there were so many ways I did not toe the line when it came to being of Southern stock. I did not teach my kids to say “Sir” or “Ma’am.” I did not pull for Auburn or Alabama. I did not teach my children they were better than other people, nor that as girls they were any less than their male counterparts. I did not pretend there was not segregation, nor that white supremacy was not codified at every level of government. Probably now, even after I’m no longer living in Alabama, there are probably those who would refer to me as a Yankee, spelled with a ‘D’. I do not see this as heroic. I did not march at Selma. I did not harbor or congregate with “colored” people when it was illegal. I did not lose much business over my actions. I merely tried not to compromise my own values.

The South did not invent racism; I lived in Chicago when they finally elected their first Black mayor. But the South did institutionalize it, codify it into law, and fought to keep slavery as an economic engine and a way of life, well into the 20th century. Unfortunately, voting rights are being assaulted across the nation today. Racism, or Other-ism, since race is a false construct to begin with, seems to be part of the human condition born out of tribalism as a Darwinian survival mechanism. That does not mean we can’t evolve and live beyond and above our baser instincts. If we don’t beat our children, they will likely see the wisdom of finding ways other than violence to solve their problems. If we don’t teach our children to hate differences in people, they will likely embrace the beauty in them.

Who Do We Think We Are?

As a somewhat reluctant producer of this documentary series (it is truly Pam Powell’s vision and passion that is producing it), I came to it with much trepidation about what started as two white people telling a story about some brave white people participating in the African American struggle for equality in voting and in our society. How important is that really, next to the sacrifices made by the actual ancestors of enslaved people? Of what importance is that story in the face of the magnitude of the struggle? What right do we have? Who do we think we are? My rationale for this conundrum is based in these things I believe to be true: If one of us is not free, none of us is truly free. If we don’t all work together toward the goals of freedom and justice, we will fail. If our audience is those whose minds and hearts we wish to change, and their fear is of those who are different from them, then who better to try to change their hearts and minds than those who appear to be the same as them?

My fear that with our white privilege we would be resented and ridiculed by those who have struggled and sacrificed so much has been completely unfounded. Those in the struggle also believe those things to be true—that if one of us is not free, none of us is truly free; that if we don’t all work together, we will fail. And we have been embraced. We are also learning in the current phase of the project that, as Americans, we are almost all related to people who were enslaved, as well as to the enslavers. Our lots in life may differ greatly, but our “heritage” does not. As a participant in one film says: “We are all cousins.”

If we do not face the truth of our history as a nation born of slavery, built by slavery, made rich by slavery and the natural resources of this land we stole from those before us, then we will never begin to deal with the problems born of those realities, and none of us will ever truly be free.

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David Brower
David Brower