St. Patrick and Heritage Celebration

(March 15, 2018) After arriving in Chicago decades ago upon leaving a small Southern city to earn a graduate degree, I quickly noticed cultural differences. Among the most memorable was the St.Patrick’s Day celebration. People in my hometown customarily wore something green and kids might pinch other kids who forgot. But the Windy City dyed the Chicago River green and held a massive parade. I thought, “Well, this is different. But in America people should be able to celebrate their heritage  even if it is unlike mine.” Thus, I absorbed the differences as a learning experience.

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But America today increasingly condemns any celebration of Southern heritage. Confederate monuments are hidden, defaced and destroyed. The South is judged to be the Evil Twin of the North that must be coerced into accepting American history precisely as it is taught in the North. The reasoning goes like this: “Unlike the Irish, Southerners started the Civil War over slavery and after losing the war resorted to terrorism to achieve their goals. Therefore, it is okay for Irish Americans to celebrate their heritage whereas Southern heritage is shameful and  should be condemned instead of celebrated. End of story. Any questions?”

Well, yes. I have three.

First, even if slavery is accepted as the main cause of secession, does that mean it was the chief reason the typical Confederate soldier fought? After all, less than thirty percent of Southern families were slave owners. According to historian William C. Davis, “The widespread Northern myth that the Confederates went to the battlefield to perpetuate slavery is just that, a myth. Their letters and diaries, in the tens of thousands, reveal again and again that they fought and died because their Southern homeland was invaded and their natural instinct was to protect their home and hearth.”

Second, didn’t Ireland revolt because she wanted independence from Great Britain just as the Confederate States wanted to be independent from the United States? The ultimately irreconcilable differences between the Irish and the British festered for decades as did the sectional differences between America’s North and South. The Irish Home Rule movement extended fifty-one years from 1870 to 1921 whereas America’s sectional arguments lasted at least forty years from 1820 to 1861. Even sixty-five years after the end of the Civil War Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall observed that discriminatory federal policies enabled the North to keep the South in a colonial status in which it served as the “economic doormat of the United States as Ireland was to the United Kingdom.”

Third, were members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorists or freedom fighters? As late as the 1970s the IRA was in the news because it had evolved into a paramilitary group that was fighting to liberate Northern Ireland from British rule. Although the British government designated it a terrorist organization and even the Irish Republic declared it to be “unlawful,” the IRA was supported by donations from Irish descendants in America where our media usually described IRA members as “activists.” Even today the United Kingdom classifies the IRA as a terrorist group and it also remains officially illegal in Ireland.

While slavery and racism are shameful American legacies, they are not the reasons Southerners want to remember their heritage. About sixty years ago Texas novelist William Humphrey explained it this way:

If the Civil War is more alive to the Southerner than the Northerner it is because all of the past is, and this is so because the Southerner has a sense of having been present there himself in the person of one or more of his ancestors. The war filled merely a chapter in his . . . [family history] . . . transmitted orally from father to son [as] the proverbs, prophecies, legends, laws, traditions-of-origin and tales-of-wanderings of his own tribe. . . It is this feeling of identity with the dead (who are past) which characterizes and explains the Southerner.

It is with kin, not causes, that the Southerner is linked. Confederate Great-grandfather . . . is not remembered for his (probably undistinguished) part in the Battle of Bull Run; rather Bull Run is remembered because Great-grandfather was there. For the Southerner the Civil War is in the family.

Clannishness was, and is, the key to his temperament, and he went off to war to protect not Alabama but only those thirty or forty acres of its sandy hillside, or stiff red clay, which he broke his back tilling and which was as big a country as his mind could hold.

Let America celebrate the fight to end slavery and racism with monuments to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin King, Medgar Evers and others. Put up more! But Southerners are Americans too and other Americans should let us celebrate our heritage as well, even though it is different than yours.

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