…But Tell It Slant.

*note:  this blog isn’t about me, of course, but below is a personal story of my time in college.  this is an entry that took me over a month to write for PostBourgie.  click here to check out the entry and comments there.

I have had the most difficult time writing this article.  It took me the whole of Confederate History Month (known also as April) to do.

I figured it was just  because I’m over-thinking, as I always do, bending far too often to the little internal editor who keeps reminding me that my language isn’t vivid enough, that I’m being repetitive, that my metaphors are corny and I should erase my last five lines and start over again.  I was five pages of rambling notes and decapitated paragraphs in when I realized that I’m struggling so much because this is a story that I’m tired of telling.  I’ve been trying to write it down since I graduated from college in 2004 and I am weary of the words.  I screamed them vainly from my freshman year to my senior, and once I left the campus for good, diploma in hand, I decided I would just shut up about it for awhile.  I was drained.  Even now, six years later, it’s hard.

I went to a very small, very white private liberal arts school in Lexington, KY—when I began in the fall of 2000, 20 of the total 1,100 students were black (including me).  That was a record, the most in 220 years of the school’s existence.  I didn’t visit the campus before I committed to attend.  They offered me a scholarship and it had a good academic reputation within the state, and that was good enough for me.  The first thing I remember seeing after pulling into the main parking lot in the middle of the dorms is a building with a solid row of Confederate flags hanging in each and every window of its second floor.

That building was the boy’s dormitory.  The school, being so small, didn’t have the space or demand for Greek housing, so they had Greek halls instead, one hall for each frat and sorority in the two largest dorms.  The second floor of the dorm, the one with the Confederate flags in the windows, was the Kappa Alpha hall.  I instinctively stayed away from KAs, as they were called, after finding out that they were the owners of all the flags, and doubly so after I heard about the frat being founded by Robert E. Lee, and triply so when it was mentioned that they were dedicated to “traditional Southern values and traditions.”  (It turns out that it was not, as rumored, founded by Robert E. Lee—he was, however, named as the fraternity’s  “spiritual founder” 1923.)

The KAs weren’t the worst part; the campus was thoroughly littered with crumbs of this “traditional South.”  The dorm that housed the KAs was called Jefferson Davis Hall, so named after the president of the Confederacy.  There was an absolutely gigantic portrait of him in the lobby of the dorm and a too-large bust of him in the library.  It didn’t help that the campus itself was terrifyingly beautiful.  The school’s administration building (which was used as a hospital for Union soldiers during the Civil War) is a large, stately, blindingly white building with Romanesque columns that jutted endlessly towards the sky, which seemed perpetually blue, even in rain.  It sat atop the roundest, greenest hill you’ve ever seen in your life, and at its bottom was a wide arch of grassy land lined with exploding dogwoods and the world’s saddest willows, sweeping their narratives into the ground below.  It made me nervous.  It looked a little too much like the set of Gone with the Wind for me to enjoy it, especially with the rest of the Confederate residue clinging about, both on campus and off—there was a nameless, faceless Lexingtonian who made a hobby of riding around downtown in a bulbous red pickup truck flying a full sized Confederate flag in its bed and laying on his horn, which (of course) played “Dixie.” There was no escape from it for me.  I used to joke that I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw an actual Confederate soldier walking through campus, feeling right at home.  I was wrong.

He was dressed from ankle to Adam’s Apple in pale blue beneath a long wool coat with dull gold buttons on the breast and a cap to match.  I shrugged it off, not wanting to believe what I already knew—that I really did just see one of my fellow students dressed as a Confederate soldier.  I later learned later that it was a KA in costume to celebrate the end of something called Old South Week.  This at least explained why I was awakened to a bunch of shirtless boys waving rebel flags screaming the words to “Dixie” underneath one of the weeping willows a few nights before (Editor’s note:  This actually happened).  From what I understood, Old South Week was a KA function, a weeklong celebration of old Southern customs and traditions, which included boys dressed as soldiers, girls dressed as delicate, magnolia-scented Southern belles in lace chokers and hoop skirts, and beer.  Lots and lots of beer.  I later heard stories of some outrageously offensive pranks pulled during Old South week at other schools; the one that sticks out most sharply in my memory is one where celebrating students dumped cotton balls all over a grassy campus lawn so that the janitorial staff, which was all-black, would have to bend over and pick them up while they walked through in their costumes, taking pictures.

I couldn’t imagine what I would have done if I would have seen something like that.  I didn’t fully know what to do with what I had seen.  I was angry.  I was incredulous.  I felt unsafe.  And when no one cared, I felt invisible and insignificant.

We tried to talk about it.  Teachers held in-class discussions about the matter and the general state of race relations on campus (a few professors actually had me come and sit in on these discussions because there were no other black students in their classes to present “our side”).  We tried to hold campus-wide forums on it, but no one showed up but us black students, the ones who so desperately wanted to tell the ones draped in the Confederate flag what it did to us and why it was important to consider everything that flag stood for, not just chivalry and wrap-around porches and hayrides and sweet tea.  I wrote about it and had quite a few pieces on race on campus published in the school paper.  On more than one occasion, I found my articles ripped out of newspapers and taped on walls with things like “A GREAT EXAMPLE OF IGNORANCE” scrawled across them in permanent marker.

The majority of the campus maintained that they weren’t celebrating anything hateful.  They were simply paying homage to their Southern heritage (as if we, too, were not Southern), honoring their roots, showing their appreciation for where they came from.  But what kind of place was that?  If I were to participate in Old South Week, what kind of costume would I wear?  Would I be on a wrap-around porch with ruffles around my neck enjoying a mint julep, or sweating the day away in the campus kitchen?  Why didn’t that matter to anyone?

This is the problem with the slant telling of history:  excluding something or someone sends the message that that something or someone is not important.  I can understand the kids on campus not wanting to include slavery in the celebration because it’s kind of a wet blanket.  Still, the answer isn’t in simply ignoring it.  When you acknowledge history, you don’t get to pick and choose.  In erasing from the past, you symbolically erase from the present.  All of the discussions we had lead to nowhere; whenever the issue was brought up, those on the opposing side clung to their “heritage, not hate” posters, and they eventually stopped talking about it altogether.  That’s what hurt the most; no one even tried to see our side.  Nobody cared how those Confederate flags made us feel or entertained the idea that they could have meant something different to us.  The message we carried from that:  we didn’t matter.  We were insignificant.

The event was ultimately moved off campus, but I didn’t consider that a victory.  It was a decision made by the administration and challenged by many of the students, and when it was all over, they felt like the victims, the ones punished, penalized, and inconvenienced by slavery, a beast that breathed, in their opinion, because we kept it alive.  Slavery was so many years ago, they said.  I’ve never personally owned a slave.  Let it go.  Just let it go already.

To them, letting it go meant ignoring it.  To us, letting it go meant finally having our concerns and issues being seen as valid, finally feeling understood.

As of now, I’m still holding on, waiting for the chance to let it go.

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25 responses to “…But Tell It Slant.

  1. Ms. Brokey,
    I’m leaving a Comment for one reason. And only one reason.
    To let you know I read this piece. Twice actually. It will be a part of my life’s education.
    To assimilate into my thought/feeling-processes.

    I wanted you to know that. That I didn’t just ignore it because it might not be “mine” or that it is so directly about such uncomfortable subjects.

    As far as anything else, I think its best I fully understand I’d better take the approach I’d mentioned in Meshell at Splackavellie Central; to listen carefully, try to feel the matter as she/you expresses it, and keep my mouth shut. Out of Respect. Out of Propriety. And the understanding this isn’t about my feelings, but yours; to understand them as thoroughly as I can.

    Thank you for this.

  2. Is that Transylvania? I knew UK’s campus was racist as hell, but i didn’t know that about Transy.

    Ps. If they had pulled the cotton ball prank on me, I would have blown the damn school up.

  3. Being from Ohio, I would have dressed like another famous native Ohioan, General William T. Sherman and reminded them what happened to the Confederate army while playing the Ohio Players classic “Fire”…

    But, seriously, that was some wrong ish. If I were looking at you right now, it would be like that scene in Boomerang where Gerard catches his parents going at it in Marcus’s bathroom and Marcus tries to say something to make him feel better and he finds that nothing really works so he just hugs him in hopes that it will be ok, somehow.

    • LMAO im mad at/in love with your movie reference. lol!

      and the sherman thing.. brilliant.

      • *tips his hat* My pleasure!

        Thank you, ma’am.

      • When the South pisses me off, I think of the 1992 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Toronto Blue Jays.

        Before Game 2 in Atlanta, they “accidentally” flew the Canadian flag upside down.

        Then the Toronto Blue Jays proceeded to beat them in 4 of the next 5 games and take the World Series in 6 games.

        Here are a few things the Southerners can chew on:
        Atlanta got beat by the Canadian team. The clinching game was in Atlanta. Toronto’s manager was black. The Canadians had a t-shirt with the American flag upside down saying “Sorry, eh?”

  4. Wow, this was a truly beautiful post, Brokey. I know you struggled with writing this, but I wanna say thanks for pulling through and writing it.

    SMH @ that cotton-picking prank…that seriously made me well-up with tears…

  5. There are galaxies of experience and metabolized hate, indifference, and disingenuity (is that aword?) behind this simple attempt at gratitude but. . .thank you.

  6. Wow. What a beautifully written article. I se where you’re coming from.

    I’ve just always had an inability to be outraged by this sort of stuff though. I always treated it like Freddy Kruger. If you talk about it and make a fuss, that gives it power. Not taking it so personally really lessens the effect. At least in my opinion.

    And no disrespect, but that cotton ball prank sounded HILARIOUS. Not condoning the “racist” part of it, but I have to recognize the creativity and the “outside-of-the-boxedness”.

    • I’m sorry, but WTF is wrong with you?

      There was nothing about that prank that was creative (I mean, really — littering a lawn with cotton balls… that’s creative?) or funny. You can’t laugh at the funny and ignore the racist parts of this prank. The whole damn thing was racist, buddy. ALL of it. So no matter what you say, you’re laughing at the fact that a bunch of white kids made fun of a bunch of black people’s history, all the while claiming victimization because they felt their history was being railroaded.

      You’re one of those people that read articles like this, know this ish is wrong, but because you can’t find it in your ignorant little brain to fully get it, try to find a way that you might still be right.

      And that’s cool, or whatever, but in the future, you really oughta STFU.

      No, but for real.

      And as for your opinion on not taking it personally? That’s your privilege talking, buddy. I doubt you’d bother, but you might want to google Tim Wise and read some of his stuff on privilege. It’s easy for you to tell other folks not to take something personally when you don’t have to think about it at all.

      If somebody kicked your ass and sent you to the hospital, I bet you would take that personally… although, if you didn’t and you didn’t press charges, then it would lessen the effects.

      Oh wait. No it wouldn’t. You’d still have hospital bills, scars, maybe physical repercussions.

  7. T,
    I don’t really have words for this. My few high school weeks in “Pensyltucky” were more than enough for me. That flag alone –just one– makes scared and angry. A whole row would’ve had me expelled prior to my first class.
    For you to have stayed, graduated and *tried* to even explain to people who simply didn’t care means a lot. It shows the type of person you are, and I’m glad I know that person.

  8. The Confederate pickup truck also had a sticker that read “I RIDE WITH FORREST”.

    Great post. Great description of the school. I would add that I think you contributed immensely to changes that have altered the trajectory of the school; seemingly small relative to the historical legacy that exists there, but the most a small group of individuals could achieve in 4 years at a multicentennial institution. You don’t give yourself enough credit. I can’t imagine any school at which changing systemic disrespect and oppression could be more difficult – except maybe in Iran. In that respect, it was there that the war most needed fighting. And even small victories there could be cherished.

    Many of the symbols and de facto policies there are reprehensible, which is why I feel all the more privileged to have met so many bright, passionate voices for justice in the midst. Of that list, you are first among peers, Brokey. Hannah and I are so proud to know you.

    That said, remember going to see Angela Davis and Spike Lee?! Great memories. YEAH!

    • dear everybody:

      this man is proof that all this stuff really did happen, and proof that not all white men in the south wear big white robes. 🙂

      and yes! spike lee aka Teeny Little Super Guy. i dont know if u remember this or if u were even there when this happened, but do u remember going to see John Singleton at all? if so, do u remember the little mixer afterward when we got to meet him, and i had him sign a Corona bottle? and i took it home and put it on my bookshelf?

      MY GRANDMOTHER THOUGHT IT WAS TRASH AND THREW IT AWAY!! i thanked her for helping me keep my room clean but it was the angriest gratitude ive ever felt in my life.

  9. That was a great, I even read it twice so it could soak in more. **claps** beautiful writing.

  10. Good telling, worth the wait.
    You know I went to school in the South and I often find myself defending it to people who think anything below the Mason-Dixon is a time machine back to the 18th Century. Yet I still had experiences going to school and living there that made me pause and check the year on the calendar. Like, for real?
    Props to you for handling your business in that environment. Props to you and the 19 others who stood up in a hostile environment.

    • i do the same thing too.. through it all im still very proud of where i came from and where i live (though the city/town i went to school in is one of the worst places ever, i’ll not defend that). i think it takes a complex person to be able to see, understand, and (at least attempt to) reconcile all the good and bad with places like we’ve been.

      (translation: you & me are *awesome*)

      thank u very much 🙂 congrats to u for makin it thru too!

  11. I read this during a break in a marathon of HBO’s The Pacific. My sense — in processing both pieces of work simultaneously — is that slant is actually the default method of telling history.

    It’s pretty rare to find a comprehensive (and objective) chronicle of ANY past event. The teller of the story usually tells it from their perspective. It’s kinda unavoidable.

    What your piece really brings home, though, is the key distinction between telling history and celebrating it.

    The telling of history is inherently limited. You or I or whomever is left to selectively frame the past based on however far around it we can see. You clearly saw further than your classmates did, but was it really all the way around it? (If so, you’re a rare breed. Although that wouldn’t exactly surprise me.)

    The celebrating of history frequently devolves into hyperbole. Context gets lost. Certain details are amplified at the expense of others. What results is essentially a caricature. The trouble with that is those who confuse caricature with heritage.

    I’d be willing to bet that some of those students who celebrated “Old South Week” would not have enjoyed the Old South had they really lived during that time. From what I understand, the Old South was as rife with classism as it was with racism. (Which, of course, is my limited view.)

    The takeaway, I suppose, is that we can tell history and we can celebrate it, but we really shouldn’t confuse the latter for the former. While the telling is understandably limited, the celebration is dangerously focused.

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  14. I know that I’m two months late but this was beautifully written. This story brought tears to my eyes for so many reasons. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Wow, how about this is really f*cked up.

    But at the same time, I cannot say that I haven’t had racist experiences every time I’ve been down in Kentucky. Especially downtown at 4th Street Live. There’s always that one asshole that has to open his big mouth and say the wrong thing.

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