Photo courtesy of Tommy Kha
By Jennifer Ho
October 25, 2015, 3:15 P.M.
am standing near the Old Well at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill watching a group of about a hundred people wave Confederate flags from pickup trucks, motorcycles, and cars. It feels like I’m back in 1955—sixty years gone in the blink of an eye. And then I hear the opening refrain, rendered as car horn melody:
Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten.
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land!
The driver leans on his horn again and again, so these strains repeat ad infinitum as the phalanx of neo-Confederates drives onto campus. How cliché, I think to myself, “Dixie.” Why “Dixie”? Why not something more contemporary, like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” or patriotic, like Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American”? Why this song that’s so clearly a throwback to an antebellum past of cotton fields and plantation homes? Of course I find the whole tableau in front of me to be clichéd—if I were to film this, I could not have found a more stereotypical portrait of the racist U.S. South: red pickup trucks with white men in the back waving enormous Confederate flags next to German Shepherds.
I am here to bear witness to the pro-Confederate rally and the many counter-protesters who will be facing off against them at the base of the Confederate soldier statue referred to colloquially as Silent Sam. The parade of cars takes twenty minutes to cross the campus and reach a parking lot, where the supporters—mostly white men and women, though surprisingly there are three black men in their midst—gather to walk two-by-two to the statue. The pro-Confederate contingency will be met by four times the number of counter-protesters—a multicultural, multiracial, and multigender coalition of students, with a smattering of faculty and community members mixed in. I know my friends from outside North Carolina will see the pictures I tweet out and think, “Typical.” These photos will affirm all their preconceptions about the backward nature of the U.S. South and the racism emblematized by the Confederate flag.
Yet this isn’t really the South—and it’s not really my South, the South that I’ve called home for the past twelve years. Further, what does it mean for me to call the South my home—to say “my South,” when I was not born, not bred, not schooled anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line? I have lived in North Carolina from July 2003 to the present day in the same zip code, which makes this the longest I’ve ever resided in one place in my life. As a young child I moved from Flushing, New York, to Hayward, California, and then within Hayward we moved three times before settling in my childhood home, where my parents still live. I have no difficulties calling myself a Californian, despite the four years spent in Queens and the period during grad school when I was a temporary New Englander. Home is so much more than where you were born or where your parents are from, and my case is more complicated since I am the daughter of a refugee father from communist China and a mother born in Kingston, Jamaica, to immigrant parents from Hong Kong. My family has laid claim to a variety of nationalities and regional affiliations, yet there are still questions I reflect on from time to time regarding my own claim to my current home. Am I a Southerner, and do I have a right to call myself a Southerner? Will others recognize me as a Southerner, despite my lack of accent and because of my Asian face? And what does it mean to take on this identity—what does it mean for me to claim Dixie?
My first memory of walking onto the campus of UNC Chapel Hill is also my first memory of seeing Silent Sam. I was with the man who was my husband at the time and we’d just had lunch somewhere on Franklin Street and were walking onto McCorkle Place enjoying the April day—the flowers in bloom and the sky a brilliant Carolina blue. When I saw the statue, I did a double-take: I couldn’t believe it—a life-size Confederate soldier standing tall on a plinth against a backdrop of students decked out in shorts and t-shirts. I remember having two simultaneous reactions that were at odds with each other: the temperate weather and Frisbee-throwing students in flip-flops reminded me of my California alma mater, UC Santa Barbara, but seeing the statue made me think I had made a huge mistake. How was I, an Asian American scholar who writes about race, going to fit into this place—one that clearly took pride in its antebellum roots? Where did Asian Americans fit into discussions of race in the South?
I remembered conversations with two different grad school friends, one white and one black, both from different parts of the South, after I told them I’d be moving to North Carolina. Both friends assured me that as an Asian American woman in Chapel Hill I’d have no problem fitting in because it was a liberal college town and because as an Asian American I’d be seen as an honorary white person. Their attempts to placate my racial fears only exacerbated them, because I don’t want to be seen as an honorary white person—I want to be seen for who I am: an Asian American. It was also not reassuring to hear I’d be treated as white because it signaled that anti-black racism was still alive and well if my best hope at racial harmony was to try to pass into whiteness.
I’ve never gotten used to Silent Sam, especially not after I heard the story of his name. According to students, he is called Silent Sam because his gun goes off every time a virtuous (read virginal) woman walks by, and he hasn’t fired his gun in over a hundred years. This story makes sense from an intersectional perspective—a mix of misogyny and gun rights sprinkled with a layer of white superiority. Of course there are far more benign markers of the South that I’m equally unused to and haven’t adapted to: ordering iced tea in a restaurant means I get sweet tea unless I specifically ask for unsweet tea, and the phrase “bless your heart” is not a compliment.
I also learned that the phrase “woman of color” is seemingly reserved for black women. I received in the mail a postcard to attend a Sister Circle lunch for women of color after my first two months at UNC. Grateful for this opportunity to meet other women of color, I eagerly attended. But when I appeared in the doorway of the room, I stopped, dug the postcard out of my bag, and checked the wording. Inside were forty African American women—no non-black faces that I could see. But the card said women of color, so I entered and enjoyed meeting various staff and faculty from across the campus. Later in the week, when I asked a Latina colleague why she wasn’t at the lunch, she told me that Sister Circle events were meant for black women. I continued to go to the Sister Circle events, figuring that until they said I wasn’t welcome I’d show up, since I identified as a woman of color.
Only later did I realize that they might have assumed that I was mixed race, especially when I mentioned that my mother grew up in Kingston. My story is indebted to various imperialisms—British, American, and Catholic. My paternal grandfather was an international banker who exchanged money between the Kuomintang National Chinese Army and the U.S. military during World War II. His national and capitalist affiliations cemented his refugee status once the communists came to power in the mid-1950s. Escaping to New York City’s Chinatown with his wife and five children, my grandfather, a man who spoke eight Chinese dialects, was unable to learn enough English to be employed full time, leaving the breadwinning to my Shanghai socialite grandmother, a woman who used to order around servants to take care of her young brood and who now found herself in the U.S. making piecemeal jewelry at her kitchen table along with her youngest children. My mother likes to joke that I am made of aristocratic stock on my father’s side and peasant stock on hers, since her parents’ families were subsistence farmers in the New Territory region of Hong Kong—far outside the cosmopolitan metropolis of Kowloon and Hong Kong harbor. My maternal grandfather migrated to Jamaica because it, along with Hong Kong, was part of the British Commonwealth, and as the fourth-oldest son with poor prospects, he had nothing to lose. With my grandmother’s help he opened a bakery in Kingston making beef patties and hardo bread, staples of Jamaican cuisine, which was also the food my mother learned to cook and the food I grew up on. My parents met through a mutual friend when my mother took a job at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan, a friend they both knew because of their shared Catholic religion. All of these identities—mainland China, Hong Kong, Jamaica, U.S., Catholic, refugee, immigrant, of wealth and of poverty—are embedded in my identity, but all of this is more complicated than I can explain when people ask me where I’m from.
October 25, 2015, 3:15 P.M.
The police have separated the protesters (here to honor Silent Sam and affirm their Southern heritage) from the counter-protesters (who insist that symbols of the Confederacy are relics of a racist past). Two layers of metal barricades surround the statue, with police positioned in between and interspersed on the periphery of the crowd. The cacophony of the counter-protesters increases into a crescendo of chanting, “Black Lives Matter!,” which propels the other side to reply “All Lives Matter!,” contrapuntally and antagonistically. I make my way from one side of the barricades to the other, moving from the multiethnic space to the nearly all-white Confederate crowd. As my relationship to the Confederacy is to view it as history—part of the past and not part of a living present that I must negotiate—I move to the other side in order to listen and learn. It would be easy for me to view the protesters as merely racist rednecks, ignorant of history and blind to racial and intersectional politics, but that is too dismissive and too simplistic, and disparaging these people would not be practicing what I teach. As an educator, I believe there are things I want to understand about this conflict that require me to be open to another’s view so that I can share and discuss these issues with my students. As a scholar, I believe I have a responsibility to record and communicate my observations, which I do through a series of tweets. And as a community member who is trying to determine whether I can lay claim to the South, I feel it is my responsibility to treat this not as a sordid spectacle but as a learning moment.
One conversation I overhear happens between an African American woman in her early forties and a white man of around the same age. I had initially assumed that these two strangers knew each other, because what I first overheard was an exchange that had each of them exclaiming over places and people they were both familiar with. They had both grown up in the same county and had family who lived in the same town and who went to the same high school. They knew people in common. They reminisced and they laughed, and what I witness seems like a reunion of sorts—a happy meeting of strangers who realize that there is just one degree of separation keeping them from being family. But when the conversation turns from the shared personal past to the larger historical one, the racial and political divide between them looms large. They both genuinely seem to be listening to one another and want to understand where, why, and how the other person has arrived at a contradictory position to their own stance, though they remain unswayed by the other’s perspective. When the woman insists that the marks of the Confederacy that he displays so proudly have brought nothing but anger and fear in her life, the man offers her a hug, and she accepts. It is an intimate moment, and I feel voyeuristic for watching and listening. I also feel estranged from both their intimacy and their division, because as an Asian American woman who is not Southern, these are not moments of connection and disconnection that touch me in the way that they touch these two Southerners. Their exchange reminds me acutely that I am not from here, and I wonder at how I am being perceived and regarded by those around me—how legible am I as an Asian American in the South?
The first time I am referred to as white by an African American Southerner is right before an MA thesis defense. It is late August, and I have just returned from spending three weeks with my family in the Bay Area. I am newly hired, having completed my two-year post-doc and accepted a tenure-track position in the English department at UNC. My colleague, an African American woman born and raised in Alabama who was, at the time, one of the most senior scholars in our department, had asked me about my summer vacation in California. I told her that it had been great to be home and hard to be back in North Carolina because I missed seeing Asian faces, given the paucity of Asian Americans on UNC’s campus. When she noted that the Asian American undergraduate population had increased markedly since she first started at UNC, I agreed but said that in California you saw Asian Americans in everyday settings—working at the post office, shopping at the supermarket, riding public transportation. Shaking her head at me, she said, “Well, for all intents and purposes Asians are white,” and then the thesis defense began. I still recall my surprise and hurt at being so summarily dismissed by someone I saw as a role model and ally as a woman of color, especially when I was a very junior faculty member who was trying to find my way amid the politics of the department and university. Now added into this mix were the politics of race held by members of the African American community, a reminder that solidarity among non-white people is not and has never been uniform.
October 25, 2015, 3:40 P.M.
An African American man who looks to be in his late sixties is at the podium set up by the pro-Confederates. He is talking about why we should be supporting the Confederacy—why he is proud of the Confederate flag—and why Silent Sam needs to be protected. I am having serious cognitive dissonance listening to this older black man talk about his Southern pride. He could be the father of the black woman who was just hugged by the white pro-Confederate protester; he is of an age that suggests he would have experienced active racial segregation, black and white drinking fountains, separate schools for black and white children, sitting in the balcony at the Franklin movie theater with a separate entrance for black patrons. All three pro-Confederate African Americans sport the Stars and Bars on their clothing. What motivates them to protect symbols that others wear as a sign of white supremacy and black inferiority?
The mostly white anarchists who are present berate the black pro-Confederate speaker—I hear the phrase “Uncle Tom” thrown out—and the mostly white pro-Confederate crowd grows protective of one of their own. I am standing at what I think is a respectable distance—I want to hear the older African American speaker, but I do not want to be confused for someone who is supporting his cause, their cause. I wonder if my Asian features make clear that I am not a supporter of the Lost Cause. But I am not sure how Asian Americans are regarded by either black or white Southerners, by either pro- or anti-Confederate protestors. As the hecklers approach, the black speaker moves, and the crowd shifts along with him, which makes my previously peripheral placement now front and center of a growing maelstrom. I send out a last tweet from the rally and make my way through the throng and out of the circle of protestors. The speaker is being drowned out by the back-and-forth of the anti-Confederates and those defending him—but he also looks like he has lost steam. Some in the crowd start to sing “Dixie,” and I take that as my cue to leave.
I make my way to the patio of the Carolina Inn with friends who also took part in the protest but who stayed on the anti-Confederate side. The inn looks like a plantation, with its Corinthian columns, emerald-green lawn, and wide porch. It’s taken me a while to feel comfortable at this campus spot, but sitting on the patio with a plate of sweet-potato fries, sipping an Arnold Palmer, is one of the Southern habits I’ve adopted gladly. My friends and I compare notes from the event, and after they leave, a couple approaches me. They had heard us talking about the protest and want to know more about what was going on. They are a mixed-race couple from Princeton, New Jersey—the wife white and the husband black. The wife talks about her anxiety and apprehension seeing the protesters arrive with their cars flying the Confederate flag; she had wanted to leave immediately. The husband is more sanguine; he shrugs and does not comment other than to say, “Things like this happen everywhere.”
I try to reassure them that this is an aberration; we do not have weekly protests such as this one, and the counter-protesters outnumbered the pro-Confederate forces four to one. I tell them about UNC Chapel Hill and what it’s like to live in North Carolina: about the incredibly smart, motivated, and engaged students, the majority of whom are from North Carolina because we are a state school and are dedicated to educating its citizens. I tell them about meeting some of the most fiercely ardent social-justice activists since moving to North Carolina, people who lived through the modern civil rights era and who embody anti-racism in their everyday lives and philosophies. I talk about school pride during the Duke–UNC basketball games, the beauty of walking through the nearby botanical gardens, and the great local music scene in Carrboro at the Cat’s Cradle and the nearby Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw. I tell them about a class I developed called “The Place of Asian Americans in the U.S. South,” one that features novels by writers like Monique Truong, Susan Choi, and Ruthanne Lum McCunn with protagonists who are of Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese ancestry. I tell them that the students in this class are not only Asian American but black, white, Latino, Lumbee, and multiracial, and all have an interest in discussing race through their lived experiences as well as through the Asian American stories and their knowledge of Southern history. When the couple asks me about what I know of Southern history, I answer their questions like I am an expert, and give restaurant recommendations like I am from here, like I am a Southerner.
I remember a conference on the civil rights movement that I had attended within my first five years of being in North Carolina. During the Q&A of the closing plenary, I ask these distinguished scholars of civil rights and Southern history at what point could I, a transplanted Californian by way of New England, call myself a Southerner? Each panelist, black or white, says that I can claim Southern identity whenever I want. I recently asked a friend in my department, someone born and bred in the South, whether I could call myself a Southerner. I explain the answer I had been given before, and he smiles and says that no one would accept me as a Southerner, both because of how I look and how I sound. I find his honesty refreshing. But I still wonder what it means for me to feel like this is my home without claiming the region as home.
And this is my frustration: I don’t know if I am legible, racially, to either black or white Southerners. I know that there is much that I do not know about race in the South. This is not my history; it is not mine to be either ashamed or proud of. And yet, isn’t it my history? Isn’t it all of ours? Don’t all of us living in the United States have to reckon with the legacy of the Confederacy and the South because Southern history is American history? I cannot claim to be an American and only claim the parts I like. Likewise, I believe one cannot claim to be Southern and only claim pride in the Confederate flag while ignoring that for many Southerners—those born and bred here, as well as the transplanted Yankees and international immigrants—symbols of the Confederacy are symbols of white supremacy. If we claim America, don’t we then have to claim the South? Isn’t it the responsibility, the legacy, and the duty of the hard work of racial progress for all of us to have to claim Dixie?
Coda: Tuesday, August 21, 2018
I get off the bus one stop early so that I can walk across campus to see something that is no longer there. The night before, during a protest around Silent Sam, activists had toppled the statue. So when I come to UNC to teach my grad seminar on critical race theory, I walk to McCorkle Place and take in the vista that lies before me—the sun-dappled trees and buildings that are now clearly visible with the absence of the Confederate soldier. Gazing at the empty plinth, I feel very proud to be a Southerner.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.