Naked and Afraid: One rare week in this historian’s life

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It almost didn’t get published. (University Press of Florida, 2003)

Yes, yes, I’ve absolutely been excited about what happened to me this week. After 25 years of plugging away, and nearly 15 years after publishing Dixie’s Daughters, the national media decided that I “might” be an expert on the subject of Confederate monuments and so I finally got the opportunity to say something about a subject that has long been assumed to be the purview of male historians.

But guess what?  A lot of folks didn’t like it.

I posted enthusiastically on my personal Facebook page (to the tsk tsk of some), because nothing like this has ever, ever happened to me in my entire career. My bone fides include a PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi.  That alone made it hard enough to break into academia, much less write for newspapers with a national reach.  So, I got a little excited.  And as anyone knows, Facebook does not tell one’s entire story.  It’s always the curated version.

So let me tell you what I didn’t post about.  I was a little scared as the time approached for the op-ed to go online. I worried for my safety after what I saw unravel in Charlottesville over the weekend.  I took measures to notify my chair and my dean about my concerns.  I worried my mother who, I will state for the record, does not always agree with my public writing.

I also took a lot of heat online and via email for having dared to place these objects of southern heritage in their proper historical context.  And I say heritage, because heritage is about memory and memory is not history.  That is a hard point to make with diehard defenders of Confederate memorials. The fact that they are memorials, which by their very nature are about memory, ought to make that point clear.

On the very first day that my op-ed in the New York Times appeared, I received this from a man named Edward Just:

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This is what it is like when you tell the truth about Confederate monuments.

 

 

While this vile, sexist, and racist email was the worst of the bunch, there were others  who emailed to tell me I was an “opportunist,” “naive,” and that I had done nothing more than engage in a “pompous rant,” “unhinged hyperbole,” and “feminist agitprop.”  “I find your NYT article repugnant and your views are Orwellian,” wrote another, and most perplexing of all came the question “when did white lives cease to matter?”  In short: never.

There were also the more than 1300 online comments for the Times, which I barely looked at, because one should never look at the online comments.  But there, as in emails, I still did not garner the respect of a professor.  I was addressed as “Ms. Cox,” and complete strangers spoke to me and offered history “lessons,” calling me by my first name as if I was their neighbor from down the street.

To be fair, there were those who offered their thanks for my perspective and understood that while I was not on the front lines in Charlottesville, speaking truth to power in the context of our times takes some courage.

monument inpalingI say that knowing that whatever courage I showed pales by the courage it takes to simply be black in today’s America. I benefit from and am protected by white privilege. What I wrote about Confederate monuments cannot be equated with how black southerners must feel in seeing these tangible reminders of their treatment at the hands of people who did not, and still do not, care about their humanity.

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Heather Heyer. Photo credit: New York Times.

And I never for one second forgot about the tragedy that befell Heather Heyer, and those still recovering from their injuries after a devastating act of domestic terrorism.

I’m simply a historian and I got a chance to write about something I know and have studied for more than two decades.  And yes, I was honored that I could add my voice to something that is not only a national conversation, but an international one.

Because the world is watching.

 

 

 

 

 

W is for Waffle House

W is for Waffle House

This weekend an exhibit of images and texts called Southern Icons, A to Z opened in Pike County, Georgia.  For each letter of the alphabet, the curators chose an icon. Numerous southern writers and artists were invited to participate and I count myself lucky to be among them. In my case, I was invited to participate by writing the text that accompanied a photograph by Tammy Mercure.  We were given the letter “W” for Waffle House.  Unfortunately, I cannot be there for the opening, but here is our entry:

Waffle House
Photo by Tammy Mercure

My contribution:

Cultural icons, even a southern icon as familiar to the region as Waffle House, has a history. The restaurant, founded on a short order concept, first opened in 1955 in Avondale Estates, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. The idea behind the restaurant was simple: provide good food quickly, especially a great breakfast waffle, and provide friendly customer service—a dollop of southern hospitality, if you will. Add a jukebox and a menu that offered customers a bang for their buck and the result was rapid success.

Yet what often makes a restaurant a cultural icon is its brand, in this case, the Waffle House sign. Using yellow glass blocks that spell out W A F F L E
H O U S E in large black letters, the sign beckons customers day and night. As Tammy Mercure’s photograph illustrates, its power is in its simplicity. For many, it signals a nostalgic memory of their youth—food after a football game or the 3 a.m. munchies following a night of revelry. And for so many more, it has come to symbolize a shared experience around food, in a familiar setting, that transcends race, class, and generation.