We lined Emma Street last night, each of us impatiently waiting for the bright succession of floats, lights, and hurled candy to pass us by. It was a beautiful and unseasonably warm late November night. Northwest Arkansas’ largest lit Christmas tree came alive slightly before 6 as those in the parade made their way from the rodeo grounds down the revitalized path to downtown. The people involved in the downtown festivities did an incredible job of organizing the various activities. The Shiloh Square was a diverse mass of commerce, shouting, and smiling. With so many children present, it was no surprise to hear the word “No!” at least one million times.
Earlier yesterday, I heard the rumblings of resentment on social media, as people whispered against the Sons of The Confederacy participating in the parade. I limited my commentary to, “I hope people don’t do anything stupid. Or stupider.” As we all know, it’s become increasingly difficult to be civil at times. Given my background, I know how easy it is to make a situation worse, even if we are ‘right.’ No fire burns as brightly as one fueled by righteousness – and none singes with such wild abandon. In the end, it’s hard for us to believe that much of our complaining is no more than the proverbial ‘fart in a thunderstorm.’ I’m not judging the motivations of those objecting, either, because if we look at the actions of each person instead of as part of a collective, we can better determine the impact of something on our lives. Much of our issues stem from piling people into neat baskets. Even though I also know that screaming, shouting, or typing in all caps not only does not advance my argument but weakens it, like so many others, there are times when my brain short-circuits and leaves me incapable of persuasive disagreement.
If the Sons of the Confederacy is a relic, then so too are our family members who subscribe to supremacy and the arguments of heritage. It is often tone deafness amplified to a shout; out of place, out of time. Many are proud to be Southern and I find myself conflicted at times attempting the impossible task of distinguishing between prejudice and pride in others. In my case, I don’t feel Southern or even Arkansan. So much of our life is tribalism. We identify with the people, places, customs, collegiate sports teams, and religions of our geography. Allegiance to and defense of things which are unchosen lead us to strange destinations. I don’t subscribe to any of their memberships.
As someone who has done a lot of genealogy, I’ve discovered that many of us share a mass of common ancestors. One characteristic of those who preceded us is that they did a lot of vile, ignorant things, just as many of us do. I vainly try to read the hearts of those I know to circumspectly decide whether they glorify heritage or hate. I’m not impartial. Even as I hate to find myself judged, I judge others.
If I find myself unable to distinguish motive, I look to my own past and to my own father. His demons fueled a fury that left a wide path of pain behind him. If I cannot separate his humanity from his actions, I’m left with nothing except the certainty of destruction. It’s impossible to elevate him or honor him in the face of his actions. Other people in my situation find a way to love the person in their lives, my father’s equivalent. Some are able to do the same with our national disgrace of slavery and the institutions which furthered them. I don’t know how some people compartmentalize their adoration for Southern heritage without being derailed by what fueled it. I do know, however, that I am foolish if I paint all such people as having hate in their hearts. Just as they can embrace violent fathers or remain in churches which institutionalize abuse, they also embrace an imagined way of life without associating themselves with the violence of slavery. It perplexes me.
Having said that, I squint at public monuments which seemingly glorify our collective lesser nature and past. I distrust by default those who wave the Confederate flag. I wonder what motivates a group of people to build a float that will probably upset the very people who want to be entertained. Even as I do this, I know that I’m making the mistake of generalization when I judge everyone who disagrees. My privilege as a white male does not benefit me when I attempt to add my opinion to the pile. As such, I leave the heavy lifting to those who feel emboldened enough to protest or resist their presence. In short, I’m lazy. Especially of late, it is inevitable that most things will morph into shouting. A world in which the Confederacy is important is not my world. But neither is a world which mobilizes to shout back at those who find value in it. For those who truly feel the need to protest, my heart is with you. I hope you resist the visceral need to shout down those whose arguments are shaded with subtlety. People will say dumb things such as, “No one was offended,” as if they know your heart.
As we leaned against one of the restored buildings along Emma, I told my wife that a controversy was brewing and that I dreaded the inevitable brouhaha on social media. I knew that the next day would bring teeth gnashing and recrimination. I told her I was surprised that such a float would be included in the parade, but that it wasn’t a last-minute decision and that someone had hopefully taken a moment to consider the implications of its inclusion.
As the floats passed, the only misbehavior I noticed was that of several young misfits who were diligently and insistently attempting to make their mothers lose their minds. That a mother might actually smack a child was the most likely genesis of violence. The best float was the one celebrating the movie “Christmas Vacation.” Eddie drove by in a decrepit RV, tailpipe dragging on the pavement and ahead of him, a tree-laden (roots and all) station wagon adorned with a thousand lights.
As the parade ended, my wife and I cut through Spring Street, then on Johnson. The floats had looped around on Johnson after traversing Emma. I was carefully making my way along the edge of the road, watching the uneven ground carefully. “Merry Christmas” enthusiastically yelled a young blond-haired girl. I looked up as I bellowed, “You too!” The float behind her held two of the men dressed as Civil War soldiers. I waved and said, “Have a good night!” They both waved and said, “You too!” Both floats were part of the Sons of the Confederacy. I didn’t wave to endorse any hateful ideology. I waved because those were people and any meanness on my part would serve no purpose other than to solidify the presence of more discord. Time will hopefully do its job and convince people that such affiliation equally creates discord. I waved and greeted the other float participants, too, as each passed me. Especially Cousin Eddie in his RV.
The picture in this post is of one last night. I chose it because while it captures the beautiful lights carefully placed along Emma, it also captures an interloper passing through the frame. A shadow, one not participating, yet present. Whoever that shadowy person might have been, he or she represents the stain of controversy in an otherwise beautiful Christmas parade. Even as we enjoyed the goofy pleasures of a community parade, I knew the shadow would linger in the hearts of many. Many people worked hard for the night we all shared. It’s important that we take the shadow in its proper perspective yet also be grateful that the Springdale we now share is infinitely better than it once was. I truly believe that.
When I write, I lay out my deficiencies in concrete, leaving people to bring their own misconceptions and lives to the words I write. Unlike many, I have ideas which do not reside on permanent foundations; they shift as my understanding changes. In short, I am often wrong. Interacting with people changes me, especially those who temper their knowledge through a filter which demands that we often give one another a huge benefit of the doubt – and to be cautious when we attempt to read the hearts and minds of those around us.
I left with much to think about.
I left hoping that thinking itself would prevail over shouting in the next few days.
Behind me, the enormous lit Christmas tree filled our Springdale downtown with colorful lights. If the Spirit of Christmas is something worth aspiring to, I hope those lights somehow made their way into the hearts of those who share our community, no matter what their hearts might already contain.