Syncretic History

So, last night I’m doing what I usually do when I don’t have anything to do, which is sit around with the neighborhood gang and enforce my “no stinky things on the couch” rule. The kid up the street who’s always out practicing his fire-twirling asked us if we had today off.

Neither of us did.

But get this. He does. Not for Martin Luther King’s birthday, though, but for Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Yes, you read that right. His employer specifically gives them today off for Robert E. Lee’s birthday.

So, this morning I do a little web research and see some website that claims that many Southern states still recognize Lee’s birthday on the Monday of the week on which it falls. They even claim that it’s a state holiday in Tennessee. Unbelievable.

I look up Tennessee’s state holidays, though, and it’s not listed.

But now, I’m compelled to check out the rest of the briefly-lived Confederacy:

Texas–Celebrates MLK’s birthday on the 3rd Monday and Confederate Heroes day (specifically including Robert E. Lee on the 19th.
Louisiana–Celebrates MLK’s birthday
Mississippi–REL and MLK share the 3rd Monday of January as a state holiday
Alabama–Same as Mississippi
Georgia–Holy shit! Look at the sly way they do this. The 3rd Monday is for MLK and REL’s birthday is observed on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
South Carolina–Celebrates MLK’s birthday
North Carolina–Celebrates MLK’s birthday
Virginia–Lee/Jackson day on the 16th and MLK day on the 3rd Monday
Tennessee–Celebrates MLK’s birthday
Arkansas–REL and MLK share the 3rd Monday
Florida–Celebrates MLK’s birthday

and the states that didn’t quite make the cut

Missouri–Celebrates MLK’s birthday
Kentucky–Celebrates MLK’s birthday

So, anyway, my first thought upon realizing this was utter shock, but now, it’s kind of morphed into morbid curiosity.

The other day, the Professor and I were talking about my favorite topic–syncretic religions–and I was wondering why it was that when the Catholic church said to European folks during the conversion, “This mountain that used to be sacred to Odin is now sacred to St. Michael,” there didn’t develop syncretic beliefs (in other words, why didn’t people use the iconography of the new religion to refer to the old religion in order to keep practicing the old religion?).

And she said that she thought that, even if there were initially some syncretism, that it’s just too hard to maintain disparate belief systems without some structure to reinforce the hidden belief system.

So, now I’m thinking about how one reincorporates half a country in which many of the citizens who have power would rather not be reincorporated. (I recently read an article, which I can’t find now, that said that there is a way in which it’s very deeply true that the fetishization of symbols of the Confederacy is not as much about race as it is about a big “Fuck You” to the Federal government. I don’t buy that–that it’s more about sticking it to the Federal government (and outsiders) and than it is about racism–but I do believe that both of those strains are there and that they compliment each other.)

And I’m thinking about the ways in which the Martin Luther King, Jr holiday captures all of these strands.

There’s the obvious movement away from celebrating the life of a white Confederate general to a black Civil Rights leader, the substituting of one holiday for another. And there’s the problem each state government has trying to keep all its constituents happy. Some attempt to compromise by celebrating both lives, as if, one suspects, they hope the two will cancel each other out and result in the state appearing to take NO position one way or another on the importance of either man’s life.

It seems to me to vividly capture the essence of Georgia’s plight as a state that contains both the largest city in the South–a city that has become so metropolitan that I hear people all the time talk about how it’s not really a Southern city any more–and many poor rural white folks who still haven’t forgiven Stone Mountain for electing Chuck Burris. Have the MLK holiday at the same time as everyone else, and slip the REL day in there right after Thanksgiving where no one will notice.

But I wonder, if everyone else in the country celebrates MLK day and many people in the South celebrate MLK day, how long will it be before the folks for whom REL is so important, forget that the state used to celebrate his birthday as a holiday?

If anything, it reminds me how large this country used to be and how much smaller it is now. I sat next to a guy while we were waiting for a plane to take us to St. Louis and he was telling me how, growing up in rural Mississippi, he didn’t have electricity and how they’d be sure to save the batteries on the radio so that they could listen to WSM on Saturday nights for the Opry.

This guy, who I’d guess was in his 70s (he fought in Korea, where they also used to listen to the Opry, despite the rough time the other soldiers would give them, complaining about having to listen to that hillbilly shit; the Southerners’ response? “You go to your church; we’ll go to ours.”), can remember a time when he only heard directly from the outside world once a week. I hear from the outside world every time I pull up Yahoo, at least 20 times a day, and all evening with the TV on in the background.

He’d never left Mississippi until he went to war. My family didn’t know the meaning of the word “stay home.” We got in our car every weekend and drove someplace and to Michigan at least twice a year and every summer we’d load up the kids and the dog in the back seat and hook up the trailer and go see America, whatever that means. (I think we went to see what “America” means.)

We used to be a lot farther apart. And so, it makes sense that different states (and regions) could do things that other parts of the country didn’t or couldn’t do because who’d really notice?

But then, down here, the TVA comes through and pretty soon everyone has a radio and knows someone with a television and paved roads go in (and then interstates) and soon the country becomes a lot smaller, and people become more aware of what’s going on in the rest of the nation.

And how shocking that must have been, to find yourself and your ways suddenly under scrutiny by the whole country, as if the whole country had some say (it ought to go without saying that the happy flip side of this coin is that, if you are being oppressed, you now have the ability to reach out, not just with words in print, but voice and images, in order to rally sympathetic people to your cause).

The coincidence of all of these things–the end of segregation in the armed forced, the interstate system, electricity, television, rock-n-roll, the civil rights movement–caused such a paradigm shift in our culture that we’re still dealing with the reverberations.

And so, it disturbs me that people are still getting days off in honor of Lee, who both comes to symbolize that toxic nostalgia for the Confederacy and makes such a poor representative of it, with his deep ambivalence towards the war. But I’m hopeful that, as a holiday, for most people, it’s just a strange anachronism and not some political statement.