Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In Defense and Contempt of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's New "Racist" Duet

There's an old episode of The Golden Girls in which Blanche is trying to gain membership into the United Daughters of the Confederacy. While doing research on her family tree, Dorothy discovers that one of Blanche's ancestors was Jewish (surname: Feldman), which would immediately bar her from getting into the group. Laughter and a few vaguely offensive jokes about Jews ensue.

Dorothy and the show go to great lengths to highlight the lunacy of Blanche's wanting to be a part of such an exclusionary group, but neither so much as broaches the idea of just what that "Confederacy" in its name actually stands for. Why would Blanche want anything to do with something that is the ultimate symbol of slavery?

The protagonist played by Brad Paisley in "Accidental Racist," his duet with LL Cool J from his new album Wheelhouse, would certainly understand her need to belong to a group that represents her Southern pride. And like Blanche up against the verbal firing squad of her disapproving roommates, Paisley now has to face criticism for his own devotion to Dixie. Some detractors have denounced "Accidental Racist" for glorifying racist ideals and potentially re-opening 150-year-old wounds that still haven't completely healed.

I can see we're they are coming from, but I don't think a one-sided negative assessment and out-of-hand dismissal of the song based on its point of view are completely fair. If people are going to attack and hate it, they should do so mostly because it's an overlong, clumsily written mess that with its blend of country and rap tries too hard to pick up where Tim McGraw and Nelly's 2004 hit "Over and Over" and Jason Aldean and Ludacris's 2011 remix of "Dirt Road Anthem" dropped us off.

But if angry listeners put aside their knee-jerk reactions -- and get past the admittedly subpar musical contents -- they'd find an interesting message therein: We're not responsible for the sins of our fathers, and just because we're proud of our roots doesn't necessarily mean we have to embrace every single strand that makes up our  history. "I'm proud of where I'm from, but not everything we've done," Paisley sings in one of the song's few decently composed couplets.

It's an effective line that actually makes me, as a black man, reconsider the sideways glances I used to give to white people when I was growing up in Kissimmee, Florida, in the '70s and '80s every time I encountered any exuberant appreciation of all things Southern. Confederate flags weren't the only things that made me see red. So did those grand white plantations that still dotted the Southern landscape.

My mother used to say that she could never live in town called Plantation (including the one in south Florida), or on a street named Plantation, or in a housing development with Plantation in its name, or on a former plantation, and I could always understand her objection. But she now lives in Atlanta and has been there for nearly 26 years, so clearly it's not the very idea of Southern that raises those, um, red flags. The South is not inherently evil, and to embrace it makes you neither a bad person nor or a racist, accidental or otherwise.

Consider the atrocities committed by the United States against the American Indians, who are second only to black people as the most mistreated group in U.S. history. Should all Americans stop celebrating Independence Day and start rejecting their U.S. heritage because of centuries-old crimes against Native Americans? Should a German not be proud to be a German because of what Adolph Hitler and a select few of his countrymen did to Jews.

No, I have no problem with Southern pride in its most innocuous form, referencing a geographical area and its age-old customs. The idea that I object to most in "Accidental Racist" is the suggestion that the Confederate flag can be worn with pride. To me, Dixie is not equivalent to the Confederacy. "I wish I were in Dixie," I've heard people sing since I was a kid. I sang "Dixie," too, in music class at Highlands Elementary School. I sang it because I had to, and although I wouldn't sing it by choice today, I always thought it was a well-written song.

From Hank Williams Jr.'s "Texas Women" and "Dixie on My Mind" to Dwight Yoakam's "I Sang Dixie" (all superior songs to "Accidental Racist") and "Southern Comfort Zone" (the first single from Wheelhouse), country music has a long history of Southern pride. But the Confederacy represents a specific aspect of the South's history, one that you simply cannot separate from the legacy of slavery. The Confederacy existed for the express purpose of perpetuating slavery. How could anyone actually be proud of that?

By naming the song "Accidental Racist," Paisley almost seems to be acknowledging the offensiveness of wearing a Confederate flag (does it make you an "accidental racist"?) while defending it in the lyrics, adding to the confusion of the song. I wish he'd taken the title "Accidental Racist" to its logical conclusion and explored the idea of what it really means to celebrate the Confederacy and how you can be pro-black and pro-Southern but not pro-black and pro-Confederacy.

In the end, the song probably will work both for and against Paisley and Cool J. The controversy created by "Accidental Racist" will get them a ton of publicity and heighten awareness of Paisley new album, which came out on April 9. I doubt that it will have a negative impact on Paisley's popularity and sales potential. Most of his country music fans are probably desensitized to Confederate flags and might applaud Paisley for discussing racism in a non-heavy-handed way and offering a somewhat wan apology for those sins of the founding fathers (not that it was his responsibility to offer one at all).

Cool J, on the other hand, might have some explaining to do, and not just because of a weak rap that dares to use a non-existent word like "conversate." Many of his black fans are still angry over what happened to their ancestors, and they might question the rapper's involvement with anything that comes across as Dixie worship, especially when he raps a line like "RIP, Robert E. Lee." And comparing gold chains to iron chains and a do-rag to a Confederacy flag is not only misguided -- it's lazy rhyming at its worst. But unless those in his pop and rap constituency listen to country radio or read the blogs, they'll probably miss the song completely, as it hasn't even been announced as a single.

For all its flaws, "Accidental Racist" is a great conversation starter. I applaud Brad Paisley for supporting social solidarity among young whites and blacks in the Deep South and for having his heart in the right place. But it shouldn't ever be beating underneath a Confederate flag. Even if you mean no harm in wearing it, no black person wants to be reminded of that particular blemish on U.S. history. The Confederacy equaled pro-slavery. It's as simple as that. This is one aspect of the South's past that deserves to be burned, buried and forgotten, along with all those flags that represent it.

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