I need to talk to my folks more at some point or another about this stuff; I trust vaguely that notes have been gathered and compiled in loose files somewhere, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most of the family lore is in the memories stored in one head or another and yet to be written down in any but the most cursory form. (My father’s been on a geneological kick off and on—he tracked down a church in the Czech republic in a village where one branch or another of the ur-Manleys springs from—but my father’s office is, to put it charitably, a godawful mess.)
—And it’s families lore, isn’t it. Not “family lore.” Looking back into one’s ancestry is like looking upriver at all the many and various tributaries—rivers, riverlets, streams, creeks, cricks, branches, springs, trickles, washes and wets—that all could have been the proximate source of this or that molecule of water floating past you. You can pretend to follow one main track back in time, say this is the river, and the rest feed into it, but that’s a construct. It privileges one set at the expense of others. It’s families, not family. Bloodlines a-plenty, not a single, magisterial bloodline stretching back in time like the Mississippi.
But I digress.
Roots on my father’s side: mostly on the western and more hardscrabble edge of the Appalachians: Alabama, western Georgia. I know we had some folks in Winston County, who voted to secede from the Confederacy when the Confederacy seceded from the Union; Dad likes to say that folks in Winston County were too poor to own slaves and didn’t give a good God damn about states’ rights and just wanted to be left alone with their moonshine, so. —Of course, there’s also a Cherokee (or half-Cherokee) who served in the Confederate Army as a scout.
Which, apparently, qualifies me for this.
Though—aside from my own personal misgivings (which are legion), there’s the small matter of the Wiggin on my mother’s side who served with Sherman on his famous March. We have his cavalry saber somewhere in one of the closets of my parents’ house. That Wiggin unpacked his carpet bags and married into a family (families) come down in time and station from the mighty Middletons—genuine Southern plantation aristocracy of the rice variety, there on the South Carolina coast, where Gullah is still spoken by basket-weaving women on the street corners of Charleston, where society matrons still archly refer to “The Late, Great Unpleasantness.” (“War Between the States” being a vulgar term, you see.) We’ve visited the plantation, which is now a carefully maintained park; we had a feast of steamed oysters and pork in the old kitchen and heard ghost stories about the family crypt. —One of the Middletons, as is often pointed out, signed the Declaration of Independence. His grandson signed the Ordinance of Secession.
I was born in Sheffield, Alabama, and after about six months was moved to Richmond, Virginia, where I laid down my first memories. (The first one I can date with any assurance: in the car, pulling up the driveway of the smaller house, as someone on the radio noted it was the one-year anniversary of the Watergate break-ins. I have earlier memories, but none I can place with such precision.) When I was—five? six?—we moved to Arak, Iran, where I spent a year and a half in the small American school for the families of engineers working on a couple of projects for the Shah, reading Tintin comics and Boys’ Own Adventure stories from Britain. By 1976 we were back in the States, in North Carolina; in 1978, I saw Las Guerras de las Galaxias in Caracas, long, agonizing months after all my friends back in the States had seen it. When I went to the Breckenridge County Spelling Bee in Kentucky (sixth grade), I lost on the first round because I spelled parlor p-a-r-l-o-u-r.
All those British adventure stories, you see. (My brother-in-law, who’s from somewhere south of London and who gets asked from time to time—no lie—if he was in that band, is a professor of history who specializes with a kind of grim glee in the antebellum South. Go figure.)
I was born in the South, and did a lot of growing up there, but if you tried to cram my roots into a box conveniently labelled Southerner, it would be a hard fit. I’d be a hard fit. I don’t talk Southern. (Though I’m noticing more and more of my father’s turns of phrase popping up in my conversation. Shorn of the accent, but.) I don’t write Southern. (Though it’s a fine enough business for them that do.) I didn’t grow up thinking Southern. (Then, who does?) —Yet I am a Southerner.
What else could I be?
For all that I haven’t spent more than two weeks at a time south of the Mason-Dixon since 1985.
Getting on the bus last night, there was, at the back, a tall man in a long black trenchcoat and a black leather cowboy hat. On the hat in the middle was a buckle: the Confederate battle flag in all its starry, barry glory.
You see them, from time to time, here in Portland (one of the whitest major cities in America). Mostly in the windows of pickup trucks, or muddied SUVs. (Do they think like pickup truck people? Like people who go off-roading?) For all that this is the furthest north I’ve ever lived.
Seeing that flag makes me think of a lot of things: alternate histories (those damn cigars!) and the romance of vanishing chivalry and brutal, dehumanizing hatred and appalling, sugar-coated ignorance and The Dukes of Hazard and a satisfyingly juvenile fuck you! to the powers that be and gun racks and cowboy hats and For Us By Us and redneck frat boys and my brother driving carriages in the background of the upcoming Cold Mountain movie and red dirt and pine needles and the Smokey Mountains at dawn (Bat Cave, North Carolina and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee) and hey, remember that guy who clocked me outside of the pool where I worked as a lifeguard? I’d kicked him out for roughhousing, six foot mumble, two hundred some odd pounds, me a skinny white sophomore in high school, and when I was climbing into the car of the friend who was driving me home this guy comes out of nowhere and grabs me and yells and punches me, and Shark, my boss (a hair under six feet but more of it muscle), pulls him off, and we went to the police, and it turned out he had a number of previous convictions for assault (also battery), enough so that when I stood in front of a judge and swore that yes, this man attacked me, and he stood up and said he had, and he was sorry, when they led him away, a black man two or three years older than me with a kid (possibly two, the cops were unsure) out of wedlock (as they say), it was to a jail outside of Columbia for a six-month sentence; I think of that, too, and I also think of the basket women in Charleston pretending to hide from tourists’ cameras as if their souls would be stolen (until you offer them five bucks, or ten) and I think of what Gullah sounds like and how much I enjoyed those steamed oysters. And maybe in one way or another that flag “stands for” all of these things, for me if not for every Southerner; this is, after all, my heritage. Or some small part of it.
But the flag also stands for this. It always has.
And whether the guy in the back of the bus wants it to or not, it always will.