Brad Paisley’s new song, “The Accidental Racist”, begins with a story about a ubiquitous Starbucks barista complaining about the Confederate flag t-shirt Brad Paisley is wearing when he orders a coffee. Brad responds, through the crafted interpretation of a Nashville songwriter team, with the following: “When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan.”
Just like “Sweet Home Alabama,” Paisley claims that he should be able to celebrate his beloved South-land without being accused (by people like Neil Young, or the Starbucks barista, or LL Cool J) that he is racist. He asks, why is the “red flag on my chest somehow…like the elephant in the corner of the south”? What does that even mean?
Perhaps Paisley does not understand the conundrum of the Confederate flag because he grew up in West Virginia in a town that was 99% white during the 2000 census. Perhaps he forgot that West Virginia formed as a Unionist state during the Civil War. Or perhaps he just wishes not to be judged for things he views as ridiculous as wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt. While Paisley views this as common sense, I instead see a clear depiction of a person who feels entitled to something he or she wants at the expense of history and of others.
I have a different view of the Confederate flag, shaped primarily by when I went to Ole Miss football games as a child in Mississippi in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Before each game began the Ole Miss marching band, “The Pride of the South”, would surround the football field while cheerleaders rolled out a Confederate flag the size of the ENTIRE FOOTBALL FIELD. Everyone in the stands had a Confederate flag, of course, and we all held them up proudly as the band began to play ‘Dixie’, so slow and beautiful. This was the starting point of the game, and the basis for everything.
At the time I didn’t know that Dixie was a blackface minstrel tune romanticizing slavery written in 1859 by Daniel Emmett from northern Ohio. I didn't know that nobody besides white people didn't wave Confederate flags, and I didn't know why. I didn't know why there were no black faces in the football crowd. I didn't even know that the term 'Ole Miss' signified the slave name for the mistress of a plantation.
The lyrics of The Accidental Racist and of my experience at the football game are similar. Both seem to be based on a child’s perspective. A child does not understand what propaganda is, though he or she can easily be led to believe it. A child thinks his or her own selfish wishes matter more than everyone else’s. I’m not sure why The Accidental Racist mentions Reconstruction and then skips over the horrific history of Jim Crow, of lynchings, and of the Civil Rights Movement, or the centrality of the Confederate Flag to the Ku Klux Klan or various other terrorist groups as we are all presumably “still siftin' through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years.” I think the writers of this song are lying. They have sifted through nothing. Instead, they have utterly skipped over those 150 years after the end of slavery and the Civil War because, frankly, it’s easier. It’s much more convenient to live in blissful, willful ignorance than to learn about the South and the nation’s blood-soaked history of racism.
If Brad Paisley knew even one-tenth of what there is to know about how the Confederate flag has been used in this country, and is still being used, he wouldn’t wear the t-shirt.