Civil War Echoes: Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” (2013)

Country star Brad Paisley released the song “Accidental Racist” in 2013.  It starts with this couplet:

To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan

… and only gets more fascinating from there, concluding with a Country-Rap duet between Paisley & rapper LL Cool J.  Here are the full lyrics.  (Official videos of the song appear to have been taken offline.)

The image on “that t-shirt” is, of course, the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia

Perhaps a good place to start processing this song is NPR’s historical overview, “Brad Paisley’s ‘Accidental Racist’ And The History Of White Southern Musical Identity.”  (Towards the end, the author points out that even Lynyrd Skynyrd stopped using the “Dixie or Southern Flag” in their shows & merch in 2012.)

Over at Grantland, Rembert Brown tell us, “The Road to ‘Accidental Racist’ Is Paved With LL Cool J and Brad Paisley’s Good Intentions“…

Paisley’s concept of White racial identity and cultural heritage seems to depend heavily on references to Civil War era imagery.  So let’s get our symbols straight:

[ More details on Confederate Flags >> ]  And of course, we should keep things in perspective here — as David Goldfield reminds us in NationalGeographic.com’s article “Why the Confederate Flag Made a 20th Century Comeback”:

The Confederate battle flag made its reappearance following the end of World War II. A group of southern states seceded from the Democratic party and ran their own ticket, the Dixiecrats, and the Confederate battle flag was very prominent with the Dixiecrat campaign in the 1948 presidential election. … then the Confederate battle flag took on a new life, or a second life. In the 1950s, as the Civil Rights Movement built up steam, you began to see more and more public displays of the Confederate battle flag…

Along these lines, in “Why ‘Accidental Racist’ Is Actually Just Racist,” Ta-Nehisi Coates points out:

Paisley wants to know how he can express his Southern Pride. Here are some ways. He could hold a huge party on Martin Luther King’s birthday, to celebrate a Southerner’s contribution to the world of democracy. He could rock a T-shirt emblazoned with Faulkner’s Light In August, and celebrate the South’s immense contribution to American literature. He could preach about the contributions of unknown Southern soldiers like Andrew Jackson Smith. He could tell the world about the original Cassius Clay. He could insist that Tennessee raise a statue to Ida B. Wells.

Every one of these people are Southerners. And every one of them contributed to this great country. But to do that Paisley would have to be more interested in a challenging conversation and less interested in a comforting lecture.

And in “Accidental Racism: Brad Paisley and LL Cool J have good intentions. That’s not good enough” Aisha Harris reminds us:

To Paisley and Cool J, the social meaning of fashion plays an out-sized role in racial misunderstandings. This, of course, is an incredibly superficial—and, ultimately, even dismissive—attitude to take toward racism.

But beneath all fashion, musical gestures, and pop promotion, powerful ideas persist…  Cool J does his best to bring historical experience to the table, mostly through bizarre rhetorical contortions:

Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold but I’m still misunderstood
I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the south into firewood
I want you to get paid but be a slave I never could…

And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history…

Rip Robert E. Lee but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean…

Ultimately, the equation of confederate imagery with African American cultural symbols comes across as Paisley’s white privilege to ignore, obscure, or rewrite a past laden with inequality.

And so the debate continues…

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