Category Archives: American history

High time to retire the Stars and Bars

Alice in her racist bikini

Alice in her racist bikini.

Nine years ago, my daughter Alice neglected to bring a bathing suit on a beach vacation and was accordingly dispatched to the local Oak Island, North Carolina sand and surf shop to purchase same. She arrived back at the house with a confederate flag bikini which she proceeded to rock, in her inimitable fashion, the entire week. Later, when we were back in Canada and after she had shown photographs of her on vacation to her friends, she called me with a bone to pick. “Mom! Why didn’t you tell me I was wearing a racist bikini?” To which I replied, “I didn’t know it was racist. I thought it was just . . . I don’t know . . . Southern.”

And I did think that. I did. In my mental universe, it was possible to be both an American and a Southerner. I thought that the confederate flag bespoke another layer of identify, not an alternate one, that the two were not mutually exclusive. I thought that until June 17, 2015 when yet another twisted excuse of a loser gunman mowed down nine innocent people in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina and my mental universe shattered into pieces.

I grew up with the confederate flag. I was comfortable with it. To me it connoted mornings when nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina. It meant an actual Spring as opposed to the Canadian version of that season – i.e., that time when the snow retreats ever so slowly to reveal a winter’s accumulation of discarded cigarette butts and oddly mummified dog poop. It meant dogwoods and azaleas and blossoms blowing through the air and sun tanning in March. I’m talking principally, I realize now, about weather, specifically good weather. To me the confederate flag meant good weather, and good weather meant home.  As an ex pat who has spent the vast majority of her adult life in the True North Strong and Free, I retain considerable nostalgia for the mild climate of my native North Carolina.

My father, Bill Hardy, in the mid-sixties.  I'm not sure what he was doing in this photo.  Then again, he was an actor.

My father, Bill Hardy, mugs for the camera in Confederate regalia in the mid-sixties.

I was raised by liberal, educated parents in Chapel Hill,  a progressive college town in a deeply conservative state. I handed out fliers for LBJ in the predominantly black town of Carrboro and volunteered as a teacher’s assistant at a Head Start program held in the basement of a black church. I was that kid.

But the truth is, I was another kid as well – some screwball version of a Southern belle. I had no clue about the magnitude and pervasiveness of Jim Crow law. I had no clue about the history of slavery or, for that matter, of the United States. I bought hook, line and sinker the whole Romance of the South thing as perpetrated by Gone With the Wind. In fact, my knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction derived almost entirely from that novel, which I read not once, not twice, but five times. My favorite color is green not because I’m an environmentalist but because that was Scarlett O’Hara’s favorite color. In other words, I, like so many of my fellow Southerners, was capable of holding in my brain two dichotomies: I was a staunch supporter of civil rights and I was a true daughter of the South.

Hardy Family Home in Bertie County -- the before shot

Hardy Family Home in Bertie County, NC

The truth is that the Romance of the South was, at best, a tawdry one. There was nothing gentile about the institution of slavery. No beneficence was involved, nothing noble, or gracious, or fine. Slavers and the people who kept them in business – my ancestors among them – weren’t a whole heck of a lot different from Boko Haran, save for the fact that Boko Haran perpetrates its crimes in the name of religion and slavery was predicated on filthy lucre.

As the fallout from the Charleston massacre has demonstrated, the confederate flag is not all in good fun. Not by a long shot. As for that jumped up little cracker who took all those good peoples’ lives, I’m glad their loved ones can forgive him, because I sure as Hell can’t.  I’m having a hard enough time forgiving myself.

Ruminations on the Confederacy

redneckI am a Southerner.  A bona fide one.   My direct lineal ancestor, Lemuel Lamb Hardy, was born sometime between 1695 and 1700 in Chowan, Bertie County, North Carolina and died there on Salmon Creek in 1750. Solomon Zant, my mother’s Great (times five) Grandfather on her father’s side was probably born in Switzerland, but made it to Ebenezer, now a ghost town in Effingham County, Georgia in time to hitch up with Elizabetha Keiffer  on March 24, 1767.[i]

My point is: my Southern roots go back to before the U.S. became a country.  We came early to this party and we stayed late. Which gives me the right to comment on this whole “Romance of the South/ Up with the Confederacy” CRAP coming up through the drains these days, poisoning our public discourse with pure vituperative nonsense.

Any student of American history knows that the United States was founded on a fault line – slavery – and that it was only a matter of time before tectonic plates shifted and the nation was rent asunder. A civil war was in the cards from Day One. In fact, pace Tea Party,  it’s arguable that the Second Amendment had a lot more to do with assuring Southern whites that they would be able to surpress a slave rebellion than it did with ensuring that patriots could defend themselves from some nonspecific tyranny.  It still does. “Don’t want too many of them brown people getting up in our white business, after all.”  Isn’t that what you believe?

There was nothing romantic about the Old South.   It was predicated on an abomination.  The Southern “way of life” was a rare bloom growing from a great reeking heap of manure.  Africans did not benefit from being dragged to these shores in chains and then treated worse than pack animals.  (The wonder is that they have managed to succeed to the great extent that they have, enriching our culture beyond anything us honkies could pulled off under similar circumstances.)   As for the ladies, corsets like Scarlett O’Hara wore resulted in everything from squashed ribs and hearts to displaced spleens.   If childbirth didn’t get you, your corset surely would.  (Not that you could ever hope for a seventeen inch waist.  I’m talking to you, Paula Deen.)

And here’s the kicker, those of you just a-longing for those good old days upon the Swanee River, for most of you that will be a case of nostalgie de la boue.  Because you descend from Crackers.  Yes, Crackers.  All of you who are so proud to call yourselves ‘Rednecks’?    Crackers. Tenant farmers.  Dirt Farmers. Poor white trash.  You know how to tell?   Do you have a great grandmother who belonged to the Daughters of the Confederacy?  Is your daughter eligible to be a debutante in North Carolina or Georgia or Mississippi?  No? I thought so.  Crackers.

I’m a Cracker too.  I once asked my Grandfather Hardy what his people had done in the Civil War.  “Why, they hid in the swamp every time the recruiter came by,” he told me.   “They didn’t think the war had anything to do with them. They were dirt farmers.  They didn’t own slaves.”

And your relatives probably didn’t either, so stop dreaming!

When I was twelve years old, I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind for the first time. Then I read it four more times.   I loved it.  I fell for it hook, line and sinker.   For a number of years it informed my view of the Civil War and the history of the United States and my own identity as a Southern woman.  Excuse me.  As a flower of Southern Womanhood.

Then I grew up.

So don’t save your Confederate money, boys.  The South will not rise again.  And you are not who you think you are and never will be. So just get over it.  And, while you’re at it, learn to spell.

[i] (Interestingly enough, Ebenezer was established in 1734 by 150 Salzburger Protestants who had been expelled from the Archbishopric of Salzburg in present-day Austria for religious reasons.  Elizabetha was a Saltzburger, as was Solomon’s mother.  The town was intended to be a religious Utopia on the Georgian frontier, but that’s another story.)

The night Kennedy was elected

ImageOn the evening of November 8, 1960, when the Presidential election was called for John F. Kennedy, my father, Bill Hardy, woke me up, took me outside, pointed to the starry sky above and told me, “This is the dawn of a new era!”

Now that I come to think of it, maybe the reason he woke me up that historic night had less to do with ushering in Camelot and more with getting me to pee in an actual toilet.  I was a chronic bed wetter; for years my parents woke me before going to bed themselves in the off chance that my bed would be dry come morning.  They were dreamers in so many ways.

I trace my interest in politics to that 1960 campaign.    My Dad was teaching at Purdue at the time and Indiana was a very Republican state.   Its long-serving Senator, a Republican, was up for re-election against a Democratic upstart – Birch Bayh.  The name Birch Bayh might sound funny, but, trust me, to an eight year old, the Republican’s name — Homer E. Capehart – was hi-larious.

My understanding of politics was pretty basic back then:  Democrats were good and Republicans were ridiculous at best and evil at worst.  Come to think of it, that’s still pretty much what I l think.  One of the first, indeed, one of the only two songs I have ever written, was about the 1960 senatorial election.    Sung to the tune of “Hey, look me over!” it went like this:

Hey, look me over! I’m your kind of guy!

Vote for Indiana’s own Birch Bayh.

He’s Indiana’s own family man.

With a little of this and a little of that,

He’ll beat that old Republican rat.

My brother Peter and I used to sing this to the general amusement of our parents, although he claims to have no memory of this.   I suppose he thinks he could have done better and perhaps he’s right.  Over the years he has proven himself an accomplished lyricist, while my only other stab at song writing was   in eighth grade —   set to the tune of Beautiful Dreamer and entitled Beautiful Strata,  it featured such rhymes as  ‘strata’ with ‘data’, ‘quartz’ with’ two or three sorts’ and ‘delve’ with ‘Continental Shelf’.  I know.  Don’t quit my day job.

When Kennedy was shot three years later, I was devastated, even once I was disabused of the idea that he was all that was standing between America and Nuclear Winter.  When the Kennedy silver dollar came out a few years later, I had one made into a pendant to wear about my neck – a talisman, an amulet.  So many Kennedys gone now, including the little boy saluting his father’s casket as the funeral procession rolled by – but JFK was my first and his loss, the hardest to bear.

I eventually stopped wetting the bed, but I never outgrew my belief in the possibility of Camelot.  Feet of clay notwithstanding, I have my heroes: FDR, JFK, RFK, MLK and now Obama. They are my father’s heroes as well and we cling to them as we would the wreckage of a foundering ship on a high sea.  For, you see, hope floats and  it’s one of the only things that does.

True Patriot Hearts

ohcanadalyricsNational anthems make me cry. Not all national anthems, just mine.  Because I’m a hybrid – that is to say, an Americanadian —  I have two national anthems: The Star Spangled Banner and O Canada.  My worst nightmare?  A joint Canadian and American event, kicked off by not one but both national anthems, usually with a bagpiper thrown in to up the emotional ante.     By the time the last verse wraps up, I’m heaving with sobs and in literal black face; even waterproof mascara cannot withstand the upwelling in mine eyes of tears unleashed by these patriotic paens.

And I don’t even much like these songs.  Not only are they impossible to sing, but they are fundamentally silly.  “True patriot hearts in all thy sons command.” Really?  What are all of Canada’s daughters doing? Canning?   And, “With glowing hearts, we see thee rise!”  Rise from where?  To do what?

As for the back story to The Star Spangled Banner — based on a poem written by a lawyer and amateur poet after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy  in the War of 1812.  All I can say is, “Keep your day job, Francis Scott Key!”  Besides, it wasn’t as if the War of 1812 was a real war.  It was more like a war-ette and one the United States lost, even though Americans are loathe to admit it.  Yes, the star spangled banner may have yet waved over Fort McHenry, but the British torched the White House and the U.S. failed in its attempt to conquer Canada – a victory Canadians attribute largely to Laura Secord’s cow.  That was some cow. The chocolates aren’t bad either.

So why do my national anthems make me cry?   Patriotism, in and of itself, is scarcely a virtue.  After all, what is patriotism but territorialism with an upgrade? Wolves pee to demarcate their territory and then proceed to howl about it.  We secure our borders with blood, sweat and tears — like urine, bodily fluids – then break out in renditions of O Canada and The Star Spangled Banner  — usually out of key — to celebrate the fact that it’s ours, not theirs.  “He’s too territorial,” we say of the dog that bites the postman on the way to the front door.  “He’s dangerous.  He’s got to be put down.”  What about those moron vigilantes patrolling the border between Mexico and the United States, those “patriots”?  Are they that much different from overzealous, rampaging dogs?  How about putting them down?

Canada is a thin warm line hugging a vast frozen frontier – bravado in the form of O Canada fortifies the spirit as we hunker down for yet another long, cold winter – “Yes, we are a people. Yes, we own this, albeit we scarfed it from First Nations. Yes, we belong here even though the land would, by its wintry actions, beg to differ.” It’s like my mother said.  “I understand why people went to Canada.  What I don’t understand is why they stayed.”  Needless to say, Martha Nell was not a big fan of cold.

As for the United States, I suppose there are more fractured societies, but it’s scarcely united.  Democrats think Republicans are from Mars and Republicans think Democrats are from Hell.  Yet, at every sports event, up to our feet we leap to hear our national anthem mutilated – our idea of a great send off to the men and boys who, twenty years later, will have puddings for brains.  Hooray for us!

Still I weep. I guess I’m a sucker.  For that one glorious moment when I am swept up in the heady romance that is nationalism, I feel at one with the past, with history, with those who have come before me and those who will come after me and all of those whose voices are raised alongside mine.  Isn’t this grand, I think.   Aren’t I blessed?  Does God not shed His grace on me?

And then the moment ends and I realize that I 1) don’t believe in God; 2) have racoon eyes; and 3) unless this is the Democratic Convention, many of my fellow warblers are probably from the Red Planet.

Maybe we should do away with national anthems altogether and commission an Earth anthem instead.  I could get behind that. Only, please,  can it be a little less lame than the ones we’ve got?

The Presidents Project

constitutionMy father, Bill Hardy, moved into a nursing home this year.   His mind continues sharp, but his body has long passed its Best Before date; he is frail and his infirmity envelops him in a sound-dampening blur that it is sometimes difficult to penetrate . . . but always worth the effort. He has things to say.

We had hoped for a private room for him, but have had to make do with a shared space. Fortunately his roommate – a shadowy figure named Pete – leaves first thing in the morning to return at lights out.  No one knows where he goes.  Well, I suppose someone knows where he goes, but we prefer to keep his peregrinations cloaked in mystery.  The only words Dad says to him are, “Goodnight, Pete!”

Pete has yet to reply.

Remembering the big house on Tenney Circle, it’s hard to imagine Dad in such a small space, but the truth is he takes up very little room these days.   When I call him, he always says, “It’s very quiet here.” We both lament the political morass in Washington and, increasingly, in Raleigh, declaring that, “It’s just not fun anymore!”  Then he goes on to tell me about the audio book  that he, a seven-time novelist, is currently listening to.  Increasingly, it’s history.  “I find myself drawn more and more to history these days,” he told me last week. “I suspect you understand that.”

I have always been a history bluff.  I was one history course short of a double major in History and English at UNC and did my graduate work in Early Church History at the University of Toronto.  What I never found very interesting, however, was American History.

The Tea Party changed all that.  I found their constant harping on the Founding Fathers and the almighty Constitution particularly noisome because I was in no position to argue with them.  Everything I knew about the beginning of our country, I learned in public school, which I can reproduce for you here:   “Bunker Hill. Paul Revere. Lexington and Concord.  At some point the Delaware gets crossed. God knows why. Fast forward to the Liberty Bell and the next thing you know, the British are burning the White House. No, wait. That was later.”      It irked me that I could not counter the doubtless specious arguments of these know-nothings and when I am irked, I take action. Book action.

Enter, The Presidents Project.  A year ago I committed myself to reading (or, to be more accurate) listening to someone else read a biography of each American President in sequence. (I retain information better if I can knit, drink and listen simultaneously.  It’s a learning style.)  Thus far, I have made it through James K. Polk, who, I have to say,  was as mind-numbingly dull as his one term presidency was momentous (the acquisition of the American Southwest and the Oregon territory – hello!).  ( In the interest of full disclosure, however, I must confess that there were some Presidents who were such clunkers that, out of’s over 150,000 audiobooks, they don’t rate a book — I’m talking about you, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.)

Nevertheless, eleven (more or less) down, thirty three to go! I’m stoked!

This is the thing about history.

When we are young, we loom large on the stage of life.  Or at least that’s how we perceive it.  Our personal dramas preoccupy us.  Everything  matters.  As we grow older, it is the stage that grows large and we who grow small. My father sits in his chair in his half of a small room in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, cocooned in frailty, and contemplates this.  I sit on my bed in Port Stanley, Ontario cocooned with dogs – his and mine — and do the same.  We are both, at our different rates, fading away, growing smaller, gazing back to where we have been —  as Hardys, as North Carolinians, as Americans  — and asking ourselves, “What was that, really?” and “Is that how that happened? I never knew.”

The Founding Fathers, though possessed of a kind of collective genius, were flawed men, motivated by self-interest to set up society in ways that would best serve them.  Nor did they consider the Constitution tantamount to the Ten Commandments, that is to say, set in stone by the power carver finger of God. Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of viewing the Constitution as a living document. Among the many statements he made to this effect was this in 1825 in a letter to Edward Livingston, “Time and changes in the condition and constitution of society may require occasional and corresponding modifications.”   Yeah, like when ‘arms’ stopped meaning ‘muskets’ and started meaning ‘assault weapons’ and when ‘people’ stopped meaning ‘white male landowners’ and started meaning ‘everybody’.

The fact is, if you are a middle class North American, now might not be so great, but then really sucked.  Do you really want to churn your own butter and die in childbirth? I’d bet you anything that George Washington would have preferred modern dentures over those made with slave teeth. And what about outhouses?  Outhouses alone would be a deal breaker for me.  So why, Tea Baggers, why do you want to go back?

Because you’ve confused the Founding Fathers with the twelve disciples of Christ, and the Constitution with the Bible, and the early days of the country with the early days of the church . . . which  is particularly ironic since Jesus’s posse was no less flawed than the Founding Fathers, the Bible was written over a millennium by multiple authors, and the early days of the Christian Church were far from halcyon.  Never mind outhouses.  Try being a human torch to light one of Nero’s games or a fresh snack for his lions.   And you believe this  because you don’t know history.  Trust me,  if you did, it would scare the Jesus out of you, much less the be-Jesus.

So, yes, Dad, it’s very quiet here.  And, yes, Mom, there are a whole lot of stupid people out there doing big things.