Brad Paisley and the Politics of Offense and Offense-Taking

What he still doesn't get: Wearing the Confederate flag is far worse than "offensive."
AP

New York's Jody Rosen has an interview up with Brad Paisley that's worth checking out. When Paisley released "Accidental Racist" earlier this year I got into some conversations on Twitter (I used to live there) with some of his fans. They defended him as a singular figure in the country music scene willing to push borders and challenge all manner of convention. You see that guy on display in Rosen's interview. Usually people who end up on the business end of the barrage Paisley endure come out sounding scornful. Paisley sounds more like he's grappling. We should all be so lucky.* 

I'd like to focus in on something:

Some Southerners got very mad it me: "I'm done with you. How dare you apologize for the Confederate flag." But the majority of my fans said, "We know you, we love you -- and we don't understand the controversy, we don't get why everyone is so mad." Which tells you all you need to know, right there.

There is a gulf of understanding that I was trying to address. The most surprising and upsetting thing was being thought of by some as a racist. I have no interest in offending anyone -- especially anyone in the African-American community. That song was absolutely, earnestly supposed to be a healing song. One hundred percent.

I don't really doubt that Paisley wasn't trying to be offensive, nor that he really, earnestly was trying to do some good. But I don't think he really gets what bothers black people about the Confederate Flag. It is not simply that the flag is offensive. It is that it is the chosen symbol of slaveholders and those who wanted to live in a republic rooted in slaveholding.

This warrants clarification. In 1836, cotton from the South accounted for59 percent of this country's exports. Effectively, in the run up to the Civil War, our leading export was produced by slave labor. This cotton enriched our country financially and powered us into the modern world. "Whoever says industrial revolution," wrote the historian Eric Hobsbawm, "must say cotton." 

The men and women who grew this cotton not only enriched through their labor, but through their very flesh. At the onset of the Civil War enslaved black people were valued at $3 billion, more than all the factories, railroads, and the productive capacity of America combined. This wealth was traded throughout the South regularly, and that trade enriched America even further.

InSoul By Soul, awesome history of the antebellum slave trade, the historian Walter Johnson takes the measure of the system:

As those people passed through the trade, representing something close to half a billion dollars in property, they spread wealth wherever they went. Much of the capital that funded the traders' speculations had been borrowed from banks and had to be repaid with interest, and all of it had to be moved through commission-taking factorage houses and bills of exchange back and forth between the eastern seaboard and the emerging Southwest. 

And the slaves in whose bodies that money congealed as it moved south had to be transported, housed, clothed, fed, and cared for during the one to three months it took to sell them. Some of them were insured in transit, some few others covered by life insurance. Their sales had to be notarized and their sellers taxed. Those hundreds of thousands of people were revenue to the cities and states where they were sold, and profits in the pockets of landlords, provisioners, physicians, and insurance agents long before they were sold. The most recent estimate of the size of this ancillary economy is 13.5 percent of the price per person-tens of millions of dollars over the course of the antebellum period.

Natchez, Mississippi, a major slave-trading hub, was home to more millionaires per capita than any city in the country. But behind the numbers were the wrecked lives of black men and women. A slave stood roughly a 30 percent chance of being sold away. "Of the two thirds of a million interstate sales made by the traders in the decades before the Civil War," writes Johnson, "twenty-five percent involved the destruction of a first marriage and fifty percent destroyed a nuclear family." 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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