Brad Paisley kicked over a hornet’s nest this week with his song "Accidental Racist." The duet with LL Cool J tackles the issue of the display of racist symbols, specifically the Confederate flag, head on and attempts to draw some lessons on tolerance and understanding. The song itself is full of symbols and imagery that evoke powerful emotions and strong cultural memories.
The thing that I see that Brad Paisley is most guilty of and is trying to work out in this song is thinking that powerful symbols, separated from their original context, lose their meaning or can somehow be re-branded (“I’m a Skynrd fan”).
The meaning of powerful symbols endures. Why does the sight of a swastika raise the hackles of fear and suspicion in anyone who is not an anti-Semite? Because, even though the atrocities that took place under that flag happened almost 70 years ago, the symbol itself gained a strong meaning for a majority of people. It came to symbolize indiscriminate hate, megalomania, and genocide. Similar feelings exist around the old Soviet flag. That red and gold flag conjures up images of the Red Tide sweeping across Europe, Siberian Gulags, and nuclear winter. The Confederate emblem evokes many similar feelings for minorities. In its original context it represented a region of this country that oppressed a whole people for over 400 years. That meaning can’t be packed away in a box or relegated to the pages of a history text simply because 150 years have passed since that symbol was last officially used in that oppressive capacity. It’s meaning carries through the ages.
Symbols have lives of their own and they usually live far longer than the people who first created and used them. Look at some of the world’s most enduring symbols – the Cross, the Crescent Moon, the Star of David, nooses hanging from trees, white hoods and burning crosses, blackface, the Ying and Yang, the aforementioned swastika. What images and feelings do each of these symbols evoke? Undoubtedly some of the reaction is based on the reader’s culture and heritage, but most of these generate strong feelings of one sort or another. Each of them is old, created before anyone reading this was born, most of them before our parents and grandparents were born. But their power echoes through time because they cannot be easily separated from their original context.
Given the power of symbols and their endurance, is it any wonder that minorities get upset when symbols and images that represent an oppressive past are brazenly displayed? It’s worse when that display is defended with trite utterances like “heritage, not hate.” If a large part of the heritage was hate how does anyone know which part of the heritage the defender is upholding? If someone is bold enough to wear a symbol that many associate with hate emblazoned across their chest or on their vehicle what else might they be bold enough to do?
Though "Accidental Racist" is a train wreck musically and lyrically, Paisley deserves credit for trying. No other modern country artist has been brave enough to take on the subject of race in their music. Not even Darius Rucker who, during his Hootie and the Blowfish days, campaigned to have the Confederate Battle flag that flew at the South Carolina statehouse removed, has talked about race in his music. It’s a touchy subject in country music circles which tend to be populated by conservative Southerners, some of whom are still perplexingly irked about the South having lost the Civil War.
Towards the end of the song, LL Cool J says that “if you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains.” Forgive is always an option. But forget may not be possible so long as the symbols of racism and slavery continue to carry so much meaning and power and continue to be callously and ignorantly displayed. It seems that Brad Paisley has learned this vital lesson. Though his song is clumsy, at least we can thank Brad Paisley and LL Cool J for being willing to engage in the conversation.