Getting Above My Raising

Do you remember the Dukes of Hazzard? The television show about a moonshining, carjumping, redneck family (white trash if you are unkind)? Most people my age do remember it – the Dukes was huge in the late 70s and early 80s, and has been in reruns ever since. It went on the air in 1979, and for years was the #2 show in America, in part because of its slot right before #1, Dallas. Kids in my generation (Gen X) grew up with Dukes of Hazzard matchbox cars, action figures, lunchboxes, underroos, etc.

What made the show and its huge success surreal, and fateful, for me was that my father, Ben Jones – a stage actor based in Atlanta, Georgia – had somehow landed a co-starring role. There he was on television, every Friday night, playing Cooter, sidekick to the Duke Boys. He had a lot of lines. It never ceases to amaze me how many people know exactly who he is, from my generation and the ones before and after. He may be the most famous tow-truck driver ever.

I saw the show much more than I saw my father. I had custody visits with him at Christmas and for several weeks each summer. He and my mom split up when I was two and both remarried (in his case, several more times). She married a much older man who relocated us up North. I did not like either the man or the move. The rest of my family was in Georgia and North Carolina, but I grew up in Delaware and then Connecticut, losing my accent and close family ties.

For much of my childhood, my father was in Hollywood, earning more money than he knew what to do with. He spent quite a lot of it on going home regularly to Georgia, because he hated Hollywood and he missed his dogs. And he also spent some on flying me out to wherever he was. We would stay in Burbank while he was shooting at the Warner Brothers studios, or we would drive around the U.S. from one autograph signing to another, or we would lay low at his place in Georgia. The Georgia house was way “out in the country” – his favorite place to be. To get there, we would drive down highways, then eventually back roads, then a dirt road that went deep into piney woods. I still miss that front porch, especially its rocking chairs, perfect for reading on rainy afternoons.

My father is a large man, built like a football player, blessed with a lot of charisma and a sharp intelligence. Gregarious and opinionated, he usually dominates whatever room he is in, and charms whatever crowd he is playing for. He thrives on the attention of others and he wants to be where the action is. And he usually is; after the Dukes went off the air, he parlayed his celebrity and savvy into two terms as a U.S. Congressman from Georgia. (Not bad for a boy who grew up without electricity or indoor plumbing.) After his political career ended, he started a chain of stores throughout the South. He and his current wife make a comfortable living selling Dukes of Hazzard memorabilia.

He lives in a spectacularly beautiful place, a 50 acre “compound” (I call it) nestled in a hollow below the Blue Ridge Mountains. Once I moved to Brooklyn, I began visiting him every few months, always happy to exchange the dirty city for a weekend in the country. His favorite thing to do when I visit is to drive me around. So we spend a lot of time touring the backroads of the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Parkway, windows all the way down and radio all the way up. My father has always been full of energy, maybe a little manic to be honest, and he enjoys the hell out of being alive. I love that about him.

But my trips to the compound were fun before Trump, when we could talk about politics and the state of the world, and agree on many, if not all, things. My father has been a Democrat his entire life, and mine, until now. His politics are about the working class, and he disdains the elites of either party. I am far more to the left and I often disagree with his take on things. Sometimes I tell him so, but not always. Disagreement provokes him and then I have to dig in for battle. He loves to debate, and at times he can get very aggressive – a trait that works well for him with fellow politicians, but not so much with me. Fighting with him over anything exhausts and depresses me. I would usually much rather just change the subject.

But there is one subject that I can’t get my father away from, and now he brings it up in almost every conversation we have: the Confederate flag. The recent controversies over that flag and Confederate monuments have resulted in fights and estrangements in many Southern families, including my own. The past few years have changed my father into a different person politically. He once took part in the Civil Rights Movement when he was a student at Chapel Hill, but now he rails against the UNC students who toppled Silent Sam.

That flag is all over the products sold in his stores. He is defiant against those who want it and other symbols of the Confederacy removed from public view. He is angry about what he sees as an erasing of Southern history and culture. He feels that he is fighting a battle against political correctness and class snobbery. His loyalty is to the people he grew up with, and who have been his audience and customers – white working class people in the South.

These people are also my people, or were until my mother moved us North and sent me to prep school and then college. She was determined that I would get a decent education – something my working class grandmother had wanted for her  – and she made sure I traveled too. In part because of this, I become more aware of nonwhite, nonSouthern perspectives. I also came to the conclusion that I don’t like the flag and don’t approve of flying it. My reasons are simple, and based on my sense of fairness. When descendants of people who were enslaved by my ancestors ask, in the name of reparations, for a change to be made, for example a flag or a monument to be taken down, I believe that I should listen to them and respect their wishes. I also don’t want to display anything connected to the multi-generational traumas (slavery, lynchings, the Charleston shooting, and other horrors) of my African American neighbors. It feels cruel, and it certainly does not symbolize the elements of Southern culture that I am proud of.

Part of what makes my conversations about the flag with my father so difficult is the tension between us about social class. Class, and moving between classes, has been a huge theme in our lives. He grew up dirt poor, an experience that continues to shape how he sees the world. Everything he has, he earned. I grew up in middle class comfort, for the most part, and I enjoyed many more opportunities than he did growing up. Of course that experience shapes my worldview too.

He paid for my college education with earnings from the Dukes. He also never fails to tell me that he is proud of my educational accomplishments (and doesn’t seem to mind that I’ve never done much with my graduate degrees). But my education also gets in between us. For my father, my lefty politics, which he thinks I picked up from my Northern elitist professors, mean that I am a traitor. By rejecting the flag, I’ve committed the ultimate sins: I’ve “gotten above my raising”, “forgotten where I’m from”, and betrayed my working class family and culture. But for me, by rejecting the flag, I am only being true to my beliefs. He always taught me to be independent, to think for myself, and to fight for what I think is right.

I don’t know where our relationship is going from here. Because I reject the flag, he feels rejected, and then he rejects me in turn. I do know my father will never give an inch on the issue. And because I am his daughter, a rebel girl through and through, neither will I.