A few years ago, Time Magazine reported gardening as the most popular hobby in the United States. Behind it at No. 2 was genealogy, the in-depth exploration of family lineages and histories.
We humans yearn for connections, past and present. That's reflected by the fact that millions are willing to pay $25 to $50 a month for Ancestry.com and millions have submitted DNA samples to discover clues about where their ancestors came from.
It seems we all find comfort in a sense of belonging.
Born and raised in Arkansas, I'm as susceptible as any other Southerner to be drawn toward connection to the region and state. I'm proud to be an Arkansan. We all want a sense of pride in our roots. Our identities aren't dictated by the bonds we share, but it's hard to say they're not influenced by them. It takes intentional acts sometimes to slip out of the grip the past can have on our futures.
Whether we like it or not, Southerners are defined by a past that most of us alive today had no capacity to influence. When people talk of the South or Southerners, what do you think is in the front of their minds?
What points of pride come to mind when we declare we are Arkansans? As much as I love the Razorbacks, it bothers me sometimes that the closest thing we have to an identifiable trademark beyond the state's borders is the Hog Call (woooo, pig, sooiee!). I've raised my hands and called the Hogs hundreds if not thousands of times since birth, but the pride in my state goes well beyond a cheer. I wish people beyond our borders could see all of Arkansas' positives.
Arkansas declares itself the Natural State. I take great pride in its beauty, from Blanchard Springs Caverns to the Ozark highlands to the Buffalo River to the river bottoms of south Arkansas. But those qualities are God's handiwork. Arkansans are just fortunate enough to live near them and, hopefully, protect them as good stewards.
So what do we take pride in, as far as human endeavors, as Southerners or Arkansans?
Because of a sordid past -- the wrong side in the Civil War, popular embrace of race-based segregation, resistance to civil rights -- pride today is inextricably linked to how we respond to that past. Our political leadership has both helped and hurt in that regard. Too often, Arkansas is dragged kicking and screaming into advancements in the way our policies deal with the less attractive qualities of the state's past.
Last week, state Rep. Austin McCollum of Bentonville pressed for passage of House Bill 1916 to rename Confederate Flag Day -- every Saturday before Easter -- in the state to Arkansas Day, "a day to reflect on the rich history, national treasures, diverse cultures, unmatched hospitality, shared spirit and human resilience that make the people of this state proud to be Arkansans." That Confederate Flag Day was first adopted in the 1950s, in the midst of strife over racial segregation, makes the designation a dark cloud over the state's reputation.
It's laudable the House passed the measure 80-7. That Confederate Flag Day has existed for 70-plus years says something else. It also says something that McCollum had to assure fellow lawmakers that the bill doesn't affect anyone's individual ability to display or celebrate the Confederate flag.
It's progress to remove misguided observances that shackle today's Arkansas to a hateful past. We've also got a long, long way to go to release ourselves, in matters of public policy and individual ideologies, from discriminatory behaviors of the past and, sadly, the present.
Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.