Dogwood Trees

By Debra and Dave Vanderlaan

I grew up in a house surrounded by Dogwood trees. When I conjure up their image in my mind, constructing it branch by branch, petal by petal, I am home. Spring, my birthday, Easter, basketball in the driveway, and the final stretch of the school year. All of these splendid memories are associated with the Dogwood tree, and the snow-like dusting of petals it scattered across our driveway.

While the Dogwood tree is a symbol of childhood innocence for me, I realized in Alabama that the Dogwood tree carried with it a horrifying legacy. While standing in the EJI Legacy Museum, a cold sweat accumulating on my back and tears swelling in my eyes, I noticed a Lynch site in my home town. May 30th, 1898, two black men were lynched in a dogwood tree close to my childhood home.

This is when I began to develop my idea of a New South. I recognize the hesitancy anytime someone brings up revolution in context of the South, but my vision of the New South is one of inclusivity. The Dogwood tree is a perfect metaphor for the South’s cultural problems. Blacks and whites live on the same southern land, breathe the same southern air, but common southern experiences carry with them polarizing realities. A confederate flag. A confederate statue. A building. A dogwood tree.

Through the Dogwood Tree, we can build the New South. The name “New” South is almost a misnomer. I am not suggesting we throw out the decades of culture and tradition from the American south, but rather look at it in a new, more accurate way. We should be purposeful in our hunt for diverse stories that have been buried by a false white narrative. In the New South, we recognize the beauty of the Dogwood tree, while facing its harrowed past. To do this, we as a society have to learn to practice Critical Love. Critical Love is a term I picked up at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. One of the museum directors, a black man, spoke of his love for the state of Alabama while standing in the heart of the Southern slave trade. This struck me, I asked him, how could one love something with such a horrific past? Critical Love, he responded. The ability to love our heritage, our traditions, and our Dogwood trees, all while remaining critical and alert to their shortcomings. Critical love allows us to reconcile the two-faced legacy of the South without having to be ashamed of our identity. Without critical love, attempts to be critical of Southern heritage will be seen as personal attacks to one’s cultural identity.

Harrison Diggs has a fantastic portfolio that explores the concept of critical love further.