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After Lady Antebellum, Is It Time for the Dixie Chicks to Rethink Their Name? (Guest Column)

"For many Black people," writes Jeremy Helligar, the word "Dixie" "conjures a time and a place of bondage... This is a discussion we need to have, and they should be a part of it."

THE DIXIE CHICKS
Charles Sykes/Shutterstock

The Dixie Chicks have a reputation for being one of the most progressive acts in country music. If “Goodbye Earl,” the Texas-bred trio’s 2000 hit about a battered wife who offs her husband by slipping poison into his black-eyed peas, didn’t tip us off, frontwoman Natalie Maines sealed their liberalism — and their fate — after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 when she told a London audience, “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”

With that one sentence, she shattered the group’s good name and hobbled their career, which has never fully recovered, as well. But about that name… The grand irony of the hoopla that ensued was that as she stood on stage declaring herself a non-fan of George W. Bush, the Republican president, she and her bandmates, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer, were performing under a moniker that, in some ways, represents up-with-whiteness more flagrantly than Bush, whom Kanye West once accused of not caring about Black people, ever did.

The trio took their name from a 1973 Little Feat album, “Dixie Chicken,” that is free of any overt politicizing. Its subtext, however, is a different story.

“Dixie,” for the record, is the epitome of white America, a celebration of a Southern tradition that is indivisible from Black slaves and those grand plantations where they were forced to toil for free. The origin of the word, though, is unclear. One theory links it to Jeremiah Dixon, who along with Charles Mason, drew the Mason-Dixon line as the border between four states that later became the unofficial separation between free states and slaves states. Other less likely theories trace it back to a slave owner from Manhattan as well as “dix,” a word written on Louisiana’s 10-dollar bills pre-Civil War that’s French for “ten.”

Regardless of its origin, for many Black people, it conjures a time and a place of bondage. If a “Dixie”-loving Southerner today insist the word merely represents a deep appreciation of their homeland, they’re probably white. Although the word is also tied to the black gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds, who formed in the 1920s, and the Dixie Cups, the ’60s girl group of “Chapel of Love” fame, those acts come from antique eras when it was still acceptable to call blacks “Negroes” or “colored.” Times have changed dramatically, and it’s hard to imagine many Black Southerners today tying their appreciation of their homeland to “Dixie,” even if, according to legend, it’s the title of one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite songs (one, incidentally, in which the author longs to be in “the land of cotton” because “old times there are not forgotten”).

“Dixie,” however, didn’t bring down the Dixie Chicks. Judging by the response to Maines’ 2003 comment, many of the trio’s fans up to that point were the types of Southerners who still lived and would die for Dixie, or at least a Republican-centric vision of the good old U.S. of A. Country radio immediately abandoned the Dixie Chicks who, after the release of their defiantly titled Grammy-winning 2006 single “Not Ready to Make Nice” and album “Taking the Long Way,” refrained from releasing new records for the next 14 years, although they continued to tour successfully. Last year the group joined Taylor Swift on her “Lover” song “Soon You’ll Get Better.” This year, they finally resumed their career as recording artists with the release of the single “Gaslighter” and the forthcoming coronavirus-delayed album of the same name, which now is due on July 17.

The delay was a good move — a global pandemic is clearly not the best time to launch a major comeback — and clearly they have advisors who earn their pay. So why haven’t they convinced the ladies to address the problematic nature of their name?

Those fans who dropped out after Maines dissed Bush would surely be the loudest to cry foul again if anyone messed with the name “Dixie Chicks.” They’d likely declare it merely an expression of appreciation for the modern South, not the Confederate South. They’d probably defend it for the same reason some defend Confederate statues and “Gone With the Wind.” To them, they aren’t so much symbols of a racist past as they are emblems of everything that makes the South special. Frankly, of course, they may not give a damn about Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers or Rosa Parks. Their iconic South of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis is what made the aforementioned Black icons necessary and contributed to making their lives hell.

That’s some white privilege right there. When white people say they want to hang on to their cultural artifacts, regardless of how they might make minorities feel, it’s the most passive-aggressive expression of white supremacy. They are basically saying their history and heritage is worth more than the history and heritage of Black people. Who cares if the Confederacy and words like “Dixie” conjure memories of a time when Blacks were in chains? Apparently white Southerners matter more.

In this regard, country music has been problematic for decades. In the late 1950s, it made a singer named Stonewall Jackson a star. In the ‘90s, Confederate Railroad racked up a string of hits. The Bellamy Brothers sang “You Ain’t Just Whistlin’ Dixie,” Alabama gave us “Dixieland Delight,” and Hank Williams Jr., one of the genre’s most vocal opponents of Barack Obama and gays, went to No. 1 in 1981 with “Dixie on My Mind.”

Even Johnny Cash, who, like the Dixie Chicks, was one of the most progressive country acts of his time, hit the country Top 40 in 1982 with “The General Lee.” He was singing about the car Bo and Luke Duke drove on “The Dukes of Hazzard,” the one with a Confederate flag painted on its rooftop — a tribute to Southern pride and the top military leader of the Confederacy.

And of course, there’s also the trio formerly known as Lady Antebellum. On June 11, the group’s members announced they were changing their name to Lady A, to distance themselves from the racist implications of the word “antebellum,” which is literally Latin for “before the war” but is generally used to describe Southern life before the Civil War. Unfortunately, they apparently didn’t realize that Anita White, a Black female blues singer based in Seattle, has been using that name for 20 years. What irony? They drop a word representing everything that’s been taken from Black people and end up taking something else from a Black person.

The bandmates claim they got the name from the antebellum architectural style, which really is just a fancy way of saying “plantation chic.” It’s hard to imagine they didn’t realize “antebellum” refers to more than a cool type of spiral staircase. It suggests an era of cotton and slavery, when women wore hoop skirts and had names like Scarlett O’Hara. The plantation queen of “Gone with the Wind” was the epitome of an antebellum lady. That’s not to say the members of Lady A are racist — even if they spent years ignoring complaints from people who pointed out the slavery connotation of their name. But in this post-George Floyd era, you can’t dismiss those voices anymore. On the plus side, though, Lady A received more press attention than they’ve gotten for anything in the decade since their 2010 crossover smash “Need You Now.”

The Dixie Chicks don’t need to change their name to get that kind of publicity, but their silence has been deafening. This is a discussion we need to have, and they should be a part of it. With the country in the middle of a racial inferno and the release of “Gaslighter” a month off, the Dixie Chicks’ name could end up fanning even more flames than the title of their comeback album.