Dolly Parton is a Settler Too

In Tennessee, there has been a demand to take down a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Ku Klux Klan leader, that has been in the capitol building of Nashville since the 1980s. There is now a petition movement to replace the statue with a statue of Dolly Parton. Republican lawmaker Jeremy Faison said “If you want to preserve history, then let’s tell it the right way. How about getting a lady in there? My daughter is 16, and I would love for her to come into the Capitol and see a lady up there … What’s wrong with someone like Dolly Parton being put in that alcove?”

Parton is in many ways a liberal icon, with a particular interest from many LGBTQ+ supporters. Parton is often heralded as a feminist and anti-racist artist, yet many progressives are either unaware or ignore Parton’s multi-million dollar business built on racism. Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede (recently renamed by dropping “the Dixie” from the title but not the premise in 2018) claims to be the world’s most visited dinner attraction and it is no small feat.  Despite minor alterations introduced to make the Civil War theme seem more neutral, Parton’s show continues to feature a neon “Native American” who performs a “Cherokee” dance. As one of the actors in redface flies through the air on cables, Native people are described as “steeped in legend … mystery … and magic!” In the next scene, settlers from both the north and the south quickly colonize the arena, riding horse-drawn covered wagons and lip-syncing about the wonders of new frontiers and the Native people are erased from the story.

The show focuses on an allegedly rigged competition between North and South reenactors, affirming Lost Cause tropes by having the South win, and makes no mention of slavery. At the end of every “extraordinary dinner show … pitting North against South in a friendly and fun rivalry,” both sides emerge waving American flags. Because in the end, they’re all on the same team, they’re all Americans.

What’s wrong with someone like Dolly Parton being put in that alcove? It reaffirms the very structure of settler colonialism behind the racist killings of George Floyd and the erecting of statues of Klan leaders. The point is not to honor “less” racist white people but to challenge the very structure of settler colonialism itself. One basic way to challenge this structure is to advocate building monuments in honor of colonized people instead of “cute” ideas like honoring millionaires who profit off of fantasies of the South winning the Civil War or of honoring colonizer folklore with Mothman statues. It’s clear the biggest monster isn’t Mothman here, the real monster is the persistence of preserving settler culture and values at every avenue, including in a progressive, anti-racist movement.

Progressives would be much better off supporting real anti-racists such as Reconstruction lawmaker Samuel Allen McElwee, who despite being born into slavery, “studied until midnight, burning patiently the light which would give him opportunity to read,” and would go on to be the first Black man to practice law in Brownsville, Tennessee, speak at the 1887 graduation of Tuskegee Institute, and be the first Black man elected to a three terms in the Tennessee legislature where he would argue for stronger legal powers over lynch mobs. Another suitable candidate would be former Black Panther and anarchist Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin who in 1987, helped file a class action civil rights lawsuit that resulted in the restructuring of the Chattanooga government and the election of several black city council members. In 2008, Ervin was involved in organizing a protest in Nashville against the State for the deaths of two minors in Tennessee prison at the Chad Youth Enhancement Center, and the deaths of a number of prisoners at the Nashville Detention Center, allegedly by guards at that facility. Ervin continues his anti-racist activism and writings today. Or perhaps if one is particularly keen on building a statue to honor a musician, Lovie Austin, who was from Chattanooga broke barriers by studying music theory at Knoxville College, which was uncommon at the time for a Black woman, and would go on to be a Chicago bandleader, session musician, composer, singer, and arranger and was considered one of the best jazz blues piano players of the 1920s classic blues era. Louis Armstrong had the pleasure of working with her on the song “Heebie Jeebies” and Austin would be cited as the biggest influence on jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams.

Any 19th century Black legislator, Black Power activist, or Black musician would be a more suiting candidate than a meme. Parton is the kind of white feminist icon that liberals think makes America already great. At the end of the day, Derek Chauvin and Dolly Parton still wave the same flag because at the end of the day, they’re all Americans.