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Why Dolly Parton’s Black Lives Matter Support Isn’t Surprising
Have you had the vegetable soup at Dolly Parton’s Stampede, billed as the “world’s most visited dinner attraction?” My God. It is remarkable, even if my suspicions are correct that it is, indeed, produced en masse offsite somewhere. I don’t mind that though because at Dolly Parton’s Stampede, originally called Dixie Stampede, the taste of the soup and its original location are only ingredients in the larger affair. Inside a redwood barn is this giant dinner show so grandiose and rhinestoned that it nears kitsch, just like the woman whose name adorns the entrance. The Stampede is designed to entertain, which is why in 2018, Dolly Parton took the Dixie out of Stampede and replaced it with her own name. Against a backdrop of businesses and people who protested otherwise, Parton dropped the Dixie because Dolly Parton understands real Southern values.
Moves like that have quietly shaped her legacy. Parton, seemingly apolitical and rife with preconceived punchlines, has always had a penchant for being smart and decent. That’s the brand she’s known for, and it’s strange to me when it gets politicized, as if decency is a partisan issue. But decency, as it pertains to Parton, has been a mainstay of who she is. Her empathy has been re-branded as progressivism, sure. Call it what you want, but the ledger shows that Dolly has always been this way. So when she came out this week in Billboard and stated “Black lives matter,” it seemed like a moment, when in reality, it’s classic Dolly.
Her statements remind me of this interview she did with Out magazine in the ’90s. When the opportunity to go on RuPaul’s radio show came up in 1996, some people in her camp advised against it, saying that she might ruffle the feathers of her fan base. Her response was, “Gay people are fans of mine, and I live in both and I love them both, and I understand and accept both.”
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And then 20 years later, on the heels of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally (which essentially became a white nationalist parade), people started noting that Dolly, purveyor of inclusion and kindness, still had “Dixie” in the name of her popular dinner show. Dolly listened, learned, and then made her move. On the main drag of the Parkway that splits Pigeon Forge, TN, removing Dixie was a dicy choice. You can’t travel more than 100 yards without passing a store where you can buy both a souvenir wooden bear along with a confederate flag. And yet, still, she knew it was time.
In an interview with Billboard this month, talking about Dixie and Black lives, she said, “When they said ‘Dixie’ was an offensive word, I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to offend anybody… As soon as you realize that [something] is a problem, you should fix it. Don’t be a dumbass. That’s where my heart is. I would never dream of hurting anybody on purpose.” Of course, the real moment that brings joy is imagining Parton’s high pitched voice saying, “I understand people having to make themselves known and felt and seen. And of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”
And sadly, that statement of common decency and kindness about Black Lives Matter has drawn the ire of people who embrace the conservatism that has become synonymous with the South. They’ve worked to undo her words and twist them, but the South that Dolly hails from—the South I’m proud of—is not one that aligns with an anti-Black Lives Matter mentality.
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That stings a bit because the South loves to paint itself as a decent place. I defend it as one, too. We make casseroles when people die. We bless your heart, sometimes sincerely. We hold doors open for people. But the South at its finest is a place where we hold doors open for people who have had it slammed in their face. Dolly has always stood alongside the others. That has never changed. Those who rebuke her, saying she’s changed, are simply people who never knew her heart—people who may live in the South but don’t understand what the area represents. Location is only one ingredient in the larger affair.
And that’s one of the reasons I gravitate toward Dolly so much—she represents a South that seems to be getting smaller and further away. The South I believe in is not defined by location or a word or a flag. Or the insistence that all lives matter. I believe in the South that opens up its arms when someone needs help. One that serves you fried chicken while telling you, specifically, that you are worthy of someone else’s time. I believe in the South that recognizes that decency shouldn’t be politicized. It should just be the way you are.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
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