This morning South Carolina took down the Confederate flag that has flown outside its statehouse for decades. I’ve been amazed and delighted at how quickly this has come about.
But I have a confession to make: I once bought a Confederate flag license plate for my then-boyfriend. Who also often sported a t-shirt that was emblazoned with an airbrushed Confederate flag and the words “Lynnyrd Skynnyrd” written above it (Yes, “Lynyrd Skynyrd” was misspelled–the risk you take when you get a t-shirt made at a festival called “Hoedown Days,” I guess). I don’t think either of us considers ourselves racist, and it’s not like my ex and I were a couple of rednecks. He wrote poetry and listened to opera; I read literary classics and didn’t eat meat. Neither of us had a dog named Bocephus (although I did briefly own a pick-up truck). In short, he and I may have been intelligent, but we were also ignorant.
I guess at the time, the flag represented to him what many others have claimed of late in their defense of keeping the flag flying: It’s a symbol of simpler times, heritage, rebellion, standing up for your beliefs. . .all good stuff, no doubt, but when those things are tied to slavery, repression, violence, and a hundred other horrible things, there’s a big problem. I can’t image what it must be like to be an African-American and see that flag on a shirt or a license plate or a statehouse. My own experience with it was pretty much limited to seeing it every Friday night on The Dukes of Hazzard. I’m ashamed to admit that I never really thought too much about what it means to someone of color.
I grew up in Kentucky, which is kind of like the South Lite. Head further down I-65, and you’ll find more catfish and grits, more humidity and kudzu, and, unfortunately, more rebel flags and racism. Or, I guess, more overt racism. It’s here to be sure, but it’s usually not all hanging out there for everyone to see, like a Confederate flag flapping in the wind in front of a state capital. It’s not something folks here really talk about much.
My upbringing in regards to race was often very confusing. I got angry whenever my grandfather used the “N Word” or when my uncle would jokingly tell someone at Christmas dinner to “come in here and eat with the white folks.” But I was also stunned when I was about four-years-old and saw an inter-racial couple at church, not because they were together, but because I had never seen an African-American there before. Until that day, I thought the church I attended was just for white people. As a high school cheerleader, my mother once walked out of a restaurant (and had her peers follow her) when a basketball player was refused service because he wasn’t white. But I still felt uneasy when a black classmate stopped by my house one afternoon because I worried my parents wouldn’t approve. In first grade, I had a bookmark that said, “Be Skin Color Blind.” But in college I bought a confederate flag license plate.
I’m pretty sure my experience isn’t all that different than a lot of people’s. While it’s easy to spot and condemn obvious bigotry, this kind of subtlety and silence can be just as damaging. Let’s stop sending mixed messages about race. Let’s stop avoiding the subject. Let’s stop flying that fucking flag.