Friday, July 10, 2015

A Prison of Stars and Bars

Somewhere in my closet, or maybe the attic, tucked away in a dusty brown box, I have two flags: the Confederate battle flag, and the Stars & Bars Confederate flag. I've had them since at least college, and at one time I displayed them proudly. That was a long time ago. Now, they feel like skeletons in my closet.

If you grew up in the South – in my case, Mississippi and Louisiana – when I did, symbols of the Confederacy were the norm. You didn't give them a second thought, at least not if you were white. I had those flags, and I had a battle flag bandana, a battle flag license plate, a battle flag keychain, and a shirt or two featuring the flag. They were fashion statements as much as anything else.

I was wearing that bandana one night in a mall in Chattanooga when a police officer came up to me and told me to remove it, expressing concern for my safety. I was taken aback. The cop mentioned a recent incident in Kentucky where a teenager with a Confederate flag flying on his truck was gunned down by some black guys, but I couldn't conceive that happening to me.

That same year, I was chilling in my dorm room when a couple of my black dorm mates came in to hang out for a while. One of them looked up at the wall above my bed and said, "What's up with the flag?" My full-sized battle flag was hanging there. I don't recall my response, but I'm sure I used the word "heritage" in there somewhere. We didn't discuss it further.

Another time, I was at a Louisiana Tech football game, and upon returning to my truck I found someone had stripped my Confederate tag off the front. So I bought another one.

Looking back, I realize I was essentially oblivious to how others perceived the flag. I knew some people didn't like it, but I failed to understand why. I saw no logical reason to get worked up about it, and I truly think that was more due to ignorance than racism. Like any white Southerner, I've had to work through a mindset that is partly racist by nature, but I have never been one to set myself against another race simply because I'm white and they're not. When I was young, I never understood why my friends would use the n-word, and I remember arguing with my friend and his cousin – a girl a few years our senior – about using that slur.

Years later, I exchanged several emails with a man from Detroit who had read something I wrote and spewed some of the most hateful words about blacks I've ever read.

This is how I encountered racism growing up. It was no longer the raging behemoth that had once enveloped the South in its shadow, but its mark was still there, the scars still sensitive to the touch. Racism still thrived in those festering wounds, like an infection that can't be treated. My parents and my friends' parents came of age smack in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, and unfortunately, not all parents of that generation raised their children the way mine did. On the playground, in the dusty old barber shops, even at church, wounded white pride made itself evident in the form of whispered epithets and off-color jokes. I even remember a friend popping in a cassette with songs that fantasized about killing Martin Luther King Jr. I winced at the time, and now I wish I had said something.

I'm not trying to absolve myself of being a racist. Too many times, that's what white Southerners (and many non-Southerners) do. "Oh no, I'm not racist, not me. I even have black friends." But it's there. My racism was a more passive strain, borne of ignorance and, later, an unwillingness to let go of things I treasured. Which brings me back to those flags.

I'm a Civil War buff, and the history of our fair region has long fascinated me. The flags have an important place in that history, and while I'm fine with them being banished from the governmental domain, I see no reason to rid myself of them. They have meaning, and not just to me, whose great-great-great-grandfather enlisted at age 15 to fight in a Confederate uniform. They have meaning to the story of the South, in particular to its great tragedy. And anything with meaning should be remembered, which is not the same as being endorsed.

Bring the flag down in South Carolina, change the Mississippi flag – I don't care. Because symbols, while important, tend to be a product of their time. The time for those flags was more than a century ago, and they are worth preserving – in a museum, with other historical artifacts. But I don't want to get bogged down in that hot-button issue, which our society has – in typical fashion – managed to elevate far above the far more important issue of what caused Dylan Roof to slaughter nine black people (the flag had squat to do with that).

For those who still cling to the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy, I say this: You're holding us back. To say that the flag is about your heritage is fine, but to place such an inordinate amount of import on it in regards to your Southern heritage is to sell the South short. The South is so much more than a flag or any other symbols. Our history is so much richer than that. If you think a flag being taken down is a serious threat to your Southern identity, then maybe you don't have as much of a Southern identity as you'd like to think.

There are other flags of Southern pride you can wave, so to speak, besides the Confederate one. Wanna talk heritage? How about our musical heritage? It's found in people like B.B. King, Elvis, Leadbelly, Hank Williams Sr., Drive-By Truckers, the Allman Brothers. It's found in places like Memphis, New Orleans, Muscle Shoals, Athens, Nashville. It spans generations and genres, transcends race and politics and everything else that seeks to divide us, and it reminds us all that we have in common.

How about our literary heritage? The words of Faulkner and Welty and Grisham. How about our athletic heritage? Friday night and Saturday afternoon football, with stars like Payton, Dupree, Manning, Bo, and Herschel. The fertile baseball soil that grew legends like Hammerin' Hank, Ty Cobb, Josh Gibson, and Frank Thomas.

There is plenty to celebrate about one's Southern heritage, which is much more than a piece of fabric. There's more heritage in a single Hank Sr. lyric than there is in a museum full of Confederate flags. Speaking of Williams...

We had just moved from Oxford – where Ole Miss fans passionately waved Confederate flags at home football games – to Clinton before my second-grade year. At Clinton Elementary, part of our curriculum included music appreciation (or whatever they called it back then), and my most vivid memory of that is learning about Hank Williams. We learned about his music, and we learned about the man, who would often be laid up on a cot spitting up blood just before a performance.

I love to see the towns a-passin' by
And to ride these rails, 'neath God's blue sky
Let me travel this land from the mountains to the sea
'Cause that's the life I believe He meant for me

Those words, from Hank's "Ramblin' Man," capture the Southerner's love for his homeland. The intimacy of small towns, the expanse of the countryside, the tree-blanketed mountains, and all the charms of the Southland. Those have always been there and always will be. A flag? That's a transient symbol, just one small square of a diverse tapestry that stretches across a land and a people and a history that defy any sort of narrow categorizations or stereotypes. We often complain as Southerners about being put into a box, but it's far worse to put yourself in a box, tied off neatly with a Confederate bow.

We're more than that. As Patterson Hood put it, "Why fly a flag that stands for the very things we as Southerners have worked so hard to move beyond?"

No comments: