As Southerners, we get to choose what we keep and what we let go of. How you can love the South but hate the Flag.
Excuse me–and forgive me–for joining the bandwagon of people around our country who are demanding the removal of the Confederate flag from its official posts in South Carolina and elsewhere in the South.
I acknowledge it’s hardly a brave thing to say that the flag is overdue in its removal, particularly after none other than the likes of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and Senator Lindsey Graham have added their noteworthy voices to this chorus.
Indeed, much of Southern, conservative leadership has seemed to take on the cause of taking down the rebel Stars and Bars from the corner of the Capitol grounds in Columbia, SC. It is more than a little surprising, given how flaccid their opinions were only recently–but who am I to blame? It’s not like I’ve been standing on that soapbox myself as of late.
But before you pass too much judgment upon me and my desire to see the flag gone, allow me to share with you my story as a Southerner.
I was born in New Jersey, the son of a Nebraskan and Texan. I am the only member of my immediate family from the Garden State; my grandparents were both career men, one working with the publishing company John Wiley & Sons, the other for AT&T in its monopolistic heyday, and both followed their jobs around the country before settling in New Jersey and working in Manhattan.
In that tradition, it didn’t take long for my parents to uproot and head to North Carolina, this time following my Dad’s job. I was a little more than a year old when I became a resident of the Tarheel State. And with the exception of a short, eight month stint in South Carolina, I’ve stayed there.
When my parents divorced and I moved with my father and step-mother to Harmony, NC, I entered the fifth grade as a fish out of water. Fifth grade is a tough place to land, but I didn’t do myself any favors by telling people I was born in New Jersey. Quickly, I was nicknamed Yankee Doodle. It didn’t feel like it was made in good humor.
That nickname became the center of antagonism for me. I began to have a chip on my shoulder about constantly being picked on. I didn’t say “oil” in a single syllable. I didn’t call tomatoes “maters.” I didn’t eat grits. And after a while, I determined I’d be damned if I did. I wasn’t from the South. I never would be.
Who we are as twelve year-olds, thankfully, isn’t who we become as adults. While I carried the pride of decidedly not being from the South a lot longer than I should have, eventually I reached a point in my life when I began to fall in love with this place. Now, I’m smitten. I don’t want to live anywhere else.
There are times, though, when I feel like a fish out of water, just like I did in the fifth grade. I am a registered Independent voter, which means I am on the left side of liberal in the rather conservative town I inhabit. Any casual reader of this blog quickly knows that I am a fierce advocate of public education–which, oddly enough, also pegs me on the blue side of things.
And when it comes to the Confederate Flag, I’ve never been an enthusiastic supporter. The concept of “heritage, not hate” has never resonated with me. The flag, I’ve always thought, is a misunderstood relic that needs to find its place outside of popular culture.
This week, the Bitter Southerner published another fantastic story, this time about the Southern Crescent rail line and the interesting stories rooted along its route. (Full disclosure: I am a paid, subscribing member of BS, and I think you should be, too. You don’t have to be a member to read, but if you’re a fan of the South and of good stories, you won’t mind giving them some money. Sign up here.)
Fletcher Moore, the author, tells the story about getting off the train in Meridian, Mississippi and wandering out to a museum honoring country legend Jimmie Rogers. There, he and his photographer met a wonderful caretaker–a delightful, older woman whose enthusiasm and hospitality to these journalists spared nothing.
But, just as they were nearing the end of their visit, the group spoke about the city’s somewhat difficult history, and the woman shared in somewhat quiet tones that Meridian had “had problems with the blacks.” The comment caught Moore rather off guard.
“Even today, some folks will let down their guard when they think they are among their own, and out comes the little racist monster. I don’t know what it’s like to be black, but in moments like that, I don’t want to be white.
Like all Americans, we as Southerners get to choose what to keep and what to discard from our lives. We are free to throw out heirlooms that are dangerous or foolish, and we are no less Southern for doing so, anymore than our ancestors risked losing their identity when they chose to lay steel rails across their land. We could all stand to do this. We could get rid of white flight, racial profiling, and the rebel flag. For my own part — in the interest of being the change I’d like to see — I’d be happy to get rid of that awkward politeness, a facet of Southern hospitality, that restrains me when white people try to give me things for free.”
That story shot straight through me. I’ve been near it before. I’ve warily watched our county when the KKK came through–and immediately fell in love with it all over again when I saw the disgust we collectively expressed toward that racist group.
I love Moore’s line, though: “We as Southerners get to choose what to keep and what to discard from our lives.” It’s wonderfully true, and it speaks to the importance of so much endeared to our culture here. There are things we are working so hard to keep alive: story-telling, old mountain music, canning vegetables, beekeeping, sweet tea.
The Confederate flag, though, is something that ought to be let go.
I’m not calling for its absolute removal. We celebrate our freedom of speech in this country, and it’s your personal liberty to wave around a symbol that so many find divisive. And, I will admit, there are instances in which the rebel flag is mostly harmless. I was a kid once. I watched Dukes of Hazzard. I find it puzzling that the ol’ General Lee is being stripped of its roof adornment.
But the State of South Carolina ought not endorse its presence on publicly owned government property. And other states–Alabama, Mississippi, and even North Carolina–ought to look hard at how the flag appears in the context of the state’s voice.
And let’s not forget that, in the midst of this argument over a flag, there are other, deeper issues here. The flag didn’t kill nine Bible students in Charleston. A young man, armed and under the influence of a pervasive and horrendous hatred, committed these acts. He did so in the name of a cause associated with this flag, not because of it. And the continuance of racism and white supremacy are far more disconcerting than any banner floating in the air.
Let’s take the flag down. Like good Southerners, let’s work harder to be better neighbors. Let’s hear our misunderstandings and try to forgive each other, because none of us is entirely pure, and who knows that, in a different town or with different parents, or whatever, any of us could be far more discriminatory.
Let’s sit down in the summer’s shade for a spell and talk about why we can’t keep doing this to each other and what we can do to make things change. We can do that. We can work on this.
And let’s do that in the name of and out of love for this blessed South. Because, as one Cajun in Fletcher Moore’s story put it, “it’s better to be a bitter southerner than to be from Boston.”
Amen to that.