Last week sometime, I saw a note received by a black Mobile, Alabama, city councilman. It was a plain white index card affixed with a Confederate flag and the words “We have to live with you n****s so live with our flag.”
My first thought — That is the reason the damn thing has to go. Whoever penned that card (anonymously, of course) knows exactly what it symbolizes for most rational people. But I got to thinking, y’know, I’ve seen some supposedly rational people buy the “heritage not hate” line about it. How could that be?
Turns out, I didn’t have to look very hard to find the answer. It was right there in my childhood.
I grew up in East Tennessee, in Appalachia, which, I’m sure you’ve heard, is not the most affluent place in the country. That may be because a lot of its original white settlers were trying to make a better life than the one they knew in the rocky, mountainous highlands of the British Isles, so they stopped in a place that looked like home. East Tennessee is very different from the middle part of the state, which in turn is very different from the west, meaning the east and the west are about as far apart as you can get, still be in the United States and not have a coast .
Back when South Carolina and Mississippi and all those states were seceding, Tennessee had a little trouble making up its mind. The first legislative vote was a big no. But then the wealthy planters west of the east pointed to a map and noted that they were living between what little crops the rest of the state grew and their primary route to market, the Mississippi River. The legislature voted again, and voila, the issue went to a statewide referendum, wherein the middle and west voted overwhelmingly to secede while the east voted overwhelmingly the other way. Tennessee seceded, the last of the original 11 Confederate states. Five years later, it was the first state to be readmitted to the union.
One would think that East Tennessee, then, might be just a little hostile to a flag representing the army that occupied it for most of the Civil War. I could look out the back windows of my childhood home and see the remains of bunkers built by Confederate soldiers occupying my little town. During winter snows, the bunker was the first “whee” on a sled ride that ended up across a flat bottom into a creek. Across the street from my dad’s service station was the headquarters of Gen James Longstreet, a favorite of Robert E Lee, and my family still owns one of the oldest homes in East Tennessee, which was used as a headquarters by one of Longstreet’s subordinate generals, Lafayette McLaws.
Soldiers and officers alike wrote home bitterly about East Tennesseans, who wouldn’t lift a finger to help them during a particularly brutal winter encampment.
And yet … for decades, the most popular shop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and a major East Tennessee tourist destination, was a block-long store called Rebel Corner, which prominently sold “rebel flags” and “rebel caps” along with stuffed black teddy bears and Smoky Mountain snow globes. The store sold Union caps and American flags too. I had both a rebel flag and a rebel cap. I’d wanted a Union cap, but there were none in my size. I think, in fact, the flag may still be on the wall in the basement of my old home.
I thought nothing of it. It was just some history thing to me. The Civil War. Soldiers. Battles. Something about freeing the slaves, which, apparently, Southerners in other parts of the South owned. At six, I just didn’t get it.
And there was my first clue to how it could possible be that some Southerners truly see the Confederate battle flag as nothing more than a benign flag of the Confederacy. There was a huge disconnect between what we knew about the Confederacy and what it really was. Nobody talked about it, except to say there was a war, the slaves were freed, and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Hell, I didn’t even know John Wilkes Booth was a Confederate for some time.
The reason: We didn’t talk about it. Even my most favorite history teacher, and man seriously named Charlie Brown, just hit the highlights, and by that I do mean the highs, and none of the godawful lows, like how on earth did anyone ever think it was acceptable to own another human being.
Of course, in my family, we didn’t talk about much of anything any deeper than a scraped knee. Sometime in the 1960s, there was a lot of talk on TV and radio about the NAACP. I had little understanding of that, confusing it with the NAPA auto parts store where my dad, an auto mechanic, bought the parts he needed to fix his clients’ cars.
I was surrounded by NASCAR and country music and overwhelmingly white neighbors. Few people in East Tennessee had slaves, and the area was one of the routes out of the Deep South on the Underground Railroad. Black folk, apparently unlike my own ancestors, figured Appalachia was not the best place to live. And besides, north of the Mason-Dixon line was much further from their former owners.
My little spot of hills wasn’t devoid of people of color. One of the old men who hung out at my dad’s shop was black. And there were enough kids in the county to almost fill a tiny little school on the side of a hill on the way to the county seat. Grades 1-12. I do remember when Tennessee finally integrated the schools. I was in third grade. My mom took me aside before I went to school that day and told me there were going to be little black children in my class and that she didn’t mind if I played with them but I shouldn’t hold hands with them. I just kinda looked at her, wondering why I’d want to do that with any of the kids in my school.
My mother also told me she wanted me to grow up to be whatever I wanted. Sadly, a lesbian rock-n-roller with a penchant for words wasn’t included in “whatever.” I’m betting Buddhist wasn’t either.
All in all, there were just a handful of black kids in either of my two schools. I don’t recall seeing any overt discrimination, but I’d be stupid to claim there was none. Some were friends, some weren’t. They were no more, and no less affluent than any of the rest of us, with the exception of the real back-in-the-hills Appalachian kids who were the poorest of the poor.
And still, none of us talked about where we came from, or why. Just the same, all these many years later, I was shocked when my liberal sister said she didn’t want Barack Obama to become president because she was afraid he really was Muslim, and even more shocked when my dad said he didn’t want a black man to be president at all, using a word I’d never before heard anyone in my family use. You can guess what it was.
What an eye opening, though, when I came to Atlanta in 1975. That’s an interesting story in itself, but it doesn’t belong here. I was barely 18. For six months, I thought downtown Atlanta was some suburb because my idea of a big city was canyons of skyscrapers. Early on, I had one bad experience with a black man that made me a little squeamish around black men for a while, until I realized that some white men were just as bad as that guy and the color of their skin had nothing to do with the degree of their assholishness.
I guess I was lucky. I fell in with the old hippies, the socialists, the queers, the radicals, and while they didn’t do a lot to root out my inbred racism, they also did very little to inflame it.
Going through my ongoing education process from there would be pointless, and lengthy, although I admit it does have some interesting moments. Those moments just don’t adhere to the topic at hand, which is, of course, is it possible, and if so, how is it possible, that some of us truly believe the rebel flag is just a symbol of our heritage and has nothing to do with racism.
The answer is this: Yes, it is possible, but only if we are ignorant of what that heritage actually is. I can tell you from personal experience that it was shocking when I began to understand that slaves in the United States, by order of the constitution, were counted as 3/5th of a person for the purposes of figuring out Congressional representation. They couldn’t vote, of course, but their sheer numbers swelled the Southern planter’s representation in the capital by an order of magnitude, although apparently not enough to avoid war.
Slaves may have counted as 3/5th of a person for Congressional representation, but in all other aspects, they didn’t count as people at all. Slaves were slaves. People owned them. And the realization of that, my friends, made it impossible for me to ever look upon my childhood cap and flag with anything resembling fondness again.
I never saw the flag flying over battles, never saw it flying over KKK rallies, and never saw it waved by “states’ rights” groups battling desegregation and the Civil Rights Act. Only one of those could I have possibly seen, and frankly, I wasn’t paying attention at that time. I was more interested in learning to ride a bicycle. When I saw that flag, in my little mind back then, it just represented the South. Full stop.
I could go into the crappy way the US government handled reconstruction and how badly the south was treated — and has been treated — and maybe come up with a reason for Southerners to stand up and be proud of who we are. If I hear one more Yankee suggest the south should secede again I may do that. But if I did, I’d only be talking about our status as human beings and how constant denigration, painted in broad strokes, from morally superior Yankees isn’t the way to make friends and influence people. I would not be talking about taking pride in coming from a region whose entire economy was built on the backs of human beings who were treated with less respect and dignity than the farm animals they tended. I also wouldn’t be pretending that the Civil War was fought over anything other than the morally repugnant practice of owning those other human beings. And I certainly wouldn’t claim that a flag that flew over a traitorous army and was used by white supremacists to intimidate and frighten anyone who dared call them out was anything to be proud of.
But I can understand how some folks might see it that way. I just know, from personal experience, that taking the blinders off makes it impossible.