By Karen Petree
The Confederate Flag is an undeniable part of my heritage. It’s one of the six flags that have flown over my home state of Texas, where I sit to write this. It waves over theme parks I visited as a child, and the more well-known battle flag peppers old cemeteries where fallen soldiers rest. Under the shadow of this flag is a part of my heritage I once ignored or overlooked. Under the shadow of this flag I’ve locked my doors at red lights or moved to the other side of the street. Under the shadow of this flag, I’ve averted my eyes and feigned an uncomfortable obliviousness to racial euphemisms. Under the shadow of this flag, I’ve avoided close relationships with African-Americans, discomforted by the glare of privilege their observable experience mirrored back at my whiteness.
It was under the shadow of this flag that I used to fear that awful word would escape my lips. I don’t remember ever feeling compelled to say it, but it was certainly a word that other whites felt they could safely say in my presence, the whiteness of my skin perceived as a safe haven for hate under the shadow of the Confederate flag. It was a decisive word that punctuated playground squabbles, that lingered just above a whisper in family get-togethers.
I said it once. At ten years old. I had started to wake up. Jesse Jackson was on the evening news and a man in my family was yelling. The veins in his neck stood out, furious at the Democrat in the White House, apoplectic at the black man who dared to say the fight for civil rights was still relevant. Then there was that word.
“HEY! Some of my best friends are niggers!”
I don’t know if I meant to say it. I think I meant to say “black.” But there was that word, already trying to seize hold of my worldview. It terrified me that I said it. It terrified me how easily it formed itself in my mouth. Maybe I had subconsciously planned it that way. Silence. The room froze.
He yelled at me reflexively not to say that word. I yelled back. “Then don’t say it in front of me because I don’t want to learn it!” The veins pulsed. Silence resettled. I never heard him say it again. But I remember nigger. I cannot unlearn it. I cannot pretend it is a word I do not know.
It’s time we got out from under the silencing, suffocating shadow of the Confederate flag, into the light where we can see all the damage it has caused. There are those who would argue that the flag is not about race, it’s about our heritage and identity. This flag is an undeniable part of our heritage in the South, but to say it is part of our identity is to say our identity involves racial division and discord or indifference. We need to reckon with our heritage of racial injustice. It’s time the Confederate flag came down.
That’s why it’s so unfortunate that the national discussion around the Confederate flag often lowers itself to reviling the South. It’s true that there are those down here who have inherited an inability to get over the War, but based on comments and social media feeds, it seems the North is in the same predicament. And unfortunately, there are those who would use the horrendous racially motivated massacre in Charleston in which a white gunmen killed nine Black churchgoers to rekindle the social offensive against the South.
Framing the domestic terrorist attack in Charleston as a symptom of the backwardness of the South diverts the issue, allowing non-Blacks in the rest of the country to avoid looking at the racism in their own backyards. Racism is not a Southern problem. It is an American problem. It would be insensitive to compare the geography of who has the worst racial experiences in the United States, but those who would commandeer a tragedy such as the Charleston massacre in order to advance an “anti-racist” cause with blanket indictment of an entire region are hardly different from the bigots they condemn.
Anyone who would use the Charleston attack or any other opportunity to rekindle the North/South divide is not contributing to intelligent dialogue or healing. Yes, there’s a problem. And yes, we need to talk about how it came to be and why we’ve allowed it to fester for so long. And yes, we need to look at ourselves honestly and try to make a change.
Those who belittle the entire South not only spurn the efforts of those of us who are part of the racial majority and who are trying, often clumsily, to change our own ways as well as those of our culture, they disregard the thousands of non-whites who, in the context of slavery, segregation and systemic racism, found and continue to find their voices and fight back. They too are Southern. And many of us down here turn to their example hoping they can lead us out of this shadow. It was, after all, in the shadow of the Confederate flag that the Civil Rights movement began.
Like it or not, the South is rising again, but it isn’t under a Confederate flag. It’s carried on the shoulders of the Charleston victims’ families who in the midst of their unspeakable grief, looked into the face of hatred and said “we love you and we forgive you.” Welcome to the New South.