I am a Southerner. I have lived in 3 cities in my life; 18 years in a rural town in North Alabama, 5 in Atlanta and 12 in Birmingham, Alabama. I grew up middle class, white in a small racially divided town. I grew up in a culture where rebel flags were flown off the back of pick up trucks, they were worn on hats and raised on makeshift poles in people’s yards. I was taught that these were symbols of heritage, reminders of who we were and who we are.
I grew up with parents that used the word “nigger” in regular conversation, when they were angry and when they talked about the people who lived in “pepper town”.
One of my earliest memories of my dad is him coming home from work covered in wisps of cotton, a machinist in the local cotton mill, wearing a white t-shirt and his black, fishnet work hat embossed with a rebel flag. I remember being very young and carefully helping him place a bumper sticker on his lime green, late 70’s beat up pick-up truck.
The sticker was a rebel flag with the words “Keep It Flyin”
I remember being in 4th grade and calling another little boy, an African American 5th grader, “nigger” because that is what he was in my world. A nigger.
This is my pedigree.
The school principal, who was also my baseball and basketball coach heard me say this and called me into his office.
“Why did you call him that?” he asked
“Because that is what he is,” I told him with out flinching.
“What do you think that means?” he asked.
“It is another word for a black,” I said (it is important to note that we did not call them “black people.” I think subconsciously that was a little too humanizing for us. Calling them “blacks” was more simple, more to the point and noted them for what they were, a color not a person.
My principal spent the next two weeks with me (in detention) talking with me about that word, what it means and what it does to people when they hear it. He spent 2 weeks, every day with me in his office talking, working through these ideas and helping me understand that words and symbols carry deep, impacting meaning and they should be handled with great care and respect.
He was my salvation.
He saved me from the depravity of racism, the ignorance of inequality and the suffocating quicksand of hatred.
Years later when I realized what I had done, how I had been raised to think and who I was going to be, my stomach sank.
Thursday morning I felt that sinking all over again. I felt it because I began to hear the voices of my childhood in the comment sections, the Facebook posts and in the justifying soliloquies of the defenders of what they call “heritage.” Outrage over the rebel flag began almost immediately as the state of South Carolina lowered all of its flags to half mast, all except the rebel flag. The racial fissure in our country’s bedrock began to pull apart again. People talked of heritage, history, southern pride. Posts were shared explaining in great detail how the civil war was not about slavery, “only 1/4 to 1/3 of southerners even owned slaves” cites one story.
I love how the word “only” is used to try subdue the gag reflex of the soul.
Contrary to what you might think, I am not here to argue with these historical claims. I really do not care what they “historically” may or may not have stood for. Are rebel flags appropriate? Sure, in movies, museums and history books that recount the civil war it make sense because it has context. Which is the problem we are facing today, context.
In graduate school I took this incredible class on the study of semiotics. Semiotics is a discipline that studies symbols, words and their adoptive and adaptive meanings. One of the primary principles of semiotics is that there is never a pure meaning that any symbol carries intrinsically. In other words, a symbol’s meaning is always being redefined, interpreted and evolving.
Take the swastika for example. It was a symbol that was very prevalent in eastern religions and even early Christianity. You can find it in unbelievable amounts of ancient art, pottery and architecture. It was benign and decorative.
That is the heritage and history of the swastika.
That is until it was adopted by the SS and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. It is a symbol and the definition of that symbol changed, and changed dramatically. It was assigned a new definition, a definition of hate and genocide.
Here is the problem with the “it’s not racist, it is a symbol of our heritage” argument. It makes assumptions about the static nature of symbols that are simply wrong.
The meaning of symbols are fluid, they are never static. When a majority of people understand the symbol to point to another definition then the definition of that symbol changes.
When KKK members adopted it as the symbol of their hate, it changed.
When it was waved proudly as a banner for segregationists, it changed.
When it became synonymous with burning crosses, white hoods and ropes thrown over magnolia trees looped around lifeless brown necks. It. Changed.
When a 21 year old young man from South Carolina writes a manifesto on his website proclaiming in horrifying detail his hatred for all minorities, posts pictures clutching in one hand the rebel flag and a gun in the other just before he goes out and kills 9 innocent people in a prayer meeting… it changed.
If you want to wear the “stars and bars” on a t-shirt or hat, be my guest.
If you want to fly it proudly on your lawn, go ahead.
If you want to make it a law that it has to fly on the lawn of your state capitol, feel free.
But know this…
When you do this you are throwing your lot in with racists, segregationists, white supremacists, neo-nazis, bigots and murderers. You will be counted, not among a group of people supposedly celebrating “heritage” but among those whose lips drip with the venom of hate.
You have free speech, that is true, but that speech is not without consequence. Consequences like what we saw a few days ago in Charleston.
Let me be clear the rebel flag did not cause that man to kill those 9 people meeting for prayer and worship. It is just the primary symbol of a sick and vile sub-culture that produces people like that man who killed those 9 people meeting for prayer and worship.
I know that culture; I am a refugee and dissenter from it and an organizer against it.
Make no mistake: it is not heritage it is hate.