In the Shadow of the Flag – fivefifths
Long drives down Carolina state roads through dusty main streets straight out of the 1950s and miles and miles of tobacco fields. We would go from Charlotte to Elizabethtown, the tiny town of narrow roads and backyard pecan groves carved into the deep green woods of Bladen County. Me and Dad; I sat in the hot leather passenger seat with the giddiness of a kid finally old enough to graduate from the backseat -or, as in my case, had a very understanding father. A stop in Rockingham, a town I remember as not much more than gas stations and foul hog trucks
A man blocked our truck with his. Dad blew the horn and the little grey truck crept up slowly so I could see clearly the license plate. A symbol—a blue X on a red field with stars; the battle flag of the old confederacy. The Rebel Banner. The man, a little man about as dark from the sun as my own brown skin, with angry eyes. An argument. A threat to get his boys from inside the store and kill me and my father. My father’s hand creeping toward the glove compartment. Him waiting 30 minutes to the next gas station to show me the bareness of it. A map of the Outer Banks.
Like any Black kid throughout the South, my childhood was defined in part by the gargantuan space taken up by the Confederate flag and the ghost of the Confederacy. For many of us, there’s that sinking feeling when we see bumper stickers or shirts. The wariness when two or more people with the emblem get together. For me there was the cognitive dissonance of being friendly classmates and group partners with boys who wore the flag on their shirts. There’s murals and state flags and university mascots and magnets and everyday grocery products. It is the biggest brand in rural Southern America.
It is also one that indicates a profound unsafeness for many Black folks. I’m still an avid adherent to the “flag test,” where I judge the potential safety of gas stations on long country roads first by the presence of any other Black people and then by the presence of rebel flags. Many places from Virginia through and to Texas are not safe. My life of driving has been building my own mental Green Book, of places where I can go and not feel the burning heat of hatred. Of course, there are often hiccups. As in my dad’s case, sometimes you have a kid who drank a large Coke and just can’t hold it anymore. And then you have to make decisions.
Regardless of your reading of the origin of the flag or the Confederacy, ignoring the strong context in which the flag and Confederate iconography and rhetoric have been used is an act of willful self-delusion. In the space after the turn of the 20th century, when violence against Blacks in the South had become formalized as policy and the second incarnation of the Klan burned crosses across the South, the Confederate Flag became a talisman of hatred. It presided over hundreds of lynchings, of cars full of burned activists, of bombed churches and beaten and broken protesters. It waved proudly by the South Carolina capitol when Dylann Roof assassinated a state senator and murdered eight others in cold blood at Mother Emanuel. And it waved proudly at full mast, even as the other flags were lowered. The symbolism is almost too rich to be believable.
Black folks in the South are born under, grow up under, and die under the shadow of that flag. As much as it represents some largely imaginary heritage of gentile whiteness, it also represents our heritage, a heritage of lynchings and Jim Crow and beatings and poll intimidation and death sentences and mass migrations. As equal claimants to the legacy of the South, we want it gone. Burn it.