The rebel flag for many white Southerners is a symbol of the old South, i.e. the one before strip malls, Honey BooBoo and I-95.
To Southern African Americans, the flag represents something else entirely, but it always means exclusion.
Herein lies a major misconception of the flag – geography matters. If I see a rebel flag planted in someone’s yard in the north, my reaction is that a “white supremacist” lives there. However, in the South the same flag usually means that the owners’ family has been in this country a very long time.
Unfortunately, racism is alive and well in this country and in every country. As an Anglo-Saxon male brought up in the South, (and like all other males of majorities worldwide), racism is something I notice only if the media brings it to my attention. What you won’t see in the media is how African Americans are constantly aware of other races react to them.
I have a friend; a huge bear of a man, and the most kind and gentle person you could ever hope to meet. He is also an enigma to me. He is one of those people who only lets others see a little of himself at a time, possibly because if he opened himself up all at once it could blind a person. This man is an African American, 6-4, and 250 pounds if he’s an ounce.
After college, he had a leadership role in a major corporation. One day his Italian-American secretary walks in his office and tells him she must resign. “Why”, he asked. “Because,” She said, “My father thinks you will rape me.”
His story hit my chest like a sledge hammer. I asked him if he had ever told this story before, he said “no”, and that there was never a moment in his life where he is not made aware of his race. Throughout his life he has had the empathy to work around the small-minded people so that his skin color does not inspire dread. I don’t know what it means to be black, but I when I recall his story I can catch a glimpse of it. I hope you can too.
Americans cannot change how other countries feel about race. But let me offer this up to you: as an American you have an obligation to think differently and you have an obligation to contribute to this country. There is no ethnic group more American than African Americans. More than 80% of African Americans can trace their lineage to before 1808 when the last slave ship left Africa for the US. Since then this group has made countless contributions in medicine, science, the arts, and fought and died in every war from 1812 to the current day. In fact, the dialects of West Africa was the last major linguistic contributor to American English. Fortunately for this group of Americans, they are easy to recognize. If your ancestry is European, Asian or Latin, your family may have not been in America long enough to make substantial contributions to this country. If you are African American, your family most definitely has.
In my long ex-communication to the New York Metro area from the South, I have frequently been the lightning rod for complaints about America from other nationalities. One of the most frequent gripes is that we meddle in the affairs of others. Southerners would agree. The flag is a shown as defiance of outside opinion. The media, which is all concentrated in the New York Metroplex, and where my story took place, is not a catalyst for change, they are encouraging resistance to it.
The rebel flag became popular in the South after the Brown v. the Board of Education (1954), in which the Supreme Court declared that segregation was a violation of the Constitution. To Southerners, showing the flag was symbol of defiance to Federal authority, unfortunately without regard to how the African American community saw it. As an Ole Miss graduate, I understand symbols. When I was a student, rebel flags were given out at football games. The mascot was “Colonel Rebel”. For me it was an incredible spectacle wrapped in SEC football and tradition. I realized later that the symbols had to go for the greater good, but this was a decision the school made. It was not mandated by the government or outside pressure as integration of Ole Miss was by JFK in 1963. By the way, another black friend of mine from Hyannis Port alerted me to the fact that Boston public schools were still segregated until the busing riots of 1974. Sorry, I’m fibbing: there are no blacks in Hyannis Port.
I believe the rebel flag will come down because Southerners understand they have a rich culture without the flag, and the flag represents exclusion to that culture. For all Americans my hope is that when you see an African American, and must think anything different, that you think of the contribution that generations of his family made to this country.
Tim Heaton is a HottyToddy.com contributor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book, “Bless Your Heart, You Freakin’ Idiot: Southern Sayings Translated” is available on Amazon as well as “Momma n’ Em Said: The Treasury of Southern Sayings.”