I’ve never understood “The South.”
Born in Philadelphia, raised there and in Massachusetts (except for a tiny stint as a tiny infant in Florida where, legend has it, I was kissed by a campaigning Richard Nixon) I found myself landing in Virginia and marrying a girl from a little further south – a land where I first learned the term “The War of Northern Aggression” and was treated as the Yankee come down to date our Ruthie. Love conquers all.
But I never got the dedication of some of my southern stock to the Confederacy. And never believed the dodge that loyalty to Southern history involved dedication to states’ rights and resistance to federal power. “Heritage, not Hate” I heard then, and it is the current term of defense of the flying of the Confederate battle flag, inaccurately referred to now as the Stars and Bars but usually called by its first users – the Army of Virginia – the Southern Cross.
Fortunately my immediate family is above bigotry, but out just beyond the edges… Folks would work up to it, slip in a camouflaged reference to “them people” and “you know who” before graduating to the apparently careless but charged use of “nigger” and a sidelong but careful look to see how I took it. And I took it, to my shame. Didn’t speak out, didn’t make an issue of its use down there. I did when I was working as a police officer, chastising folks who used it when I was on calls for service, the overwhelming majority of its users black themselves. From self-hatred, cultural habit, social challenge? I didn’t know but behind the badge I had the power to make things work my way, at least for tiny moments.
But the users drew a distinction, defending, arguing and maybe truly believing themselves that” not all blacks were niggers,” that the word connoted some lawless and worthless subgroup and so was okay to use because it specified specific people, not a race as a whole. Not that racism was new to me, or limited to my newly-adopted capital-S Southern locale. I grew up taught that Philadelphia was the only major east coast city spared a major race riot in the 1960s because “any time more than three niggers got together on a corner, cops with sticks waded in and busted ‘em up.” For that reason, I never considered being a cop myself until I came to Alexandria and got to know officers personally, to see they weren’t infected that way. Racism may have been present, but it wasn’t a requirement. And, oddly, our uniforms were both blue and gray.
The first officer I rode along with taught me a lot, and continued to do so throughout his and my career. Rickie knew his stuff, and wouldn’t hesitate to tell you all he knew, not self- aggrandizement but to keep awake on a slow midnight shift. But Rickie had a Confederate flag license plate on his pickup, and I couldn’t figure out why. I thought it was funny, both funny-haha and funny-odd. I mean, they lost, right? Why align yourself with losers?
Country singer Charlie Daniels sang a song that went:
“Be proud you’re a rebel ‘cause the South’s gonna do it again!”
What, lose? That’s when I found out, these people are serious. They really believe “The South” is a thing to be loyal to. They construct elaborate historical rewrites to get around southern state’s secessionist declarations at the time that firmly laid out support of slavery as a reason to fight. (Re-Reconstruction? That’s a history joke. No?) We play along too, in little ways. We laugh at Bo and Luke Duke of Hazzard with the Southern Cross atop their orange Dodge Charger, itself called The General Lee. (Hmmm, maybe watching Daisy Duke is why I now drive a Jeep Wrangler, though Dasiy looks better in short shorts.)
But the Confederate flag was something I could ignore, slough off. It didn’t matter, other than a warning of approaching stupid people or entry into weird-town. Until a hate-filled kid killed nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina last week, his web identity proud under the same Southern Cross that I then learned flies above the capital grounds in South Carolina, just recently removed from atop the statehouse there. That made me sick.
I used to jokingly mangle Charlie Daniels’s words to illustrate my point about losers.
“Be proud you’re a Nazi, ‘cause the Krauts’re gonna do it again.”
Not funny, but what’s the difference? The Southern Cross signifies the legacy of hatred and dehumanization that allowed people to enslave, torture, sell other humans. It is argued that that they weren’t evil for their time, that society’s morals and mores allowed or supported it, that slaves were held by Northerners (thankfully not my family, traceable back only to our 1846 arrival in Philadelphia). No, the Confederate flag symbolizes hatred and death as much as the Nazi swastika does.
How about we of German descent decide to boast of our heritage, leaving out the hate? I mean, Adolph Hitler did imbue his people with renewed pride after the Treaty of Versailles ended the Great War and crushed German military and economic power. He did manage to expand his country’s boundaries, and we didn’t care much about Poland and the Sudetenland back in 1939.
Yeah, let me go to the DMV and see if that swastika license plate is available yet. Maybe that can replace the Confederate tags that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is recalling. How would that look? Hard to applaud restrictions on free speech but Germany currently outlaws display of the swastika flag, so hate groups there wave the Confederate banner instead.
I could wrap my arms around my Jewish friends and say, “No, don’t feel threatened or oppressed, you misunderstand, I am only showing my loyalty to a dead image of personal power and identity. It’s no threat to you I’m a loser!” Well, I can’t do that, because there aren’t public swastikas to wave or attach to our cars. But there are other hate symbols, and I don’t want to have to hug away the hate they convey.
Kudos to McAuliffe, and South Carolina Governor Niki Haley for calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol grounds. And darn her for doing it before I could get this blog written and so look good for calling for it first. I’ve lost two friends so far (well, “un-friended” on Facebook, is that the same?) over their recent sharings of images of the Southern Cross. I’ll probably unfriend more as this cultural crisis goes on, or be deleted myself because of the views shared here. So be it.
Heritage not Hate is horseshit.