The Flag

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I can’t write about Oxford, or even Mississippi, without talking about the flag. You know. That one.

Back in the winter, I found myself in the mountains of North Carolina, and near Morganton, on the edge of Interstate 40, I saw a giant 20×30 Confederate battle flag flapping furiously in the wind. As one who grew up in the Southland, a straight cisgender child of the white working poor, that flag has held many images and emotions for me over the years.

My earliest memories are of it being in the state of Mississippi flag – the flag that hung in my school classroom, the flag that hung at the city hall that also housed the library in my small town, the flag that meant home.

It was the large emblem on top of The General Lee, the car that was the real star in the Dukes of Hazard, my favorite show as a child. As a poor white child with an accent, seeing other poor white people with accents who routinely outsmarted the Powers that tried to hold us down was life-giving to me. I did not notice how white their world was on that show, and how little that lined up with my life in a county that was mostly Black.

That flag was most often used as a visible placeholder for The South – almost like it was our logo – and we were proud of it, the way Red Sox fans are proud of that pair of socks on their merch.

I was taught both implicitly and explicitly that the US had two teams, and our team was Southern, and this was our logo, our symbol. I think that is what the “Heritage, Not Hate” people are getting at. It was an easy visual placeholder for all the feelings that go into being Southern – or at least a certain kind of Southern, from a certain race, from a certain socio-economic class.

I grew up 50 miles from the University of Mississippi, where most of the educated people in my life had matriculated. They all loved Ole Miss football, and had the battle flag – the Rebel flag, we called it – on all their flag poles, their team merch, their ball caps, and their license plates because the battle flag WAS the team logo, their mascot at the time was a literal Confederate Colonel and they were (and are) the Ole Miss Rebels.

Pride of team and pride of region got conflated for me and people like me. Most of the respectable people – our bankers, ministers, lawyers – all were Ole Miss people, and they all waved the battle flag, hung it outside their offices, put it on the business cards, even. It was hard to not see it as a sign of respectability and something to aspire to be a part of.

As a Marine, I had a poster of the battle flag taped inside my wall locker in the barracks, a reminder of home when I was far away from home, in a land where people did not sound like me, or think like me, or eat like me. The feelings I had anchored to that visual cue were as real as the memories that waft back when I smell catfish frying.

The people who look like me and had my childhood – I get where they come from with their “Heritage Not Hate” comments. People like me – white children of the working class, born into families with few advantages, who knew the struggles of a Dollar General Christmas and the humiliations of government commodity cheese – had nothing to be proud of. But we were of this region, this marvelous place, where the flowers bloom year-round and the fish practically jump in your boat and the biscuits rise with hope every morning and the sweet tea is strong enough your back teeth hurt.

If our ancestors had failed to get rich here they had, against desperate odds, survived and left their mark on the future. And this logo, this flag, was our reminder of that fact. We existed. We mattered. We were here, by God, and you would notice us.

As a student, I would get engrossed in the history of the Civil War. I would walk the sacred ground at Shiloh, where nearly 4,000 people died in less than 48 hours. I would visit the quarters of enslaved people in old plantations. I would read slave narratives and learn of the horrors of slavery. I had always been taught that war was over the rights of states to determine their destinies, but I would learn that wars tended to be fought over money when all is said and done and that this one was no different. Those 4000 folks died at Shiloh because of what that flag represented – the right of white people to own, breed, and sell Black people.

And I do believe that for many of us, people like me, race played little conscious part in our displaying of that flag. In the same way that huge numbers of fans of the Atlanta Braves proudly wore a mascot that mocked and appropriated Native cultures with no conscious thought of native cultures, we were blissfully ignorant of the impact our actions carried. We knew the past but were caught up in the present.

As a child in Mississippi, I was surrounded by Black bodies, but I was an adult before I began to develop true relationships of mutuality and love with people who had Black skin and was trusted with their stories. I learned they had very different images attached to the memory of the battle flag – that they saw it the way a Jew viewed a swastika, say, and not the symbol of regional pride it was for someone like me.

That flag belongs in a history book – the same way we put other failed ideas and images in the history books so we remember to not do them again. The same way people tour memorials at Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, to remind us of the horrors we are capable of.

I felt all of that and much more that morning as I drove west on Interstate 40. I thought how sad it was that a person could erect a symbol they knew would distress their neighbors. I thought about how shallow their lives must be that the only outward symbol of the regional pride they felt was one they knew would cause at best anger and at worst fear.

And, I must say, I felt tremendous pride that I got to play a small part in getting that emblem removed from Mississippi’s state flag through the organizing work I do in faith communities here. If I live to be a thousand, the day they took it down from the Capitol here in Jackson for the last time will always be one of my proudest days.

Whatever complicated stories exist in the backstory of people like me, these days the battle flag symbolizes not a region or a sports team but white supremacy and domestic terrorism. It is a symbol of terror, and it belongs in a museum, where it can be explained in its context, alongside other failed ideas we have tried and found wanting.

Being Southern

On the 11th day, I’m grateful to be from the South.

I am a child of the Southland. I love it here, and I grew up here, in a childhood filled with honeysuckle, sweet tea, fishing, lightning bugs and church potlucks.

The earliest memories I have involve table fellowship with other folks, of lessons drummed into my head about hospitality and being told to “remember who I was”. I have vivid memories of elderly, blue haired ladies telling me they knew my grandma (who died when I was very young) and my daddy and that they knew I had been “raised right”.

In the South I grew up in, I was taught we had to take care of each other, because none of us had much. So my Daddy would miss supper sometimes, because after working more than 10 hours that day crawling under houses in a shirt with his name on it for barely over minimum wage, he would go straight to the volunteer fire department to get trained on some new piece of firefighting equipment. Because of this, I learned that love – for a place or a person – can’t be divorced from responsibility.

I learned that the things that make for a good life involve other people – the people who bring you a casserole when you are sick, the rounds you make at Christmas, as you take tins of fudge to old ladies who would wipe the snuff off their mouth and say with amazement, “I’ll swan…” as they bit into that creamy goodness. The neighbor who knows your daddy is sick, and comes down and cuts the grass and stacks the firewood for your family.

My grandmother’s sister Louise – my great-aunt — was a fierce lady. Born in 1907, she had been divorced in the 1930’s, when that was rare. She told me her first husband was a drunk, and “damned if I was gonna do all the work and watch him drink”. She told me that she might go to hell for it, but she had been in hell for the years she had been married to him, so she knew how to live there. She refused to take the Lord’s Supper at church, because “I am lots of things, Hugh, but none of those things is a hypocrite.”

In a small brick church that had my granddaddy’s name on the cornerstone, I learned about Jesus, who told us to love each other, and who had long hair, but that was OK, because he was God and, most important, he didn’t live in my daddy’s house. God was the Father, and demanded obedience – which made sense to me, as my own father demanded obedience. I figured Jesus had been told, ‘Because I said so!” any number of times as a kid.

But more than theology, in that small church I learned about community, about being a part of some people who would cut the articles about you out of the local paper when you won the spelling bee and put them on their refrigerator and pray for you every night. About casseroles when you’re sick, about not noticing Mr. Hayes sang off-key, about celebrating small victories and going to every funeral.

I learned other things too. I learned that we were poor, but proud, and that we were expected to work hard, but that didn’t mean we had to like it. But I also learned that some people would look at your Black friend’s hard work and tell you he was “a credit to his race”. And that would confuse you, but not as much as trying to understand why he wasn’t allowed to spend the night at your house.

As I grew older, I learned that complicated lesson that the very people who taught me to love can be, themselves, unloving to others. That the people who taught me to be hospitable can themselves be inhospitable. It means coming to terms with the knowledge that the people who loved me into being are flawed, and fall short often of the ideals they gave me.

Being a child of the Southland means feeling things fiercely, and so I learned that you stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves, and I learned that I had responsibilities to my community. That I learned to draw the circle of community larger than my people did is not my fault but theirs, and was somewhat inevitable: After all, they are the ones who taught me that “red and yellow, black and white – they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

They taught me that, and I believed them.

Being in and of the South while being a progressive white straight male means your liberal educated friends from North of here will watch how your state votes and will call your friends and family things like “inbred” and ‘hillbillies” and “white trash” and ask you how you stay there.

And sometimes, when you have the energy and the notion, you tell them those people are some of the kindest, best people you know, but folks in power have made them afraid in order to maintain power. That your people have been played and told that their diminishing paychecks and their insecurity and their inability to keep the land their granddaddy farmed and got 49 harvests from – that all of that is the fault not of the people who are in power, but of people who have black and brown skin and less power than even they do. And your people believe it, because scared people will believe anything that will make them less scared.

And sometimes, when you have the energy and the notion, you tell your friends from elsewhere that you stay because you love it here, and that you are not just from here but of here, and your roots run deep here, and one day you will be buried here amongst your ancestors. And that for them to ask why you don’t leave means that you are supposed to believe that there is a separation between the values you learned as a child and the values you have now, when the reality is, the person you are now is just the person you were taught to be then, only writ larger.

And for them to suggest you leave is to suggest that you cannot be the person who longs for table fellowship and church meetings and the smell of cape jasmine and the delight of sweet tea and cornbread and also be the person who fights for justice for your community and who yearns for the day we can all sit at the same table and eat cornbread and sweet tea together.

And that is not true.

Because the truth isn’t that I can be all of who I am and also be Southern – it’s that I am all of who I am because I am Southern. And to suggest I move and give up on this place and these people is to suggest I deny all of that, and that I deny them. And that I cannot do. I will not do.

Because I am lots of things – but none of those things is a hypocrite.