I grew up in rural North Carolina, lived in Florida for six years, and have spent the last six years residing in sweet home Alabama. My relationship to the south, particularly the deep south (though North Carolina would be considered upper south), as a blackgirl is complicated. Despite my penchant for visits to large cities, cultural enclaves and urban landscapes, I have a thing for backyards, cookouts, porches under shade trees and sweet tea (real sweet tea). While I could do without the heavy humid heat, mosquito bites in summer, and those damn carpenter bees, the made from scratch biscuits, down home hospitality and my family make the south home for me. But there are things I don’t love. In particular, I don’t love the sickening feeling of fear and intimidation I feel every time I see a confederate flag (whether it be fastened to the back of a pick up truck waving while driving on the road, or donning a cigarette lighter, key chain or baseball cap at the cash register of the local store). I have always known what the images of the flag mean, or what they have meant to/for me. I am not welcome. I am not safe. I am not wanted.
I grew up understanding what the flag meant. It was displayed in films and documentaries where black folk were enslaved, lynched, tortured and disrespected (i.e., Eyes on the Prize, Mississippi Burning, Gone With the Wind), it was featured prominently on official looking buildings, front yards, car bumpers, mailboxes and license plates as decorations of declaration that my black body and life was unimportant, disposable, of no regard. I understood what the flag meant even when it didn’t have the words “white power,” or “white supremacy,” or “Southern Pride” embossed beneath it on a t-shirt that supposedly represents a “southern heritage” linked to the enslavement and wrongful death of my ancestors. I understood that the wearer, bearer or carrier of a confederate flag saw my black body as just another n-word, even if it wasn’t spoken, because it didn’t need to be spoken. A picture, or in this case a flag/emblem, was worth a thousand n-words. (For a historical analysis and personal testimonies about the flag, look here, and here, and here).
Much has been said and finally done about the racist innuendo embedded in the confederate flag, but it cost nine lives (Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson) for (white) folk in power to finally pay attention or give a damn that racist symbols inspire, if not encourage, racist acts. As of today, the governors of South Carolina and Alabama have called for the confederate flag to be removed from the capitol grounds, and major retailers have decided to remove confederate flag merchandise from their inventory. This is a heartening gesture, but it will not stop people from buying, selling, displaying and defending the confederate flag. In fact, sales have skyrocketed.
Perhaps I am a cynic, but my uncomplicated conditioning and my deep-down knowing about the ubiquity of racism remind me that the invisibility of a symbol is not the same as the absence of racist hate. I have had numerous interactions with white folk in nice suits, who would turn their nose up at a “redneck” racist, who share the same views but don’t literally wear it like an ornament around their neck. It’s 2015, it is not okay to wear your racism on your sleeve (or your t-shirt), but that doesn’t mean it is not still carried around. And that is what worries me. Deep-seated, hidden, structural, institutionalized racism is just as (if not more) dangerous as out in the open racism because we don’t always recognize it or see it coming.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Dylann Roof would have walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church a week ago today wearing the racist paraphernaliea he had posed in pictures with. Perhaps the church members would have known to be careful, known to be on their guard, known they were not safe. But, because of the benevolence of blackness (as has been described here, here and here), they may have invited him to participate in the service anyway.
It will take more than taking down a flag to take down the auspices of racism, that is attached not only to politics but to education, not only in families but in churches. We have to dismantle racism but “we must also dismantle and fight its co-conspirators: homophobia, transphobia, and sexism.”
In a moment when some faith seems to dictate that some black folk need to forgive (and forget) while some white folk stubbornly hold on to a flag and a revisionist version of history that condones their racism and insistence for white supremacy, we have a lot more to worry about than whether or not the rebel flag will live on. What we know for sure is that nine churchgoers who went to study the bible last week won’t.
Racial oppression doesn’t occur in a vacuum so it cannot be neatly or conveniently taken down (or away) without the residue, implications, consequences and permanent scars of its existence, and neither can the confederate flag.