I parked across from an old white guy in a pickup truck at Home Depot today. His front license plate was a Confederate flag. I judged. Hard.
As I put my car into park, I sat there scowling at him for a few seconds. The old man stared back. I suppose he knew why I was looking at him, and probably wondered why I might be upset. I was white, after all. What’s the problem? Unless … I’m one of those tree-hugging liberal Yankees.
And then it dawned on me that he might not even realize what that symbol he so proudly displayed on his truck meant to others. We all live in our own little bubbles, after all. Whether we admit it or not.
I am not a tree hugging liberal Yankee, I’m a Southern man from the sticks of north Florida. Rebel country. Where the N-word was part of the lexicon among whites. Even by family. Ironically, in my early years I lived in a mostly black neighborhood. My friends were black. We knew we were different, we just didn’t care.
Then, on some weekends, I’d be ferried to the center of the state where people did care. That’s when I first learned about the Confederate symbol. I was told that it meant “Never giving in to the powers of the North. At any cost.” Even then—a hundred years after the Civil War. There wasn’t much talk of it being a symbol of slavery. Even though we all knew that slavery was an important factor to the war. But hey, the cheaper the labor the higher the profit, right? (The Machine has been around in America for a while.)
No, I didn’t walk around in a Confederate flag tee shirt, but to me the symbol was definitely a source of pride. It meant Rebel. And being a Rebel was good. Luke Skywalker was a Rebel. Jesus too. And Lynyrd Skynyrd were local heroes. “Never give in to the powers of the North. At any cost.” Yeah, screw the Yankees!
While stationed at Myrtle Beach AFB, I made some friends from up north who, whenever we’d see the Confederate flag, would become disgusted. Especially my black friends. That’s when I realized that there was something more sinister in play. To many people, the symbol had nothing to do with being a Rebel, and more with being a racist. That’s when I began disassociating with the symbol. I wasn’t a racist, after all. Hell, because of where I lived when I was young, I was always ashamed of the idea of slavery. (“It wasn’t really slavery, Jimmy. It was just business.”)
After the Air Force, I moved up north and realized that the people there were not the heathens I always thought they were. In fact, the people in New York City helped save my life. Me, a drunk, ignorant, manipulative hick from the south. Yankees set me straight. So much for my Rebel card.
Years later, I finally attended college where I learned about oppression, slavery, man’s inhumanity to man, civil rights, and all that other liberal nonsense. I also learned how sheltered I was growing up.
Today, whenever I see the Confederate flag it feels like a punch in the stomach. Of COURSE it’s a symbol of oppression. Of COURSE it’s offensive to people. Of COURSE the people who proudly wave it are ignorant. And maybe, just maybe, the man in the truck across from me was just a victim of his own ignorance. Maybe he was still fighting the Civil War. “Never give in to the powers of the North. At any cost.”
Or, maybe he really does believe that his race is superior to others?
Either way, it’s still ignorance. And sadly, for too many of my Southern kin, ignorance is bliss.
Jim Mitchem (front row below)