The confederate flag a few weeks ago, much like homophobia a few years ago, has fallen out of favor with a broader American public that practically never interacts with the subject at hand. In an awkward, “oh, that’s what we’re supposed to do now?” moment, people, politicians, and TV talk show hosts have jumped on board the train to get rid of the confederate flag in Southern states.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a confederate flag in person. I didn’t even know some Southern governments were allowed to fly the flag. But if it’s important to my friends of color, then I can jump on the train. I will never experience what they experience regarding that flag, so I submit to their expertise and preferences.
It’s not that I’m a particular fan of the confederate flag. My students and I go through what it means each year and I tell them, “Those of you who can’t pass as white should be careful if you see this flag somewhere.” You are a foreign, violent object to many people. They may not like you there. I leave unsaid the things that could happen but we’ve already talked about Emmitt Till and when their fascination with his swollen, disfigured face wears off, a few of them drop their heads and think of their own streets and grieve. They recognize that Emmitt is not a spectacle but a commonality, a pattern. Just one media-baptized dot on the number line.
Sometimes I wish I could give a class to white women about walking alone on streets. “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them,” I’d say. Like we talk about snakes and spiders, we can explain the inherent terror of racism.
I have traveled abroad. I know the protection white American skin can give; it’s practically bullet proof when anyone of a different race or class is carrying the gun. There are exceptions of course, but privilege of language and nationality and race are real as air. White people like ghosts: scary as hell. Racism is hellish, and it haunts us all. That’s what oppression does– it seeps invisibly through the walls and is always unwelcome and both expected by memory and unexpected in the moment.
It makes the oppressors into environmental factors, a sort of natural disaster crashing down on the oppressed. We either play a storm or a survivor– but every one of us loses our humanity in the system.
I wonder when white people tell me they are afraid in certain neighborhoods or of certain people: if the imagination is such a powerful force for evil, can it be harnessed for good? Then I think of Othello, whose imagination was strong enough to murder innocence itself, and the imagination seems like an unruly, dangerous thing. I don’t know if we are ready to play with imaginations. We may accidentally burn something down in the process.
And this week, enough has been burned down.
We all want a cause to get behind, a battle to fight. When tragedy hits, whether it’s Michael Brown or Sandy Hook or Charleston, there must be something to do. Grieving is harder than action, and protesting is easier than problem solving. Unless the action is to grieve and the solution is to protest? When so much is wrong, I’m not really sure what is right. Jon Stewart’s utter despair at the news of Charleston nonetheless gave way to a side comment that the racist gunman did his work on streets named after racists with the confederate flag flying high over the state capitol. We’ve grabbed on to his side comment as our banner cause, desperate for redemption.
There is a collective frustration. Why is this still a thing? Why are we still stuck here when we should be fighting other fights? And I think of when I was in India last summer and my friend explained that one of India’s biggest struggles is balancing the ideas of people in cosmopolitan, metropolitan areas with their less educated, less well-off, countryside counterparts. And then I worry because I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation about politics with a Republican, much less with the average poor rural white American, and I wonder if there are sound barriers I cannot see all around me and if I, too, am living in a bubble.
The flag is an important symbol and Obama’s moral accountability call for its removal is on point. I only worry that it is becoming a diversion, a misdirection, a settling, a channeling of our frustration not just at Dylan Roof but at each other and ourselves, that we are still here and we can’t seem to get anything done but maybe we could just get this one thing done. Just one good thing.
Are our standards for redemption so low?
It’s so easy to dismiss racism as someone else’s problem. Of course this would happen in the south, they are racist there. Of course this would happen, they still fly the confederate flag there. What is wrong with those southerners? What is wrong with those republicans? What is wrong with those conservatives? What is wrong with them, them them?
But I have a friend who says Maine is one of the hardest places she ever lived, because of racism. Eric Garner was in New York, and I teach in a Title I school in Boston. I have a friend who can speak to racism in Iowa, another friend who can speak to racism in Illinois, and friends who can speak to racism in California and Chicago. I know Florida personally, we all watched the aftermath of Katrina, and we didn’t need Donald Trump to tell us that there are problems near our Southwest borders. It’s everywhere. It’s metastasized.
That my concern with the flag. Bree Newsome can’t be our only heroine. The confederate flag can’t be the only thing we take down.
Fighting racism is becoming like a game of laser tag. We point at each other, shoot, fire, and score… but then everything resets and we keep playing and nothing changes. Or maybe we just aren’t looking for the changes? Does confirmation bias work even when we are looking for injustice?
Despair seems as wretched an enemy as racism some days.
Sometimes I think about wars. In wars, people lose their lives for a cause. Those who die are heroes who have gone down fighting. There was an era of patriotism– around the time of WWII for example– when people fought for their countries, and for morality. It is simple when you have a villain to take down, good guys and bad guys, and lives to save, even if the narratives are a bit questionable in retrospect.
But like our postmodern morals, our postmodern wars are more complicated. Battles don’t always look like battles, soldiers don’t always mean to be soldiers, and good guys and bad guys are often the same guys.
So many lives have been lost, and each time we rally together, because we want our children and fathers and brothers and sisters to have died for a cause and not in vain. We want them to be worth something. We want the monuments of their lives to be new laws that leave legacies for generations to come. Police cameras, police brutality accountability, a better criminal justice system.
We wage our funerals as fights in the streets and on facebook walls and iPhone screens and we repeat the names like a new Black National Anthem. Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin…, are you singing? Are you remembering?
But there are too many names to remember. The lyrics are too complicated. Is anyone singing with us?
And a mixture of grief and fury and despair bleeds out underneath our words, written in the lines on our shaking hands and shaking heads.
Hope is hard. We fight small fights so we don’t lose it.
My job as a schoolteacher is to create community, to build culture. Every September I carefully set up the classroom. I arrange desks, decorate with posters, buy materials. What are the rules? What quotes and images will I put up? Who will sit together? What will I encourage? How will I introduce us to each other? What will I demand from my students and how will I get them to rise to the occasion?
And when I think about this I wonder if the way we decorate our cities and our halls of state maybe does say more about who we are and what we believe than we like to admit. Maybe it does shape our hearts, and maybe at the end of the day, our hearts direct our actions. Maybe we must demand from each other something better than we have.
Kirsten Gillibrand likes to say that politicians are “out of touch.” Maybe we all are out of touch.
Maybe if the walls of the Capitol building were lined with photographs of kitchen tables and classrooms across America, different decisions would be made. Maybe if Black Lives Matter flags flew from windows all across suburbia, they would indeed start to matter. Maybe if we protected and rebuilt each others’ houses of worship we’d have someone to pray to about all this. Maybe if the criminal justice system never became old news, if stories and narratives and footage of families and humans being wrecked by the mess gruesomely lined our streets, we might do something more urgently.
As if we were in a war. We just need a press desk to shell out the stories.
Bree Newsome is a hero, and the police officer in Jacksonville who decided not to shoot a black man when protocol allowed it might be one too, and I think there are more. I’ve decided not to limit the label.
Like soldiers, everyone fighting for good can be a hero. Heroes coming out of the woodwork. The hero next door. It’s just a word. If it works, I’ll take it. I’ll give it.
It was just a flag.
It was more than a flag.
So we watch Bree Newsome’s civil disobedience, an act of moral courage to refill hope. The poet in me screams Yes!
But the pragmatist in me screams Wait! You’re not asking for enough!
I worry. I wait. There’s so much more we need to take down.
I keep my mouth shut.