Symbols matter, and so does removing them
Complicated. Ignorant. Entrenched. It’s easy to come up with words to describe the state of race relations in this country and especially in the South, but some come to mind more easily than others after what happened in Charleston last week. Dylann Storm Roof attended Bible study with black congregants of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and then summarily gunned down nine of those in the group.
And once again we in this country are forced to confront the ugly reality of racism, compelled to search for ways to turn tragedy into change.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is leading efforts to remove the Confederate flag — a particularly pernicious symbol of our ignominious racial history — from statehouse grounds. Her call for the flag’s removal comes with the support of most of the state’s leading politicians, signaling what at this point appears to be a sea change in attitudes.
One lawmaker said his Christian faith and its call for love and inclusiveness trumped his respect for tradition and history. Our attitude toward symbols — like the Confederate flag — don’t get to the heart of the matter, but symbols do matter.
Emanuel AME is itself a strong symbol of defiance to slavery and racism. In 1909, Booker T. Washington spoke there, as did Martin Luther King in 1962. The church has been burned because it served as a gathering place for African Americans.
As the child of parents from North and South Carolina who were born in the 1920s and 30s, I witnessed in my home how complicated racism is. My father was the son of a textile mill worker in a tiny South Carolina town, and my mom spent her pre-teen years doing farm work in eastern North Carolina. They both grew up when racism was the norm, when poorly educated white Southerners seldom rose above that kind of thinking.
And yet they both did. When I was 11, my brother and I brought a Confederate flag home from our tip to Six Flags Over Georgia. I think it was because it was the cheapest thing we could find, plus we were both going crazy about Southern music like the Allman Brothers and The Marshall Tucker Band. We hung it in our shared bedroom.
I remember my mother telling me that some people would think us racist for doing so, but she didn’t stop us. Until that time that aspect of what the flag stood for had not even occurred to me. I was too young to understand the intersection between Southern pride and racial tensions. A 100-and-something-year-old war long over was still causing problems? I didn’t get it.
This kind of innocence had a reckoning for me in junior high school. Ricky was a friend, in my homeroom, and also black. Six or seven of us were “kicking” paper footballs around at our desks one morning before the bell rang. I offhandedly said something to him that ended with the word “boy.” Again, I was ignorant to the connotation, but Ricky was not. He ran over to my desk, grabbed me by collar, mad as hell, and said his father told him to never let a white person call him “boy.” The other guys separated us, but I was shaken.
No googling answers back then, so I talked to both my parents about what had happened. They explained how denigrating the word “boy” was to blacks in the South, how it symbolized a long history of being treated like an inferior just because of the color of one’s skin, how young punk Southern white boys would use the word to talk to men twice, three times their own age. I went to the encyclopedias we had and did some research on civil rights, slavery and the Civil War, a history lesson that began to open my eyes to many things.
Racism remains a particularly pernicious evil and removing its symbols won’t erase the problem. But just as the Confederate flag is symbolic for so many, so the act of removing it is an equally symbolic act. It matters, and I hope it happens.