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'It's Like Having A Crazy Family Member': On Southern Black Folks And The Rebel Flag

A Confederate flag is reflected in the window of a gift shop that sells them in Seligman, Ariz.
Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images
A Confederate flag is reflected in the window of a gift shop that sells them in Seligman, Ariz.

A few months ago, my girlfriend and I were driving south on Interstate 95 from D.C. to Richmond, Va., where we had tickets for a comedy show. On an otherwise nondescript stretch of highway not long into the drive, we were startled by the sight of an enormous Confederate flag billowing over the trees. It's hard to convey how huge this flag was; its bigness seemed to imply a middle finger.

We both reflexively broke out some blue exclamations, looking at each other like, "Is this for real?"

"Yo, welcome to the South," my girlfriend said. We kept driving, wondering just where the hell we were headed. I mean, I knew Virginia was the South, but here we were, less than an hour outside of the nation's capital and being stared down by a 100-foot-high, 30-foot-long rebel flag.

There were a few more brushes with the Old South when we got to Richmond, which served as the capital of the Confederate States of America during the four brief, bloody years of their existence. A wrong turn deposited us under a towering memorial for Confederate war dead. A massive statue of Robert E. Lee stood sentry over Monument Avenue, a wide, tree-lined boulevard full of beautiful historic mansions and churches. And of course, there were the flags — on the license plates and the bumper stickers and store windows.

We laughed when we saw the regular old Stars and Stripes on a quiet street hanging above someone's door: "Are they even allowed to fly that here?"

I'm from Philadelphia, and my partner is from San Francisco. We're both people of color, as is the comedian we'd come to Richmond to see, Hannibal Buress, who grew up in Chicago and was clearly also feeling some type of way about it when he took the stage that night. "I like Richmond; it's a beautiful city," he said, to scattered whoops from the hometown audience. He paused a beat. "But I don't know. This seems like a place that really liked the way things used to be."

When I recently recounted this story to two good friends, both of them black and Southern, they clearly thought we were all being a little precious about the flag. Joel grew up in Texas and has lived and worked all over the South as a reporter. Terryn grew up and went to college in Virginia, and, like a whole lot of other black folks our age, she recently moved back to the South.

"First of all, that's not even scary if you grew up in Virginia," Terryn said.

Joel explained that in the South, there's a taxonomy for thinking about the flag. "If you see it on the bed of, like, some pickup truck, then it doesn't shake me," he said. "But if they do it to show you, 'Yo, this is who we roll with'..." He shared a recent example of the latter variety from his own reporting: He'd learned that when Ben Carson, the black Republican presidential candidate, moved into a new home in Maryland, some nearby residents put up the Confederate battle flag on their own property. The message was hard to miss.

I've been thinking about that exchange ever since the deadly massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. In a widely circulated photo, Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist, was seen waving a small Confederate flag. It's unleashed, predictably, one of our nation's perennial awkward reconsiderations of the Confederate flag's place in public life. This week, GOP presidential aspirants stumbled through tortured nonanswers about their positions on the flag. South Carolina's governor pledged to debate removing the flag from the state's Capitol building. Other states and cities around the country went ahead and did it. Several major retailers pledged to remove merchandise bearing the flag from their stores.

For a lot of non-Southerners, the flag removals have inspired a lot of eye-rolling — what the hell took so long? But when I went to Twitter earlier this week to take people's temperature on all this, I was surprised at the spectrum of black Southerners' sentiments. It wasn't that they thought the flag was kosher — no one was arguing to keep it — but they didn't seem to think its presence was all that remarkable, either. To be sure, a few folks told me they steered clear of places that displayed the flag, that they found it extremely painful, that they were involved in efforts to remove it from their schools and community centers.

But a lot of others were pretty much where Joel and Terryn were, giving the flag side-eye but not much else. In fact, a few people expressed a sort of begrudging, complicated appreciation for the clear signal sent by bearers of the flag. Basically, that it lets you know where someone stands. "My relationship with the Confederate flag has always been twofold," says @phontigallo. "I see it as a symbol of bigotry, but I also respect the honesty." "It wasn't particularly distressing so much as it was (still is) a reminder of who not to associate with," says @snarkyspice.

Others said that while they didn't love the flag, they also bristled at Northerners' opinions on how they should feel about it. "I say this delicately," says @K_T_Reader. "When I see activists not from the South come and advocate for black Southern interests, it gets my back up a little. How much do they know about the day-to-day lived experience of black people (not a monolith either) in the South? And how much are they imposing based on notions they have?"

Interestingly, several black Southerners told me that it's seeing the Confederate flag outside of the South that gives them a chill. "Growing up in Georgia, I saw the rebel flag all the time," @DriXander told me. "Neighbors, folks at school, cars, whatnot. I took note, but it didn't phase me the way that a Confederate flag I saw in northern Minnesota did."

For others, the omnipresence of the flag across the South has a way of sapping its menace. @naima told me she grew up in Greenville, S.C. Her high school was named after a Confederate general; the school's mascot was one, too. She went to the University of South Carolina back when the flag was still flying atop the state Capitol, as opposed to the grounds as it does now. On campus, lots of fellow students hung the flag in their rooms, out their windows, from their trucks, and so on. "It was ubiquitous," she said. "It annoyed me, but didn't threaten me, because it had always been there."

As a Northerner, this was especially hard to wrap my head around. If anyone had displayed a Confederate battle flag at my college on Long Island, N.Y, it would have touched off a huge campus controversy. For Naima, above, that's just Tuesday.

I always figured black folks in the South would be especially incensed by the presence of the flag and the casual, ongoing veneration of the Confederacy. I know I'm not the only one. My friend Latoya, who's from D.C., told me about the time she visited South Carolina with her father, whose family lives in the South and had spent a lot of time below the Mason-Dixon. He wanted to be sure and pick up a bottle of a well-known local barbecue sauce — one whose label sported the Confederate flag. Latoya was livid at her dad, but he didn't really see the big deal. "My father thought it was ridiculous for me to hesitate," she told me. "He was basically saying, "Let white folks have their thing.'" She was angry at him for not being angry. He just wanted his sauce.

For those of us not born and bred below the Mason-Dixon, it can be really jarring to encounter symbols of the Old South sprinkled all over the place, as though by a casual hand. But given the ubiquity of these symbols, it makes sense that you'd kind of have to let them fade into the background, or you might never leave your house. Jon Stewart touched on this last week after the Charleston shooting:

In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That's insanity. That's racial wallpaper.

Nine of the 10 blackest states are in the South; a whole lot of black folks have had to learn to live with the background radiation of Lost Cause sentiment. Thanks to the vagaries of population shift and segregation, this has ended up manifesting in some pretty odd ways. The two largest public high schools in Montgomery, Ala., a city that proudly proclaims its status as the original capital of the Confederate States of America, are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High — schools that today are 90 percent black. I have no idea what the students at those schools think about those names, if they think about them at all. But it's probably safe to say that it's not simple; our relationship to the institutions and cultures we belong to is always about more than just their names and signage.

Having all these conversations, I was reminded of a moment from last year, when I was sitting in a barber's chair in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and we were having a pretty frank conversation about racial segregation in the city's public schools. As we were talking, I noticed that the shop was adorned with the University of Alabama's paraphernalia — the same big "A" that you could find adorning buildings all around the city. This is the campus where Gov. George Wallace infamously took his "stand in the schoolhouse door" to prevent black students from enrolling after the university was integrated by force in 1963. For a lot of outsiders, that's the extent of what they'll ever know of big schools in the Deep South. The barber was a dude who both deeply felt the segregation in his city and was still clearly proud that the Crimson Tide had won three national football championships in the last six years.

Everyone deserves to have local pride; it's just that for a lot of black people in the South, getting to do that means having to swim in the racial messiness that comes with civic life there. The cultures of Southern black folks and Southern white folks have always been defined by a peculiar, complicated familiarity. That might explain why so many black folks have — by necessity — come to look on displays of the Confederate flag with something subtler than apoplexy, why Naima just rolled her eyes at the flags on her campus and moved on. Like a lot of black Southerners, she clearly had a lot more practice holding all of these ideas in her head at once than we Northerners do. The flag matters to her. Of course it matters. It's just not the only thing that matters.

"It's like having a crazy family member," one Virginian told me on Twitter. "You just shrug and say, "That's just how they are.'"

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.