The Confederate Flag, the History of the South, and the Testimony of our Sisters and Brothers

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A few weeks before the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney was killed at Emmanuel AME Church, he spoke on the floor of the South Carolina Senate about Walter Scott. As he spoke of Walter Scott and the video evidence of his slaying, he likened the nation to Thomas, who said he would not believe in the risen Christ until he had seen for himself. Senator Pinckney said that many could not believe that a police officer would shoot someone in the back six, seven, or eight times. But many saw the video. They believed what their brother had already said when they saw for themselves the brutality and pain that they could not believe.

I have thought of Senator Pinckney’s words since the terrorist attack on Emmanuel AME Church, but instead of the account of Thomas in the Gospel of John, who came to believe after seeing what his sisters and brothers were telling him, I have thought about a different post-resurrection account in the Gospel of Mark: “Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen” (Mark 16:14). I feel sad because it feels as if many are seeing and hearing the testimony of their sisters and brothers of color, but yet they refuse to believe. The hardest part for me when it comes to racism in America is this: My sisters and brothers won’t believe me when I tell them my own experience of racism in this country. They refuse to believe my brown, black, and Native American brothers and sisters, too. There is a dogged refusal in many parts of our country and in our church in this nation to listen and believe the testimony of our sisters and brothers when it comes to the reality of their lives, especially when it relates to the pain and effects of racism.

My white sisters and brothers, when I say that the confederate flag is a source of pain for me, immediately responding by diminishing my experience or any of my sisters and brothers of color and telling us it is about “Heritage, not Hate” does not solve the problem because oftentimes, Southern heritage and history is just as painful as the flag which is said to represent it. I love Alabama. I love the beautiful state of Tennessee. I am a Korean-American who was raised in the wonderful South. But it is important for me to tell you that being here is sometimes problematic.

For example, I am an Episcopal Seminarian who is studying to become a priest at The School of Theology at the University of the South. It is an amazing place and a wonderful institution, full of people I feel blessed to know. But as with many institutions in the South, there is a history and heritage. Some of it is beautiful. Some of it is very dark. It’s leading founder was an Episcopal Bishop and Confederate General, Leonidas Polk. He was a slaveholder and census records show that he owned at least two-hundred and fifteen slaves. This is a part of what it means to be a person of color in today’s South. It is to live in the complex and problematic history of the south, a history in which a person who looks like me could not exist as a full person. It is also a context in which I am trying to find new possibilities and my own identity within a rich, but also disturbing history. This is my truth. This is my experience.

I grew up in Alabama and a part of my education was learning Alabama history. I still remember the day my history teacher explained that interracial marriage was still illegal in Alabama. It was still in Alabama’s constitution. I cannot adequately explain the anger, disappointment, and shame I felt that day as the child of an interracial marriage. To realize that my existence was the result of an illegal marriage according to Alabama law left me feeling numb. This was Alabama history. This was Alabama present. This was a teenager with a white Dad and a Korean mom learning about his place in his society.

The teacher went on to explain that efforts had been made to change the constitution, but were met with resistance and the constitution was kept the same. But she reassured us that, even though the laws were backwards and still on the books, they were not enforced. Later on when I was in high school, in the year 2000, there was a vote in Alabama to overturn its ban on interracial marriage. Sadly, 40 percent (545, 993 to be exact) voted to keep the ban on interracial marriage. My teacher’s words weren’t very comforting because Alabama’s history of racism and white supremacy was still very alive. This is the history and heritage that has shaped me. This is the history and heritage that has caused me much pain. And it is this pain, within the context of living in the South, that has almost continually been diminished, ignored, or contradicted.

My white sisters and brothers, the confederate flag does represent history and heritage. But it is a history and heritage that has dehumanized and brutalized persons of color. It hurts. This isn’t political. Many persons of color have never liked the Confederate flag. We have never been comfortable with it flying over institutions that we are a part. It is a symbol that alienates us. It serves as a reminder of how we have been othered by white society. Will you believe our testimony? And if you will not believe our testimony about this one symbol, how will you ever understand our testimony about the history and present day which it represents?

 

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