I remember getting up early one morning and taking out a screwdriver and some pliers to attach a confederate flag tag to the front of my vehicle. The year was 1994 and I had a new Toyota truck. I also had a specific agenda and it didn’t involve heritage.
I had started a new school and it just happened to be the sporting rival of the high school I had previously attended. The school I had attended was known as the white school in the county as it had never been forcefully integrated. As a result I was bullied at the new school in the weight room by a couple of the black football players who saw me as an obvious racist from the sticks. It was my first real experience attending school with African American students and I was hurt by the insults. Redneck and hick were often the order of the day. I thought surely I’m not a racist. I wasn’t raised to be. The couple of white students in the weight room kept quiet because I was one of the enemy and they found the constant abuse funny.
After what amounted to little more than name calling I lived down to their expectations of me.
I knew that as I drove my truck into school I would drive by the crowd of students walking from the projects. They would have to move so I could drive through to the school parking lot. They would see that shiny new tag and I knew I KNEW it would hurt them some way. When confronted by conflict I cowardly grasped on to the thing I knew would inflict the most serious hurt.
I am ashamed of my actions back then. A week later I removed the tag knowing that the ring leader in the weight room had seen it more than a few times.
In my childhood I was raised by my mother to be a good person. She spoke forcefully against racism and bigotry. But this was Alabama only 27 years removed from the Civil Rights Act. In my mind that was ancient history. I didn’t realize it was actually quite recent at the time and that it still is. I was surrounded by people who would talk in ways that would undermine her teaching. I remember people giving me George Wallace for Governor stickers in the 1980s. I remember people saying back then that whites were being taken over. I remember bringing up the Civil War and being corrected with “It was the War of Northern Aggression”. I remember hearing that same thing as a “joke” 20 years later.
Only recently have I realized the full scope of the sanitizing of all of that history among the white people around me. I knew the confederate flag was seen as a white supremacy symbol and I used it as such but somewhere in collective psyche of whites in the south was also the romanticized version of what the south was in the days of the Civil War and what it had become.
I know the racism runs deep here in the south, abysmally deep, but I have only scratched the surface. I used to think people ignored the negative symbolism of the flag and grasped to that romanticized version of the south. I now know they not only accept the supremacy notions of the flag but they embrace them- and I am talking about anyone you could encounter in the south.
Call me naive. Maybe I have been. Maybe I’ve been lulled to sleep by all of the fairy tales of the lost cause of the confederacy and I’m just waking up in 2017. I am a white man in Alabama. I’ve been told many stories from those outside of my mother and most have been exaggerated or full on lies. I didn’t realize just how much of that sanitizing had seeped into my brain until I started considering the removal of confederate statues. I realized that, in the past, I patted myself on the back and said “Hey eventually you realized it was hate and not heritage! Good for you! You’re so damned revolutionary! You are one of the good white people in the south!”But was I?
My point in telling the story of the confederate tag is to point out that I was still guilty of that same mindset years later without even realizing it. There was a time where I considered the removal of the confederate monuments– monuments erected decades after the war– to be abhorrent. I thought it was sanitizing history and rewriting it to make people feel better. Only within the last few years did I realize they were erected to do just that and that leaving them up is only to help southern whites feel better. It was the same reason they were originally erected.
We were on the wrong side of history back then and we have avoided owning it for years. We tell gallant tales of General Lee who loved Virginia and wanted to protect his homeland. We coat ourselves in lies of preserving historical falsities that exist in the form of monuments erected to treasonous men. Most of the monuments were put up years, if not decades, after the war. It is this “Cult of the Lost Confederate Cause” that still haunts us to this day.
I left that high school after one year and returned to the one where I wouldn’t stand out and my whiteness would be protected. Fifteen years later I ran into the ring leader of the weight room crew when I returned to my hometown for a visit. He was a cashier at K-Mart. We almost didn’t recognize each other.
“Warren?”, he said. I froze. I didn’t know what to say. I saw his name tag and I then recognized him. His face lit up and he said “How have you been?” I was shocked. He was a picture of health in his younger days but time hadn’t been kind to him. He had no idea how much I had thought of my actions back then and how much it shamed me to know I had done that. “I’m good, man. How is life?” We took on some small talk about the town ignoring the elephant sitting there beside us. As I walked away I turned to say “Hey…” and my voice trailed off. He immediately smiled knowingly and said “It’s all good man. We were stupid kids back then.” Even in that moment I was ashamed.
I walked back to my car wanting to go back in and apologize. To tell him I was the one who was wrong. In my mind’s eye I still see a privileged little shit driving between the kids from the projects as if I was the one who was hurting. I added to the regret by not going back in and finishing the conversation. Maybe it ended as it should have but I’ll never know. I heard he died a few years later.
That same shame I feel over those actions is the same shame I feel when I look at the confederate statues in places of honor dedicated to men who would have ripped our country apart to preserve a way of life in order to continue to subjugate people. It’s not white guilt. It’s called being a decent human being. Oh and we have a cult of the lost cause lie for that too- It was about state’s rights not slavery.
Until my dying day I will fight to set history right. It’s beyond time for the cult of the lost confederate cause to die. Until then our country will be trapped in this moment in time and generations will continue to make the same mistakes of everyone who came before them. We have to be honest about our history even if it tears apart everything we think we have come to know and even if the brutal truth hurts far more than the comfortable lies the south still tells itself.
(Featured image via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)