To be African American and a Southerner is, perhaps, the ultimate oxymoron. We are, most of us, descendants of slaves and whites, tied by birth and love to a vanquished, divided land.
Born in 1962 in Mississippi, the home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, I was reared against a backdrop of countless reminders of the Civil War, slavery and segregation, including the Confederate flag. I understood that the past was always present, a gaping wound that never fully healed. My generation, black and white, lived through a South under siege, as desegregation swept through like Sherman’s army, and Confederate flags went up in defiance across the South.
In a time of “Never!” — the segregationists’ battle cry —I learned that despite the bleakness of the hour, there is no such thing.
Yet, I stopped in my tracks last week when powerful federal and state lawmakers in Mississippi and states across the South, called for the removal of the flags from state facilities in the wake of the mass shooting in Charleston.
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And in one stroke, a visibly proud Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, of Alabama, ordered the flag removed from the capitol grounds in Montgomery, the first capitol of the Confederacy in 1861, before it was moved to Richmond, Va.
It was a remarkable moment in the history of the nation and the South, one I am privileged to have lived to see. Some conservative pundits rushed to judgment, branding the actions of these leaders as knee-jerk politics or the removal of the flags as a gesture that changes nothing.
Missing from those arguments was an understanding of the South or the aftermath of civil war, even one that ended more than 150 years ago. Also absent is acknowledgment that the events of the past week are bigger than politics and, rather, a meditation on the soul of South.
In the South, like most places, we use our symbols to define us. In a constant search for meaning in our victories and defeats, they are talismans telling us who we are and who we are not.
Defining itself has arguably been the greatest effort of a post-Civil War South, a gut-wrenching, often frightening process punctuated by oppression, violence, soul searching and change.
The psyche of the South, wounds, past and present, were laid bare once again with the deaths of nine innocent African Americans, part of the fabric of their community and the South.
In the shooting and its aftermath, the rest of the world saw but a glimpse of a painful work in progress for generations. As the people of Charleston, black and white, rallied amid the pain and loss of innocent lives to racism, something happened.
From its seat on the nation’s proverbial couch, the South saw itself in the faces of the victims in Charleston, flinched in pain and grieved. Charleston itself became a symbol of a South in pain, but at least in that moment, finally whole. “Never” fell back into history, and the Confederate flag and a legacy of hate came into focus.
In the aftermath of such violence, we are reminded that not only can our symbols define us, but so can our crises. What happens now will not be perfect, but the moment in history cannot be undone.
Like slavery and the war that ended it, voting rights, desegregation and the election of President Obama, the ripple effects of these events will be felt across time. More significant is the fact that no federal courts or troops forced what may be a sea change. Widespread public opinion and empathy that would not have been possible in the segregated South of just 50 years ago was brought to bear.
Little more than 30 years ago, as a student at the University of Mississippi, I watched from across a two-lane road, as ordinary-looking folks donned hoods and robes and took up Confederate flags. The Ku Klux Klan visited Oxford, Mississippi, more than once in 1982, rallying to support the South and its traditions. The flag, and more important, what it represents, has haunted the Southern psyche and kept it broken and, ironically, enslaved to the past.
Holding it before us blocks our path, all the more reason to take it down.