Random fact: I was born in South Carolina.
My family isn’t from there. I don’t remember being there before we moved. I’ve visited maybe a handful of times since, but when I need a copy of my birth certificate, or a form asks me for my Place of Birth, or someone wants me to justify why I say y’all, it comes up.
So on that horrifying Wednesday, in the face of the massacre in Charleston—on the days to follow, with the burning of houses of worship: the sickness, the sadness I felt at the news was as raw as it would have been coming from anywhere, but when South Carolina emerged multiple times as the site of such loss and violence and hate, it was visceral in the way that only places you know—even if just in passing—can be. I may only carry that place in small memories and a line on my passport, more often than not, but it felt immediately closer; more concrete.
I remember the first time I understood what the Confederate flag meant when I saw it flying in South Carolina, apparently equal to the American flag, rather than just as a decal on a pickup truck: I remember feeling confusion. Indignation. A sense of wrongness that only grew as time went by.
With the state center stage as the setting for these recent atrocities, I was taken back to those first sights of that flag. When the conversation arose as to whether it should be taken down, my opinion on the matter had been solidified when I was a child. But in hearing the reactions of those who were against the removal of the symbol, I spoke to my parents, asking them to recall what it was like to live there with the flag.
In comparison with the televised rhetoric, what they did not echo was:
It’s not about hate.
What they did echo:
It’s about heritage. It’s about history.
My own perspective—one that I feel that too many of the prevailing dialogues and commentaries gloss over—I found could reside in the unspoken discrepancy between what the defenders of the “Stars and Bars” stated in the media, and what my family resonated with in their nostalgia for another time and place.
Because the argument for the heritage, or the history, of the flag and its symbolism should not be brushed aside. Such arguments are not inconsequential, nor are they entirely invalid. The Confederate flag is a symbol of both heritage and history.
And what must be more largely and readily recognized in that fact is that the history, and the heritage, that it represents, is one of hate. Whether it’s the Civil War, or Civil Rights: one way or another, the idea that the flag is representative of a cultural inheritance does not excuse it from the implications and orientations of that inheritance. Heritage and history are by no means mutually exclusive with hate. Not when the heritage—as heritage so often can be—is a heritage of hate. Not when the history—as it invariably is at one point, or at many—is a history of hate.
And to gloss over the complexity of that intermingling—to either neglect to mention it at all, or neglect to engage it to the extent it warrants in the popular media—is, in my opinion, a failure.
Because North or South: America is one nation. A country in the singular.
And the history of this country doesn’t stop at the Mason-Dixon line. It is everywhere. It is everyone’s.
The history of this country is for all of us to bear.
The history of this country informs every breath we take in the now.
And if hate colors that heritage, that history—wherever it does, however it does; if hate is a part of the legacy that each of us shares by virtue of living here, of being here in the wake of others who happened upon violence and chose to engender hate? We cannot sweep that hate under the rug. We cannot pretend we are immune to its influence. We cannot place blame on the perpetrators without recognizing what the perpetration itself has left behind, how it has influenced us by way of its very occurrence and has been perpetuated—knowingly or unknowingly—into the present. We cannot hide from it, or think it dead to our experience, our actions, our livelihoods. We cannot pretend it’s not there, or that it’s distant and inconsequential, that it does not live in the very bones of our society, of our interrelational world.
Instead: if we ever truly wish to grow beyond that hate—not its memory nor its scars, but its influence in the now—we have to choose acknowledgement. We have to choose recognition. We have to choose not to be blind. We have to own and embody the idea that we cannot continue to trod the well-worn paths, to perpetuate that same hate because it is effortless, because it feels familiar, because complacency makes it easy to say that it doesn’t concern us personally, that is isn’t our fight, that there’s nothing to be done to change the way things are.
Because the fact is: people just like us built up the foundation of “the way things are”; and we, here and now, are making the choices—moment by moment, one by one—whether or not we’ll maintain the status quo, or make it different. Make it better, or worse. And in an intersubjective global community, everything concerns us personally. Every fight that affects one affects all. Whiteheadians go so far as to call the perpetuation of sameness, of “the way things are,” an evil of stagnation.
And the status quo, the easy sameness, is an evil, if the status quo is hate. When pain and destruction, dehumanization and violence follow from it.
Still: we make excuses. Some of them are defensible; others less so. We cite burnout. We cite hopelessness. We cite frustration, or apathy, or the overwhelming futility of our efforts when they seem to bear no fruit. ‘What can we do,’ we ask. To quote The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: ‘What can men (or women, either or neither or both, a single person or a million or somewhere in between) do against such reckless hate?’
That’s a bigger question than I think any of us are equipped to answer definitively. I’m not sure there is, or ever was, or ever will be an answer. So I think, perhaps, we need to resize the question. Re-envision the scope, if only just for now.
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Image courtesy of the author.