Carrying the Flag

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When I first started writing personal essays and memoir, I never thought I’d spend so much time writing about race or, more specifically, that I’d be forced to deal with the constant, low hum of of racism and racial commentary that runs through the stories of my family.

I wasn’t naive.  I certainly expected to deal with my family’s issues with race in the historical chapters — scenes that marked my mother’s and her siblings’ coming of age in the 50’s and 60’s and of my growing up in the early 70’s — in a part of the country that looks to be central on the U.S. map but considers itself just as much a part of the south as Alabama or Mississippi, at least from my family’s vantage point.  What I did not anticipate was how this hateful and shameful thread of our story would not die with generations past.

I woke up this morning, this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, to see that one of the young boys in my family has gotten himself a new tattoo, a confederate flag with the words ‘Southern Justice’ prominently displayed on his shoulder.

** The photo will not be posted here. **

I would like to say I was surprised, but it’s not the first flag I’ve seen in recent photographs of our next generation.  I looked up the meaning of this particular design and read this:  Common patterns which are used with the flag tattoo design include skull and crossbones over the top of the flag. The other variation is the use of word ‘rebel’ near the flag. A rather patriotic iconography has a bald eagle flying across the flag or over the top of the flag. Racist tattoos sporting this flag are those which use the words ‘Southern Justice’ on them with or without a noose.

Only after reading this did I look back at the darkened photo and notice the noose strung along the bottom.  I am more naive than I thought.  Back to work.

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17 thoughts on “Carrying the Flag

  1. Catherine

    Gosh Teri that is pretty shocking. It took me a long time to understand the way things are in the US. In our bar in Ghana I innocently (or stupidly) asked a fair African-American lady if she was mixed race (I have a mixed race son and lots of friends too). I didn’t realise it would almost be perceived as an insult. That was when I realised I had a lot to learn about race relations in the US, I felt very very ignorant!

    1. Teri Post author

      I saw the tattoo photo this morning and I had a few immediate thoughts: 1, that he’s barely 18 and still in high school. 2, that this giant symbol on his arm could get him hurt, or worse.

      Which brought me back to his mother, who posted the photo with a sense of pride??

  2. independentclause

    Yuck. I’m sorry. I was once at the famous historical home of an early (pre Civil War) Southern president, and in the gift shop they sold American and Confederate flags in the same bucket. I wanted to pull them aside and say first, this is racist and awful, and second, these two flags represent opposing sides in a civil war. It’s like cars that have the stars and bars AND the American flag on the bumper. You just can’t. But they do.

    1. Teri Post author

      All this time I’ve thought I was writing these parts of my memoir as “the past” with some bleeding over into the present. But the future? I did not see that coming.

      I am incredibly naive.

  3. Paul Lamb

    Sorry this happened to you. My neighbor (a Tea Party member) once flew a white supremacist flag here in in whitebread suburbia. He only did it once, and he may not have realized what it meant. (It was the Vinland flag.)

    How is it, do you suppose, that you have escaped the racial prejudice and other family members haven’t? I was certainly NOT raised to be the liberal I am now, and I often ponder how I made my escape.

    1. Teri Post author

      Like you, Paul, I was certainly not raised as the liberal I am now, but I do remember feeling incredible shame, even as a little kid, when my grandfather would yell racial epithets at the kids in our neighborhood. It wasn’t something I could overlook, even as a 7 year old. And yes, I wonder where that came from.

    2. independentclause

      What is the Vinland flag? (I am afraid to google it.)

      I too find the question of the escape to liberalism interesting. It’s not so much my story (my parents were more conservative than I am, but they weren’t actually politically conservative), but I see it in people around me.

  4. Josey

    So much hate, right? All that rage and anger.

    MLK Day was signed into law in ’83, but it took 3 years before it was observed formally. NC’s Jesse Helms, one of the big symbols of southern racism, opposed the law on the floor, claiming MLK had communist ties and questionable character. Helms who at age 22 impregnated a 16-year old African American female who was employed at his parent’s house. He knew about his daughter his whole career…and still.

    1. Teri Post author

      All that rage and anger is right. I contacted my cousin, the mother of the recently tattooed, and she was incredibly nonplussed about the whole thing. She basically said, All the kids around here are obsessed with the rebel flag and the Dukes of Hazard — he’s 18! What can I do?!

      I told her to look up this particular version of the flag, with the noose and ‘Southern Justice’ words, and she’ll see that even the military will not allow it — that’s how inflammatory it is. To which she replied, “Oh, my oldest son has one too.”

      * head, desk *

  5. Lyra

    I once was handed the house key back home, and it had a confederate flag on it. I said, “I can’t bring this with me, it’s racist.” I was met with a blank stare and then hostility as she said, “No it’s not, it’s just southern.”
    So, yeah, I get it. And I get it how you can fear for their stupidity while at the same time disbelieving that at so recent a time, they just don’t want to see, or they do and don’t care. Our histories while are us, are not anything like us. But we have them to thank for exactly who we’ve become.

    1. Teri Post author

      His mother kept going on and on about him just being a “rebel” and the Dukes of Hazard. It was painful, the avoidance.

  6. Averil Dean

    This is depressing as hell. But I take a lot of comfort from pulling back to take the wide view. We have come a long way. We have elected–twice–our country’s first African-American president. Considering the amount of social progress it took to get us here, I’d say we’re headed in the right direction.

    That’s no help when it’s one of your own who acts like a douchebag. I’ve got a couple of those in my family, too. We don’t talk anymore.

    1. Teri Post author

      What kills me most is that an 18 yr old — 18! — would ink such a symbol, permanently, on his body. That he would say, “This is who I am.” It makes me incredibly sad.

      1. jpon

        I think that may be part of the answer—it’s not who he is. It’s who his family and friends have told him he is, and he’s not smart enough or independent enough (or brave enough) to really ask that question of himself. I was interested in many of the comments here, especially the dialog you had with Paul Lamb, in which you wondered how you turned out so different from your families. Maybe call it the courage to ask yourself the tough questions, and not be afraid of the answers, or be afraid to change because of them.

        I am often struck by the incredible fear of people who are scared to look someone who’s different in the eye unless they have a posse behind them, and who prefer to retreat into the cocoon of ignorance that is the mob mentality. What cowards.

      2. Teri Post author

        I read this in a book today (a Lisa Unger thriller): “Everyone has his role, and as long as everyone keeps true to the part that has been cast for him, things go on as they always have… But when one person starts to improvise, starts to write her own lines, the whole script has to be thrown out.”

        There is so much truth in that, especially as it pertains to this subject. I still remember when I suddenly refused to be quiet about using the ‘n’ word or to laugh at the jokes, it felt like I was no longer a member of the club. No longer “one of us.” That’s tough to take from your own family, even when you know you’re right.

      3. jpon

        I love that line. Seems to apply in so many places, both in small settings (families and friends), and large (Arab spring, US Revolution)… The crowd would do well to think about that once in a while. Thanks for sharing it.

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