This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. It may cost me readers, and it may cost me friends.
I don’t care anymore.
A racist shithead with a gun walked into a church and ended the lives of nine innocent people. I have thought of little else since then. That singular act of racial terrorism has stuck in my brain like a fish hook, resisting all attempts to dislodge it.
I am a Southerner. I grew up poor—but not as poor as my parents. Their parents, in turn, grew up poor, too. I can remember my Dad telling me about times when all he had to eat was cold biscuit and Karo syrup. He left home young, finding his way into the Army and striving for a better life.
But it seems to me, in memory, that the wolves were almost always at the door. We were cash-poor, and the credit that was extended to my folks only served to bury us even farther. Cash-poor, but redneck-proud. That was us. We were the only white folks in an all-black neighborhood. My best friend growing up was black. So was my greatest enemy. I learned firsthand that black people aren’t all bad. Or all good. They’re people. Just like us, our surrounding neighborhood was poor. We lived on a dirt road. Our cars ran (most of the time), but they were often held together with baling wire and prayer. I learned a term for bald tires that were always in danger of blowing out: baloney skins.
We lived in a trailer when I was young. I don’t know that my Granny (on my Dad’s side) ever lived in anything but a trailer, except for the few years when she lived with us.
We never went on the dole. It was probably close sometimes, but my Dad always worked. My mom stayed home and looked after me. We didn’t ask for help.
One of my most heartbreaking memories is from Christmas when I was in junior high school. We were broke. Downright stony, my friends. I got the only present my parents could afford. And I was ungrateful, so disappointed and sad that I would have to hear about all of the awesome gifts my friends received. I couldn’t even see the sacrifice my folks made to at least get me something.
Things got better. My mom got a civil service job. I got to go on trips with a church group. Beaches. Skiing. But of course somehow I’d landed at the rich folks’ church, and I was anything but. So I tried my very hardest to hide how poor I was. I tried to hide who I was. It didn’t work. I was still just the little redneck kid with maybe a little bit of talent, and a lot of pretensions. I graduated high school, and found my way into college, even though I was an uninspired student.
So, things got better for me. And even if they hadn’t, I still had my pride. That legendary, Southern pride. It’s the kind of pride where you wouldn’t say shit even if you had a mouthful. It’s that pride that lets us Smart-ass Southern White Boys tell jokes like this:
Following a resounding defeat at the hands of the Union Army, a collection of Confederate troops falls back to their camp. Men are wounded. There is blood everywhere, startling against the gray of their patchwork uniforms.
“Sir,” one wounded soldier gasps to his superior officer, “I thought you said we could beat them Yankees with cornstalks.”
The officer nods. “That’s right. But the sons of bitches wouldn’t fight that way!”
We have an overweening pride here in the South. Hubris, they call it. I guess it’s good that we have that pride, because we don’t have much else. We lag behind in education. We lag behind in industry. We’re tops in obesity, though. And football.
Oh, I guess we have the flag, too. You know which one. That one. The Stars and Bars.
Somewhere in the 1980s—after the Dukes of Hazzard went off the air—it became politically incorrect to fly what is commonly known as the Confederate flag. You’d see it out in the country sometimes, draped across the window in some white trash trailer. And it flies over the South Carolina capitol, of course. It’s a reminder, they tell me, of Southern heritage and culture.
For a long time, I agreed. I would feel that swell of pride in my chest. Men of the South long ago rose up and fought for something they believed in. They lived and died, sought honor and glory on the field of battle, with the sound of cannon and the pounding of cavalry hooves ringing in their ears. They rebelled against an overbearing federal government, and right or wrong, they were my people. They stood by their principles. Even in loss, in death, these noble men stood for what they believed. That flag represented some great lost cause. Men dedicated their lives to that lost cause, found it noble to chase after that dream under the banner of the stars and bars.
And it’s horseshit. Let me reiterate:
I wish that flag didn’t represent slavery and violence and oppression and hate. But it does. You have to look no farther than the shooting of nine innocent black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., to see that. There are photos of Dylann Roof flying the stars and bars, and photos of him burning the American flag. You want to tell me that his words to one of the victims, “…you rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” weren’t fostered and inspired under that goddamned flag? Do you really?
Fuck you. If that is what you really think, I am being absolutely serious here: Go fuck yourself. Find some basis in reality, and then get back to me.
Here is the hardest part: I identify with Dylann Roof. I’m a white Southern male, and I think I know a lot of what he felt. Hell, what he probably still feels. You see the rising tide of voices that are NOT white, nor Southern, nor male, and maybe you feel a little swept away in all of that. That you are losing your place in the world. You have no money, no sense of empowerment, but one whale of a sense of entitlement. This is not the way it’s supposed to be, you think. And you blame those people for your lack of money or education or success or whatever fucking else your idiot brain can come up with. I have felt that way before. I felt that way most strongly before I escaped the gravitational pull of the South just long enough to get some perspective—to understand that the way we poor white folks live and think in the South isn’t the ONLY way to live or think. My advice to anyone growing up in the South: get out, if you can. Get out and get an education. Get out and get your beliefs challenged. Get out and get some goddamned life experience.
And then, please, come BACK. Because the South needs people who have lived elsewhere and done other things. We need that like an ailing patient needs a blood transfusion.
Life experience changed my viewpoint. Becoming a father for the first time changed my viewpoint. Having another little one changed it even further. I still am what I am. I have made mistakes. I have said (and done) racist things. I have been guilty of having racist thoughts more times than I’d like to admit. I’ve used the N-word. I’m not proud of it, but growing up in a household where the word was almost as common as table salt, you really can’t expect any different, can you?
But I can change. I want a world where my kids never hear the N-word, and have no idea what the hell it means. I want a world where my children play with children of different races, faiths, and sexual orientations. I want a world where my kids are safe to be who they are—and where YOUR kids are safe to be who they are, too.
We can’t do that when part of this country still willingly and proudly flies under a rebel flag. It’s not heritage. It’s hate. (It hurts me to say that. You have no idea how much it hurts. But we have to face reality. And this reality is sad and ugly.)
Take the stars and bars down.
Take it down.
Douse it with gasoline and light a match.
Burn that goddamned flag and let the ghosts of the old, imaginary South be free. Let those shades fly—whether that’s to Heaven or Hell.
Let’s live free, if we can.