I have lived my entire 38 years in the South. My Dad's family is from Bell Buckle, Tennessee, and my Mom's family hails from Pulaski, where the Ku Klux Klan was founded. I remember well going to visit my great grandmothers on their farms out in the sticks. I learned early in my life that my roots are in the country, and that I should be proud of my heritage. Later I learned that one of my ancestors was a colonel in the Confederate Army. My family remembered him as someone who bravely fought for his home, his family, and his way of life. This was how I first understood the Civil War: the agrarian way of life was being threatened, the national economy had betrayed the South, and the Southern states determined to secede to preserve their heritage. This is not to say that I did not learn about slavery. I knew that slavery was integral to the Southern agrarian economy. I knew that slavery was awful and wrong. But I did not view the Civil War as being primarily about the subjugation of African-Americans. Certainly I did not believe that my ancestor, Colonel Wheeler, had fought for the Confederacy because he was a racist. He fought for his home.
My first memory of the Confederate flag was seeing it painted on the roof of the General Lee in The Dukes of Hazzard. From the time I was four until I was about seven, I did not use car doors; I climbed through the window like Bo and Luke Duke. As a little boy, I did not identify the Confederate flag with racism and hatred. Instead, it symbolized pride in being from the South and the country. Bo and Luke Duke were folks like my family. They prayed before meals, they helped people when they could, and they celebrated their heritage by painting the Confederate flag on their 1969 Dodge Charger.
One of my favorite boyhood bands was Alabama, and they also made frequent use of the Confederate flag. The album covers for "My Home's in Alabama," "Feels So Right," "Mountain Music," and "Roll On" all featured the Confederate flag. Their music celebrated Southern culture, with songs like "Mountain Music," "Tennessee River," "Dixieland Delight," "Song of the South," and "High Cotton." Again, none of the songs or album covers made me think that the band was racist. Their music was about having pride in a country way of life marked by faith, simplicity, hard work, and family. By the time I was a teenager, I had discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd and other bands who used the Confederate Flag as a symbol of Southern culture and a non-conformist spirit. I still did not attach racist sentiments to it, though I knew it had been used that way by some groups that I felt had disrespectfully hijacked and abused it.
In high school, I had a t-shirt (I think I bought it in Gatlinburg, no huge surprise) with a Confederate flag on the back. It read, "It's a Southern Thang. Y'all Wouldn't Understand." I don't know what that meant, but I thought it was cool. In college, I had a Confederate flag hanging in my dorm room. I thought that was cool too. Not only did it identify me with the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Duke boys, it conveyed that I was something of a rebel, which I very much wanted to be. For reasons I'm still struggling to understand, I did not want to go with the flow. I wanted to buck the system, be different, not fall in line. The Confederate flag symbolized that for me. I still did not view it as a racist symbol.
Twenty years ago, when I was a freshman in college, I went with two other guys and got a tattoo on my right shoulder. Featured in the tattoo are the letters C.S.A., standing for Confederate States of America.
Hopefully, I have changed a lot since I got that tattoo, as has my opinion of the Confederacy and its flag. Hopefully I am not as ignorant and insensitive as I once was regarding issues of race and history. I have come to see that the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism and hatred. White people cannot divorce the Confederate flag from the terrible history of racism, violence, dehumanization, rape, oppression, and murder that characterized the South around the time of the Civil War. The Confederate flag is not something to feel pride in. It's a disgrace to be ashamed of. It symbolizes everything that is wrong with Southern culture, and to celebrate the Confederate flag is to perpetuate that awful culture.
To continue display the Confederate flag, personally or on the state level, is to keep re-injuring a "gaping racial wound that will not heal - yet we pretend doesn't exist," in the words of Jon Stewart. It invites white supremacy and the kind of terrible racial violence that occurred in Charleston on Wednesday. We need to put the flag away for the dehumanizing awfulness that it symbolizes, and we need to work to transform the racist culture that habitually devalues and destroys black lives.