Defiance, Confederate Flags, and What to Do Now

06/24/2015 02:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016


It's June 2015 and we reel from the domestic terror attack in South Carolina that took nine lives, perpetrated by a young white male who raged against African Americans and posed for pictures wearing Apartheid-era South African and Rhodesian flag patches.

In the immediate aftermath, public outrage focused on South Carolina's insistence on flying the Confederate flag on capitol grounds. Many embraced or excused the flag as a heritage display. The rest of us called it as we saw it: a flag of defiance and race hate and solidarity with the losing side of the Civil War. Now companies including Walmart and Amazon declare that they won't trade in this flag. State governments push to lower it from capitol domes for good.

Today Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol. By 8:20 a.m. Wednesday, June 24, according to The Birmingham News, it was gone.

Call them gestures, for that's what they are -- gestures that would have been politically impossible in May 2015 but will not make meaningful change in my life, in your life, overnight.

Regardless, flags matter. They help create climates of what's possible, what's considered to be in the realm of acceptable behavior. They've served to remind people of their proper place for an awfully long time. Now the flags will know their place: a museum, a storage room, a trash bin.

As horrific as this last week has been, it has also been powerful. People are speaking out. They are listening. Especially on social media. Last night on Facebook I received a short message from a friend's mom, who is my friend, too.

She wrote, "What in the world is a white person to do?"

That's a crucial question. Who am I to answer? I responded this way: "I would say be kind. Be open. If you're in the company of others being biased, talk to those people, help people better understand. Listen. Don't give up."

I would add: Stand up. When it's time to be brave, do it.

Which makes me think hard on a powerful scene in Gloria Nixon-John's tender, beautiful "novel based on memory" called Learning From Lady Chatterley (Neverland 2014). The story takes place in 1958 in an ever-changing Detroit. This is Gloria's story, and she is turning 12 and questioning and often subverting the capital-"A" Authority in her life, including her beloved but patriarchal Italian father.

The storytelling, shaped by stanzas to strong effect, makes the narrative something swiftly imbibed. I keep going back to Learning From Lady Chatterley.

Consider this scene with Gloria's father, Mr. Bruno Demasi. A new family has moved into their neighborhood. But they are not welcomed. Instead, neighbors restlessly gather, whisper, shout as they hold "pajama-clad toddlers" and assess what must be a threat. Gloria is riding her bike. She wants to know what's going on.

"What's up, Bobbie?" I asked.
"Niggers." He said the word
like he was clearing his throat to spit.
"Moved in last night in the dark,
in the gigabook-junglebunny-dark!"
I was used to seeing Bobbie
gliding back and forth
across the altar at St. Ignatius Church
in his black and white alter-boy gown,
his hands together in prayer.
This was a different Bobbie.
"But who are they?" I asked,
"Anyone my age?"
It was a natural question,
so Bobbie's response
was a Jim Bunning hardball
to my heart."

"Just like you, dago-wop!
I suppose you don't know
what color you are either,"
He said as he turned his back
to me like a wall.

This moment of rejection is like a hardball to our hearts, too. We all want to belong. Whose side to be on? A fundamental question for anyone learning to be American. So much pressure to assimilate to whatever the crowd calls normal.

But soon after, Gloria's father appears. Mr. Demasi is bothered by no such questions.

He pointed to his car, said, "Get in."
I wanted to ask, what about my bike?
But didn't dare.
I just left the bike lying
on its side like the skeleton
of an odd animal, flesh picked
clean off the bones.

Once in the car, my father asked,
"Do you want to see what these
stupid people are afraid of...
who they hate?"
I didn't know what to say,
so I said nothing at all.
We drove in silence
the length of the block,
then pulled into the driveway
of the third house from the corner.
A baritone from a passing car boomed,
"What the hell are they doing?"
A woman shouted,
"Immigrant asshole."

My father didn't seem to hear a thing.
He turned the car off, got out,
walked around to my side
and opened the door for me.
I didn't budge, so he took my hand,
gently pulled me out of the car
and together we walked
up to the front door
of the third house from the corner.

There is a scared, sad, defiant family inside. Yes, they are Black. They are American, too, and they simply wish to live in good single-family home on the street of their choosing.

Mr. Demasi rings the doorbell. When the door opens a crack, Mr. Demasi summons his best English. He says hello. He introduces himself. He welcomes them to the neighborhood. Later, Gloria and the daughter will play together. Later, the mother will plant Hollyhocks. And, later, the garage will be burned to the ground. This is when they can no longer take being the first Black people on the block. This is when they know they fear that death and destruction is imminent and they move.

But before then, one man took his daughter to their front door and welcomed them. He didn't care about mainstream opinion. He was brave. He was his own person.

If anyone is saying that change is impossible, they are being drowned out by those calling out, specifically, for ways to bring ourselves into full American citizenship -- the rights and privileges that we've been fighting for, continuously, since emancipation. The ones that immigrants have fought for since arrival.

What to do now? Be brave. Be your own person. Everyone. Wherever you are. There's still so much more to do.