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Vanessa Carmichael Headshot

Virginia's Confederate Slap in the Face

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Anybody who has visited Virginia is not surprised by the recent announcement from Governor McDonnell of Confederate History Month. Not even his omission of slavery -- at least I'm not. Governor McDonnell is a Virginian and too many Virginians take excessive pride in their state's contribution to the American Civil War.

In 2007, I visited the capital of the Confederacy to attend my friend's wedding. A former actress, she and her fiancee had moved back to Virginia Beach from Los Angeles for cheaper real estate and a simpler life. I attended the wedding with a posse of LA city dwellers, transplants from Cambridge and Canada, and one who is another native Virginian.

I had never visited Virginia before. My mother spent some time there growing up on her uncle's farm and as a teenager in Ohio many of my Caucasian friends spent Spring Break at Virginia Beach. I had heard a tale or two about the place but nothing to indicate just how proud of the American Rebellion Virginians were. Driving from the airport for the wedding weekend, I spied a Confederate bumper sticker on what seemed like every other truck on the road.

As an African American who grew up in the Midwest and has spent most of her adulthood in America's great cities, it's hard to explain how unsettling it is to come face to face with the Rebel flag. The Confederate flag is iconic, it's used in art work by rock bands like Guns 'N Roses, Kid Rock and Poison. In the early 80's the Dukes of Hazard drove all over prime time television in a car with the Confederate flag painted on the side door. So, it's not like I've never seen the Dixie flag before and even to a certain extent become desensitized to it. But standing in the room of my friend's 10 year old nephew staring at the giant Confederate flag he was using as a wall hanging, I was jarred back into a reality that superceded fashion.

Perhaps it was because we were on a farm in Virginia where black people could have easily once been enslaved. Perhaps it was because I was the only person of color in the full house or perhaps it was the Southern twang that filled the air but in an instant my humanity rose up and I saw this boy's mother and my friend's family in a whole new, rather unflattering, light.

I tried to talk with my friend about it when we were back in Los Angeles and all I ever heard was that the Rebel Flag did not mean to her family what it meant in history and my understanding based upon that history. It wasn't a symbol of Southern tyranny and treason to her family. It was a symbol of Southern pride. Not surprisingly, Pat Buchanan uses the same justification on MSNBC. The message of which to black people is clear -- quite simply, get over it.

There is a lot of injustice in this country that black people are expected to get over. We were once expected to get over rape, violence and dehumanization by our wealthy white slave owners and their white employees. We are now expected to accept racial inequality that pervades over the justice system and employment opportunity. We are also expected to accept a society where everybody thinks they are better and better off than us no matter what dystopia they or their grandparents immigrated from. And now we are expected to accept the glorification of the Confederate's fight for the preservation of slavery, and pretend that the end to black human bondage wasn't the essential piece of legislation that led the South to secede.

It would seem no other people in America are expected to go through life with such amnesia like black people. I mean, Hitler fixed the roads and industrialized Germany, which put many Germans back to work. Yet you'd be hard-pressed to find the Nazi flag as a bumper sticker in Berlin, let alone a ubiquitous symbol of that country's pride. And if I were Jewish and that flag hanging on my friend's nephew's wall was the Nazi flag, I doubt I would have been invited into the house, let alone the boy's room, because nobody pretends that the swastika stands for anything other than what it stands for -- white supremacy and the genocide of 11 Million human beings. Who cares that it was initially the flag of a legitimate political party or that it is taken from the sanskrit symbol for good fortune?

Driving back to the hotel that day after the polite conversation and Yankee jokes, I felt sorry for the black folks in Virginia. What a slap in the face to live amongst people whose pride is worth more than your humanity, who day after day fly a flag in celebration of a history that not only excludes you but sought to destroy you. How it must break black folks' hearts to live in a State which once had the highest population of African Americans and has so many family trees, which shaken hard enough will send a black ancestor falling out, yet continues to deny its collective history. That day, I really felt sorry for black people in Virginia and the only person who seemed to take notice and feel sympathy for me was, of course, my friend from Cambridge.

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