11/07/2013 05:19 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Reclaiming the Confederate Flag? Yeezus!

When I was a little kid, my mother packed me in the car and announced that we were going to see the president. It was 1980 and Jimmy Carter, the only President that I could remember, was campaigning for reelection. When we arrived we were engulfed in a huge crowd that filed into Spring Park in Tuscumbia, AL. The president was late, and the Alabama heat was relentless. People started fainting from heatstroke. As my mother scanned the crowd for a place where I could sit down, a white woman with a grinning girl about my age pointed us to a pond. As we followed them over, the little girl handed me one of two little American flags. "For when the president comes," she said. The woman sat her daughter down at the edge of the pond and proceeded to take her shoes off. And to my delight, my mother did the same. We plunged our feet in the water and pretended that minnows were tickling our toes. Finally a caravan entered the park. Everyone who was sitting stood, and those who were standing craned their necks to the see the President's caravan enter. I got to my feet and saw tiny flags were waving everywhere, so I waved mine too. Then, a collective "aww," of disappointment passed over the crowd. I stood on my tiptoes, still looking for the President. Instead, I saw the battle flag of the Confederacy being carried by men wearing white sheets. "Aww, nothing but the Klan," my mother said, waving a dismissive hand in the air as she turned her back to them. My mother had cultivated a dismissive air towards the Klan whenever she encountered them. I suspect that this was for my benefit, a way of saying, they are no danger to you; their reign of terror is over. But I stood frozen, still holding that tiny flag, unwilling to turn my back. I had seen them before hanging outside of shopping malls and busy intersections, handing out pamphlets. Every sighting had left me feeling shame, that peculiar brand of self-blame at which children excel. At seven years old, I knew who they were, who they were there for, and I also knew what that flag meant.

For years after, I have watched and listened carefully while numerous people have attempted to reclaim the Confederate flag and deny its connection to white supremacy. Some were schoolmates whose own parents had the flag embossed somewhere on the family car. It was about honoring the Confederacy and had nothing to do with slavery, they claimed. How even a child could believe that absurdity is beyond me. That was a long time ago, and yet the attempts to not only reclaim the flag, but to somehow deny its relationship to the long history of black oppression have never ended. As recently as 2012, a teenager in Tennessee was sent home from a prom for wearing a rebel flag dress. Her reason: "Because I thought it was cool."

Is it possible that American history education is really so poor as to have given people the impression that the flag could somehow be a symbol of Southern pride, disengaged from the history of black oppression? Or is this perhaps a convenient lie for people privileged enough not to feel impacted by this history? As an adult, I once visited the home of an acquaintance of my mother and discovered that inside she had life-size paintings: one of her as Scarlett O'Hara and another of her husband as Rhett Butler. She was gracious, generous, and kind. And, I feel certain that she was not in the least concerned about having two black people see that she had paid to have someone paint her and her husband right into the middle of a Confederate fantasy. Never mind that most Southerners didn't own slaves, and probably couldn't have afforded any. Set aside the fact that at the same time that slavery had violated black people in every way possible, it had also devalued the labor and lives of poor whites. All these Southern apologists seem to imagine that their ancestors were living the myth, despite the fact that most were the secondary victims of an unjust institution that ripped the nation apart. No one should be too proud of this history, let alone proud enough to display the Confederate flag.

So when Kanye West was spotted leaving Barneys of New York in L.A. wearing a jacket that prominently displayed the Confederate flag, my immediate reaction was why. Surely he is not in denial about the symbolism of this flag, so what (besides publicity) is he up to? And more precisely, can a black man reclaim that flag? On a purely theoretical level, I will admit that I get it. If black folks started donning that flag, how might it disrupt the romantic myth of the South that so many white supremacists have bought into? That myth requires the complete rejection of black people as anything more than props in order for it to exist. West's donning of the flag appears to be an assertion of his power over it, his power to appropriate and redefine it. By baring the flag, he attempts to place himself at the center, and white supremacists on the margins. Could a black man wearing that flag even place some of those proud Southerners in the awkward position of rejecting the flag because a black man appropriated it?

But just because I get it, doesn't mean I agree with it. We could speculate about the meaning of West's actions all day, but in the end, the risks of trying to reclaim the flag are just too great. Everyone who uses this flag in the future and claims that it is not connected to white supremacy will point to West to defend their actions. West in all likelihood will never personally encounter the people that his flag-wearing may have emboldened. West exists on a plane of economic privilege, so separate from the meanings of that flag that of course he feels he has the power to repurpose and redefine it. This is the essential difference between him and most black folks. Most of us don't feel this distance, this level of safety in the world, this mastery over racialized oppression. Indeed, there are some of us living in circumstances that suggest we might be more like the old slaves than his so-called new ones.

I'm not sure that anyone can successfully reclaim the Confederate flag. I am sure that I do not have the power to take it back, to lay claim to something that has never been anything more than a symbol of my alienation. While Kanye West is throwing the keys to his Maybach, I am still that wet-footed black girl, looking for the President, only to find the flag of the Confederacy hanging over me.