06/22/2015 01:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Stars, Bars, and Unspoken Languages


When I was a kid in Michigan, I did not see many Confederate flags, and yet somehow I knew exactly what they meant. Home was the capital city, where the only flags flying were, and are, the Stars and Stripes and the deep blue banner of the state. ("Si quaeris peninsula amoenam circumspice"/"If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you.") Any Stars and Bars were furtive emblems, vanity front license plates on trucks, or small stickers in the corners of rear windows. Setting out on the highways and moving away from city limits, you would see them occasionally. So as an adolescent, I associated them with everything my family and I were not: white, rural, disaffected, contemptuous of the state's urban areas and their inhabitants. City and country, urban and rural, were stark and real differences for me. I loved Lansing, Ann Arbor and Detroit, the places where I lived and to which I bounced back and forth in search of fun. And if, traveling from one to another, I saw a truck with a Confederate flag plate -- pulled in at a gas station, or passing me along I-94, 96 or old 127, I just kept to myself and willed it, and its inhabitants, to go away. Leave me alone. Take your damn flag with you, since you apparently haven't noticed that you are as far north as you can get without hitting Canada.

Of course, I know now that those men and women proclaiming their love for the Confederacy had indeed noticed where they were. That was the point: to register their hatred of the mainstream where they found themselves, to identify themselves as not-Lansing, not-Ann Arbor, and especially, not-Detroit. Not urban, living and mixing with all kinds of people. And most definitely, not black.

My family always warned me to avoid anyone sporting that flag in any way, a form of "stranger danger" particular to people of color. I viewed it with dread because it so often flew in another town nearby, its northern locale be damned: a town with a particularly threatening history. Howell is a half-hour's drive from where I grew up, and I've driven past it more times than I could ever count. Interstate 96 intersects it, and anyone taking that highway to get to Ann Arbor or Detroit will necessarily go past this smaller settlement of about 9000 people. As a teenager, I never stopped there, even if I was running late coming back from a concert or a friend's house and could see my car's fuel gauge approaching the ominous "E." For my family had told me stories of the KKK Grand Dragon who used to live there, of cross burnings, the Stars and Bars flown proudly, and people who did not "like us, or black people, or Jews, or the Lebanese folks in town -- they don't like anyone but themselves." To emphasize their point, they'd tell me the story of my mom's scariest car moment: how once during a summer's evening, something went wrong with her car near Howell. She found a pay phone, and called her older brother in Lansing, asking him to come quickly. "When I told him where I was, he just said, 'stay in the car,' and hung up. He got there in about fifteen minutes." (I checked: Howell is 38 miles from Lansing. So my uncle was... not obeying the speed limit.) The grim looks on my mother's face, or my uncle's, any time they tell this story, finish it for them. No one has to say what they feared, or why my uncle did Nascar speeds to reach his sister. They left my mother's car on the side of the road and went home, my uncle returning the next day with a male friend and his gun in order to retrieve it. The reason why they did this, too, remains unspoken, yet I understand them all the same.

I've been to Howell twice as an adult: the KKK Grand Dragon has been dead for twenty years now, and the town is not what it once was. But the past dies hard, and I don't feel terribly comfortable there. I'll be honest: I don't often worry about my safety or welcome when I travel. I count on my gender privilege: I'm unfailingly polite, I smile, say "please" and "thank you," make small talk if I can, and most of the time, people are nice in return. I spent most of my youth figuring that only a hardcore racist would be rude to a pretty girl in a Spartans t-shirt, smiling and asking for directions, and for the most part, I was proven right. Most people are kind. But then, I don't seek out anyone sporting the Confederate flag anywhere on them, be it bumper sticker or t-shirt, which to someone like me, says "you're not welcome." I stay as far away from that flag and its supporters as I can, because like my family's stories, the flag's meanings don't need to be said aloud. I understand them just fine, eloquent symbols, speaking a language sometimes stronger than words.

I wish that my black neighbors and fellow citizens in South Carolina did not have to live with seeing this flag every day. I have no doubt their families told them similar stories of its danger, in many cases stories far worse; and they too, comprehend perfectly what that flag tells them. All the platitudes and the apologists who utter them do not change that: indeed, the flag's unspoken message has outlasted every mortal hand that ever hoisted it. That is the point of flags, and all such symbols: they speak loudly and lastingly, transmitting the messages of the dead to and for new generations. Long before I ever cracked a history book, I knew what the Confederate flag stood for. My deepest wish, in this moment of pain and sorrow, is that some day soon, my fellow citizens will not have to stand for it. How powerful would that unspoken message be: if the government flying it took it down?