A HERITAGE OF HATE
This is Asa Jackson Wyatt. He was an 4th Corporal in the Confederate Army, and died during the battle of Cedar Run in 1862. He was my great-great-great grandfather. Both sides of my family have lived in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia since at least the Civil War, so Wyatt wasn't my only Confederate ancestor, but he was probably the most prominent.
I'm telling you this not because I'm proud of him or what he fought for, but so that you'll understand where I'm coming from when I say that those who claim the Confederate flag is about "heritage, not hate" are dead wrong.
Growing up in rural North Carolina, I heard every argument for flying the Confederate flag that exists. In addition to "heritage, not hate," there was, "the Civil War wasn't about slavery. It was about states' rights." Which may be technically correct, but ignores the fact that it was about states' rights to own other people as slaves. We are old hands at cognitive dissonance in the South.
Wyatt and his confederates may or may not have harbored the same intense, burning hatred for people of color that Dylann Roof, who gunned down nine people in the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. last week, clearly does, but he undoubtedly thought of them as nothing more than chattel. He cared about preserving a social and legal system that devalued African American life. I am not proud of that. It's not a part of my "heritage" that I want to celebrate or advertise on the bumper of my car, or my beach towels, or my Facebook page. The South was on the wrong side of history in the Civil War, and I'm glad they lost.
But the Confederate flag has a life beyond the Civil War. It hasn't been flying non-stop atop the South Carolina capitol building since the war ended in 1865. It was raised in 1961, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, and has long been a symbol of white supremacist hate groups like the KKK, which is still active in many parts of the South. (For an excellent summary of the history of the Confederate Flag, read "Why is the Flag Still There?" in the Atlantic.)
Here is where the real hate comes in and any semblance of an argument for viewing the Confederate flag as a part of our "heritage" falls apart. No matter what the Confederate flag may have meant to people in the 1860s, no one today is ignorant of its adoption by the KKK and other hate groups. We all know - white and black alike - that a person of color is not safe going to a home flying a Confederate flag out front. We all know someone with Confederate flags all over their truck is more likely to tailgate you or try to run you off the road if you're black. We all know that guy with the Confederate flag t-shirt is probably going to drop the n-word, and later, when he's in his work clothes, he's going to be thinking it about customers and job applicants. We know all of this because it's happened, over and over and over again. There can't be any question about what the flag means, and anyone who tells you otherwise is deluding themselves, at best.
We - Southerners, Americans - are better than this. One of the few stories I know about my great-grandmother, Asa Wyatt's granddaughter, is that she and my mom were watching the first integrated Miss America pageant on TV in 1970. When Cheryl Brown, the first African-American contestant, came onstage, my great-grandmother turned to my mom and said, "She's beautiful. It's about time."
If this woman, who kept her grandfather's old sword and a photograph of him in his Confederate uniform, can move forward with the times, surely the rest of us can. Surely we can recognize the pain and damage proudly flying the Confederate flag brings to our friends and neighbors every day. Surely we can see that it legitimizes and disguises the culture of hate that bubbles beneath our Southern show of gentility and politeness. It makes people like Dylann Roof more difficult to spot until they're already pulling the trigger. Surely we can, at the very least, remove this symbol from our government institutions as a sign that we care about black lives and want to put an end to the inhumanity of racism. It's a first step, but an important one.
Take down the Confederate flag. After all, it's about time.