Standing for “heritage, not hate” means nothing when that heritage is hate.
“Are you a Yankee or a Rebel!?” a kid I’d never seen in my life yelled loudly in my face as I walked up the steps of the bus to find my seat.
My mother had decided I needed to go to day camp the summer I was 8 and this was what she’d found for me: a day camp run by Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. It was on an island in the middle of the James River and all I remember from it 30 years later is the enormous black plastic slide covered in Joy dishwashing soap the smell of which would never wash out of my swim suit, a kid making leather bracelets stamped JESUS, and this boy in the front seat of the camp bus interrogating everyone as to their status as “Yankee” or “Rebel.”
I looked at him confused, knowing there was a right answer and a wrong answer but also knowing that regardless of either the question was a stupid one. “I don’t know,” I told him. “Where were you born?” he shouted. “Here,” I said. “You’re a Rebel, then. You own slaves!” He then immediately forgot about me as he shouted the same question to the kid behind me. I took my seat on the bus and tried to work through what had just happened, knowing I didn’t want slaves but also knowing that “here” was exactly where I was from.
As the Confederate flag begins being lowered across the South, there are a lot of white people like me who are relieved. White people who grew up in progressive families that never found a need to embrace that most shameful legacy of our home’s history, white people who grew up with friends who are African-American, white people sick of being pigeonholed by Northerners as backwards and racist because of our region’s inability to get over the Civil War, our endless need to cling to a history that for so many means genocide.
My mom tells the story of my nursery school principal calling her for an important meeting when I was 3. She was apparently disturbed by my fascination with the hair of my best friend, another 3-year-old who happened to be African-American. The principal was not concerned I was violating this child’s personal space by touching his hair; she was concerned I was such good friends with “a black boy.” My mother told her in no uncertain terms to mind her own business and she told me to stop messing with the child’s hair because that’s rude.
That small story from 1978 Virginia has always been a guidepost to me about where my friends and neighbors stand on race. We grow up with black kids in our classes and on our teams and in our neighborhoods. Our parents have black friends at work with whom they go out to lunch. I believe that this close proximity gives dangerous cover to a lack of real understanding from white people of the incredible challenges our African-American friends face every day.
I was in college the first time I fully realized how we looked to outsiders versus how we consider ourselves. A hallmate from New England who arrived at our Virginia college with a superiority complex when it came to the concept of race relations—her assumption being that she was one of the more racially understanding of our group—continually baffled me. How much could she even know about race relations when there was one African-American family in her entire town, I thought. Say what you will about the regressive attitudes of where I’m from, at least I’d grown up with African-American kids. Gone to school with them and played on teams with them. Ran around the neighborhood with them and on the playground. I was protective of my relationships and deep past with people not like me and I resented the feeling I needed lecturing on the subject all the while taking for granted what I didn’t really know.
It is nearly impossible to grow up where I grew up and not be racist. Our deep roots have twisted and spread in soil soaked with the blood of hundreds of years of innocent humans terrorized and used as chattel. Slavery’s violence as an institution cannot be overstated and it is impossible for us sitting now in 2015 to accurately understand the horrors of it. Babies ripped from their mother’s arms and sold, women raped with impunity, men worked until their bodies were broken. This is not taught in school in any meaningful way and we as a nation suffer for it.
That “The South” is a thing in a way that “The West” is not a thing and “The North” even is not really a thing is telling. “The South” exists as an identity in the same way that Red Sox and Cubs fandom does, a brotherhood of underdogs and losers except not in a lovable baseball way. It is a unity based solely in the embarrassing loss and subsequent victim identification of an entire region of people all directly relating to the Civil War and its aftermath. There is absolutely no other unifying factor that would tie my Virginia mountain home with the low-lying swamplands of Louisiana in anything resembling solidarity. All we have is a shared history of the forced subjugation of people of color and an army of traitors to the United States of America. That is what “The South” really means, though I feel confident there are a whole lot of people who don’t bother to think about that.
There is no place I would rather live than in my beautiful Virginia with its mountains and beaches and rich diversity of humanity. This is my home in a way that no other home could ever be. I am descended from a long line of dirt farmers on both sides most of which probably never owned slaves though I cannot attest that they wouldn’t have if they could have afforded it. I have no problem admitting that they were cogs in an enormous and violent machine, but they are no more guilty or innocent than any other people of their time. It is not my place to assign or absolve guilt.
I am grateful for the choices my ancestors made because without them I would not be sitting here, my children would not be sitting in the next room. But that is all I think of them as I assume my own descendants many generations from now will think of me. There is nothing I can do that could impact the lives of those who lived hundreds of years ago. However, there are things I can do now that can impact the lives of those who are living, and if those lives are descended from lives that my ancestors somehow harmed, then I feel all the better for my efforts.
All we can hope as humans is that people do right in our name, even if that right takes 200 years to make happen. It is because of this that I will never understand how a picture of a great-great-grandfather you never knew could mean so much more in your heart than the faces of Clementa Pinckney’s two little girls in their mourning dresses. Or the two little girls in the picture of your friend who sits down the hall from you. Or the two little girls whose daddy plays on your daddy’s softball team.
It is for all the little girls and boys of color and for your friends who worry about their mother getting pulled over for a taillight or for their brother walking home from the convenience store that the flag must go, that the public monuments glorifying traitors to the Union should be moved to a museum, that our state governments should make clear whose side they are on.
Because standing for “heritage, not hate” means nothing when that heritage is hate. And because when the government glorifies a history that was thick with violence and terror, it has to understand that misguided and lost people will look to it for more violence and terror.
It is why Germany has banned the swastika. It is why states in the southern part of America need to free themselves of their misplaced allegiance to their stars and bars. And it is why people in my beautiful state of Virginia and all other states that consider themselves a part of “The South” must understand that while we are in no way responsible for what the people before us did, we are completely responsible for what we do now and for everything that comes after.
Jenny Poore writes about parenting, public education, and politics. Her work has most recently appeared in xoJane, Mommyish, and Full Grown People. You can follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Poore and at her blog, Sometimes There are Stories Here.