Unraveling the Confederate flag

Our town has a pretty big Halloween parade, and it’s an annual tradition to toss blankets and chairs along the parade route to stake a good viewing spot.

Yesterday, I saw this:

stars-barsYes, that’s a Confederate flag blanket on the main street in my town, which is not exactly a Trump hotbed. (It is, though, quite white, and Asian and Hispanic residents far outnumber African-American residents.)

I was shocked, to say the least. I posted it to Facebook and instantly had several volunteers to go toss that thing in the trash.

But I did have to go back and question myself …

I watched The Dukes of Hazzard as a kid, like many kids of the 70s did. I played Dixie on the clarinet — the melody is a pretty good exercise for beginners. In college, my roommate one summer actually had a Confederate flag — he was in a fraternity that occupied part of my dorm building and had “Old South” events. At some point, I wrote a Chronicle column that was essentially a “live and let live” plea that included a paragraph about letting people show the flag for “Southern pride” if they wanted.

So am I being hypocritical?

I’d like to think people can make progress. Exhibit A: Tom Petty, who used to show the Confederate flag at his shows and later renounced it, quite eloquently:

The Confederate flag was the wallpaper of the South when I was a kid growing up in Gainesville, Florida. I always knew it had to do with the Civil War, but the South had adopted it as its logo. I was pretty ignorant of what it actually meant.

Some of us on Facebook said the same thing. More Petty:

To this day, I have good feelings for the South in many ways. There’s some wonderful people down there. There are people still affected by what their relatives taught them. It isn’t necessarily racism. They just don’t like Yankees. They don’t like the North. But when they wave that flag, they aren’t stopping to think how it looks to a black person. I blame myself for not doing that. I should have gone around the fence and taken a good look at it. But honestly, it all stemmed from my trying to illustrate a character. I then just let it get out of control as a marketing device for the record. It was dumb and it shouldn’t have happened.

My dad actually had a good way of looking at it. He was an old-school Southern gentleman, also influenced by a life of traveling the world as a prominent biochemist. He believed the flag was not offensive but, if others found it offensive, a gentleman’s good manners would dictate that we shouldn’t fly it. I agreed with that at the time, but I think the next step was to recognize parts of the history that had been, to put it mildly, de-emphasized.

Only as an adult did I learn that a lot of Confederate flag-waving and monument-building took place in the 20th century, not the 19th. And it was done for specific reasons — basically, whenever black people made noise about injustice. Even if you can somehow rationalize the flag as some sort of historical affectation for a “states’ rights” cause without that knowledge, I can’t imagine a decent human being who’d rationalize the flag with that knowledge.

Today, there should be no excuse not to have that knowledge. Tom Petty and I grew up in the South before people talked about such things in public forums. In the Internet age, how can anyone not understand what the Confederate flag means today? Again — even if you can somehow rationalize that it’s OK to fly it given what it meant in the 19th century, how can you rationalize it when it is quite clearly a symbol of hate?

(I wonder how many people who objected to a mosque in New York because it was some sort of “triumphalism” see no problem with the dirtbag who flies a giant Confederate flag on I-95 knowing full well it’s going to be seen by thousands of slaves’ descendants every day.)

I did have a quick conversation with my walking companion. See the man in the picture? I have no idea whether the flag blanket was his. But someone walking with me figured it was, based on his pronounced Southern drawl.

And so I had to explain that we shouldn’t stereotype — at all. I’ve known thousands of people with Southern drawls — some of them fulfilling every stereotype Family Guy can toss out, some of them brilliant and progressive.

So we all have a lot of progress to make. I’m not done just because I’m less ignorant about this ugly collection of stars on a cross than I was when I was 14 or 19. And I’m not sure of the best way to encourage whoever laid this hideous blanket on the main street of my town to start making some progress, too.