Thirteen months ago today, Bree Newsome scaled a thirty foot pole and removed the “confederate flag.” A few days later I came across this image, created by timelordj4y. This image disturbed me. A lot.
I was born in Virginia. My whole family is either from there, or has lived there so long they’ve effectively gone native. The whole family. On one side they were from North Carolina before they were from Virginia, and in the family history, that feels like an immigration event. “Virginia” was my cultural and ethnic heritage so thoroughly that school assignments to make a doll dressed in the traditional costume of my country of origin were always…tricky. We know when more or less which great great great grand whoever came over from where, but there are no ties there. We functionally sprang up from the ground in a tiny place outside Richmond and any roots older or deeper than that don’t matter, are invisible to us.
Being Virginian means a lot, at least in my family. For me. It means being raised to look at Thanksgiving and mutter how they’d done this in Jamestown before a pack of ornery Calvinists decided European protestants weren’t protestant enough for them. It means understanding that every important thing that happened in this country until the 1870’s was either instigated by a Virginian, successful because of a Virginian, or enabled by the mere presence of Virginia. It means summers spent visiting battlefields and old mansions and getting quizzed on important historical dates at the dinner table. History matters. It’s as thick as the air in summer.
About the time I was ten, one of my aunts dug an unexploded shell from the Civil War battle out of her tomato patch. It’s on display in the family museum with the other artifacts we’ve dug out of that yard. This isn’t weird.
But it also means strangers blithely going, “Oh, so not really the South,” when I answer their follow up question about where in the South I’m from. Then getting uncomfortable when I stare blankly and say, “Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. Most of the compromises in the constitution around slavery were instigated by a bunch of rich white Virginians. Summers are hot, and the tea is mostly simple syrup. What standards are you using?”
It means people saying, “You don’t sound like you’re from Virginia,” as if it’s a compliment, then turning around and using y’all because it makes them sound folksy and quaint.
It’s that time somebody asked me if my family kept Klan hoods in their closets instead of skeletons, then acted like I was out of line when I answered with, “Sure, let’s talk about vigilante enforcement of racial disparities. Is it okay to include sundown towns, states founded on dreams of white utopia, and how the most segregated cities in the country happen to be in the north? Or is it only okay to talk about racism if we’re going to pretend it’s all lynchings and Jim Crow?”
It’s getting told, before leaving for college, that if you bring a black boy home it’ll kill your grandfather, and wondering whether that’s because he’s Virginian, or because he’s old.
It’s forever being part of the national scapegoat on race issues and on the one hand going, “Uhm, excuse me, but seriously?” and on the other sighing and going, “Yeah. Yeah, I know.”
It’s seeing bumper stickers that say “The South Will Rise Again,” and for single, hopeful moment, believing it. Then in the next moment, realizing that what rising would mean to you (education, a wide scale decline in generations of poverty, urban growth, innovation) is not the same thing it means to somebody who’d display that bumper sticker.
It means that after you’ve spent an afternoon digging through research on the transcontinental railroad, your roommate comes home to a rant about how, if they’d chosen the proposed southern route it would have been faster and cheaper to build, and might well have saved the south. But the war happened so they didn’t, and that fucking war ruined everything again.
Being Southern is and isn’t very much about that war. A war that my family understands as a thing we had to do, that was complicated and fraught and unnecessary and a part of our heritage. We were taught to be proud of people on both sides for the good things they did, and critical of both sides for their hypocrisies, sins, and mistakes. And, this is where we maybe diverge most noticeably from the typical Southern narrative (or maybe we don’t): the North didn’t win so much as the South lost, and the North didn’t beat us so much as we self destructed through stupidity and short-sightedness. The institution of slavery as practiced in the Americas, particularly in North America, was a departure from other forms of slavery and those departures made it crueler, more divisive, and untenable from a merely pragmatic level: you cannot indefinitely enslave a majority population that has no hope of enfranchisement for itself or its future generations. There’s no security in that setup, which renders it inherently unstable.
Slavery was idiotic and black people are people and Jim Crow was terrible but there are no black people in Grannie’s church and if I date a black man, I should probably keep it a secret. None of that is whispered. It’s not secret or subtle or taboo the way it is in the north. These truths are self-evident and there is no conflict there.
I’ve been trying to write this, and abandoning it, for thirteen months. It’s a young white woman from the South spewing a lot of words about how awkward it is to be a young white woman from the South right now. I’m not getting shot. I’m not even getting called names. I can spend thirteen months thinking about a picture that bothered me and trying to find a way to explain why when all that really needs to be said is, “That lady is a badass. Black lives matter.”
And it’s true. Bree Newsome is a badass. Black lives matter. But that’s a platitude followed by a hashtag and that’s not remotely an adequate encapsulation of my thoughts.
That picture is distressing because it exists. Because it’s powerful. Because it’s a black woman pulling down a flag that shouldn’t have been flying in the first place; the bulk of its symbolic power dates to the Civil Rights movement, not the Civil War. My dad is older than the modern trend of flying that flag, and it saw more use in 1961-1963 than it did during the war. It went up, though. That’s history. Southerners don’t argue with history. They can’t. It’s in the air. It’s in their blood. It’s the conversation at the dinner table.
But an argument with history isn’t required. Fighting is. Respecting a fight well fought is. The flag went up, and once it did, there was nothing we could do to change the fact that it went up. But it didn’t have to stay. And it didn’t have to take a black woman reacting to a legacy of dead black men and a country that won’t acknowledge a rot running through the whole of itself to bring it down.
It should have been a white woman. Or a white man. Somebody from the South. Somebody with roots there so deep that they might be able to gesture toward some boat that came over back when Virginia’s border officially stretched to the Pacific stepping up one day to say, “What do y’all think, but maybe we just leave that one off today, hm?” No fanfare. No iconic imagery. Just a moment where instead of repeating history, we acknowledge its power by declining to.
That’s not what happened. More, I honestly can’t conceive of how it could happen. Too many people have dug in their heels too far. My idea of a risen South is not their idea.
That picture is disturbing because it’s the first time I saw a depiction of the “Confederate flag” that inspired hope. Hope is scary. It’s dangerous. It shields you from pragmatic reality and insulates you against learning the lessons you need to learn. I don’t like it. I especially don’t like it when running across a new spark of hope reveals that I’ve been holding onto a hope for something else. Hope that maybe for once the South will pull itself together, put its foot down, and do something that isn’t just beautiful, but bright and just. That Southern honesty about a national disease means we can be the leaders in the cure.
But here’s the thing I’ve realized in thirteen months of thinking about that image: My premise is wrong. Bree Newsome is from Charlotte. The Black Lives Matter movement got its start in Mark Twain’s home state. Martin Luther King Jr. was from Atlanta and did the vast majority of his work in the South. The South is trying to fix itself. It’s just not wearing the faces I expect. I’d find a picture from outside the South with only white faces odd. In the South, it feels obvious. That’s a lie. The South isn’t white. It never has been. But I’m a white woman from the South whose entire exposure to black culture and black communities came after she left. I never went back and filled in the gaps.
That picture disturbs me because…it’s exactly what I needed to see, but I hadn’t known that. One image, and I learned a lot about what where I was blind.
Bree Newsome is a badass