It was 1977, and a bus full of Iowa kids and their leaders were sweltering in a level of dank heat none of us could have imagined. We were spending two weeks in the Mississippi Delta, the place where the blues began, something no one talked much about because we were, after all, on a mission to bring Jesus to poor black kids and maybe their parents.
We'd been told about racism, enough so that most any white man I saw on that trip I assumed to be a closet KKK gendarme. I knew Jim Crow from history books, but not from sunup to sundown in a real live heat-soaked cotton field. Life among the rural Black poor was new, and to the righteous Yankee ambassadors of Jesus (us) it was, well sad.
Whether it should have been is another question altogether.
So one hot night at a softball game just behind the Christian Center where we were staying, I talked to a man who was about my age. He told me he was living in Detroit, just visiting his Delta homeland. Totally taken with the us vs. them mentality--Yankee vs. Reb, which is to say slave vs. free--I was astounded to hear him say that he'd give anything to move back to to the South, to rural Mississippi, to these cotton fields back home.
It's easier, quite frankly, to buy into caricature than it is into a reality which is almost always more nuanced than the simple "either/or" dichotomy. If there had been a decent job in Delta land, he would have much rather lived right there along the Mississippi than up north in Motor City. What he said sticks with me because I didn't see it coming, not at all, not back then.
It seems to me that the Confederate flag should have been ceremony-ed to a significant place in a thousand Dixie museums long, long ago. My family has been Yankee for as long as they've been citizens of these United States, so I don't really fully understand the till-death-do-us-part commitment to keep that thing flying over state houses (in one form or another). Allegiances die hard, I'm sure, when the earth beneath your feet has been made fertile by ancestors' blood; but consider me among those who believe that what was at the very heart of "the War of Northern Aggression," as it's sometimes still called south of Mason-Dixon, was the institution of slavery, a cultural and spiritual commitment to the proposition that not all men are not created equal, that, in fact, all men are not all men (and women).
That's what the Confederate flag means to me--what it always will mean.
If it offends millions of Americans, white and black, as it does, it needs to be museum-ed. Even Gov. Haley agrees this time--as did a host of others. End of story.
That being said, I think I understand that softball fan from Detroit. I get it in the quiet evenings in the rural South, in the way kids look when they've got fishing poles on their shoulders as they poke along towards the river, in the smiles of ordinary folks, in the sweet sauce of great barbecue. He was still in love with a way of life dank with repression and bigotry, but still big enough to be beautiful.
As much as I hate the slave history of my country, I wouldn't like to see the Mississippi Delta become Detroit, wouldn't like Southern life to become just another derivative of the consumerist suburban North. After all, I really do like William Faulkner, and I appreciate the determined commitment Flannery O'Connor held toward the South she loved so stoutly:
The things we see, hear, smell, and touch affects us long before we believe anything at all. The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another. He takes it in through his ears and hears it again in his own voice, and, by the time he is able to use his imagination for fiction, he finds that his senses respond irrevocably to a certain reality, and particularly to the sound of a certain reality.
What we Northerners are telling Southerners to do requires the tools and hands of an accomplished surgeon, someone who can cauterize South's heritage of bigotry, yet hold to something unique and particular.
And that's not easy. It seems to me that it's much, much easier to put the stars-and-bars where it belongs: in a museum.
I remember standing in front of a huge Afrikaner museum in Pretoria, after Nelson Mandela had become to new Prime Minister of the new South Africa, and thinking that this sprawling monument to the country's Dutch past would somehow, some way, have to go, sad as that may have been to the country's own proud Afrikaners.
Hate condemned that past. People were going to have to find new ways of honoring that which deserved honor, respect, and love because, well, how does the Bible say it?--the wages of sin is death.