The first time I ever laid eyes on a confederate flag, it was plastered onto a truck parked outside of a gas station where my family– a single Black mother with three children– stopped to fill up the tank and stretch our legs. We were on our way to Texas from New Jersey because my mother took a job in the Lone Star State and sought a more affordable life and better schooling that was pretty much out of reach for us up North.
“Can we go get some candy?” My brother and I asked my mother, with our palms extended towards her hoping she’d plop a dollar or two in them. She parted with a few quarters, then warned us to come right back. My brother and I raced towards the entrance of the gas station convenience store and yanked the door open like uncoordinated babies reaching for bottles. The store clerk, a blonde woman in her mid 40’s immediately stopped the conversation she was having with a patron and peered in our direction. We understood her look of disapproval. It was the same look my mother gave us when we were being too loud, or rambunctious in public but she didn’t want to say anything to cause a scene. So we settled down and quietly crept into the candy isle.
With a pack of Bubbalicious strawberry flavored gum in hand, I made my way to the cash register. It felt like a procession. The customers stared at us, their gaze following our every step. I gently rested the candy on the countertop, waiting for the store clerk to make her way over to the cash register.
“She’s just standing there staring at us,” my brother whispered to me. I refused to turn around. The tension in the space was impossible to ignore and it left me paralyzed in fear.
Eventually, the woman walked over slowly, reached for the gum, scanned it, without easing her gaze. The little numbers on the cash register read $.50, so my brother reach towards her with the quarters in hand. She didn’t budge. He rest the money on the counter, picked up the gum and we both turned to leave in complete silence.
When we returned to the car, my mother sensed something strange.
“What’s wrong with the both of you?” She asked with a loving smile. We shook our heads left and right, indicating nothing. It’s not that we didn’t want to tell her what happened: We just didn’t know how to.
“Looks like you guys saw a ghoosttt,” she teased, “was it a haaaunnntteedd gas station mart?”. My brother and I laughed, nodded, then began to make up silly stories about seeing Casper the ghost and needing to call the Ghost Busters.
“These people have a haunnnttting problem,” my mom continued as she turned the keys to the ignition and began to drive away from the pump.
“Ma, what’s that flag for?” I inquired, pointing at a huge red flag with a blue “X” in the middle covered in stars displayed out of the back of the window of a huge truck. There was another plastered in the left corner window of the mart. She remained silent.
“It’s the haunted flag,” my brother responded to me.
From then on, whenever I saw that flag, the fear that burrowed itself deep into my subconscious after that strange interaction at the gas station reared its ugly head. My hands shook a little and became clammy. My knees buckled a bit. It was as if I was somehow teleported back to that day when buying bubble gum was an act worthy of scorn. Every time we entered a town where the flag could be spotted, my siblings and I remained in the car. When boys walked up and down, shotguns in hand, alongside the bayou with confederate flags draped around their shoulders, we knew they would never be our friends. I did not need a history lesson on what the flag represented; my experiences taught me just fine that it meant I was not welcomed.
Whether or not Whites want to admit it, the confederate flag is an emblem of that– divisive and unwelcoming to Blacks and people of color. The fact that I understood that as an adolescent, but somehow white America refuses to acknowledge it speaks to a certain white childish attitude where infantile temper tantrums are condoned, despite knowing what is desired in unhealthy for the country as a whole. The Confederate flag is America’s vice– its unhealthy habit. History tells us that.
It is understood that the “Dixiecrats”, which formed in 1948 to oppose the civil rights movement used the flag as their symbol. We know it is the frequent emblem of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. We know the flag was first flown over the South Carolina Statehouse in 1962, which supposedly just happened to coincide with the civil-rights victory of school desegregation. And now we know that Dylan Storm Roof is pictured displaying the flag to represent his white pride espoused by the manifesto he wrote that is now publicly available.
In truth, the heart of this debate does not lie in the meaning of the flag, its history or what it has come to represent for whites and people of color. The true question, really, is whether or not America wants to finally free itself from its haunted, racist past. Whether or not America wants to finally purge itself of racism and all that represents it.