Without awareness, I exiled myself. Committed to being a foreigner, existing in near-constant visceral pain of missing Virginia’s Southside, until I can put my finger exactly on what I love and why and how. Until I can make sense of where I begin and my love for a land ends—where I begin and my love for my family, my father ends. Until I can separate my feelings and my consciousness, my reactions and my reality. Until I can reconcile my heritage of shame with my love of myself and my need to belong to a culture squeezed tightly between ugly and beautiful.
I unknowingly chose the perfect place for such examination: North Idaho. It is odd—no matter where we go, everything and nothing is the same. I didn’t know anything about the Aryan Nation presence here. It had never occurred to me that there could be a place this monotone—white. I hadn’t thought about any reason for moving here specifically, except snowboarding. The winter before my move I’d learned to ride, watched the weather and chased storms all over the West. That spring, I received a call offering a chance to caretake a piece of property in Priest River, Idaho. I packed before I hung up the phone—an opportunity to ride every day of the season. All I could think is with that much riding, I was bound to get good.
I have been lost here for fourteen years now, trying to make sense of myself and my world. I still recall ordering my first breakfast burrito, a few days after arriving in Priest River. A waitress came to the table. I ordered water. She came back, sat the water down. Without so much as a sideways glance or deviation in tone, she assured me that there was only one black man in town and they always knew where he was. I just stared. I didn’t say anything except I’d like a burrito. I wish I could say James Baldwin’s ghost entered my body and I threw my water glass at her. But, I didn’t. I sat there in shock and somehow ate my burrito with my mouth shut like a good little girl. Shamed, quiet, and bonded into a hatred I didn’t share.
The only way I can make sense of it is to accept that the waitress detected a Southern accent and assumed I was racist. Unfortunately, my silence assured her. It wasn’t that I had never witnessed racism or made unforgiveable errors myself, it was that I had never felt forced into bondage to others in a hatred for people with black skin. And I did not want to be. Once moving to North Idaho, hearing jokes about lynchings became commonplace. When I said I didn’t think they were funny, people always responded with mouths open gaping in disbelief, well, you’re from the South.
It is painful enough for me to reconcile my love for my ancestors and the land where I am from with my desire to feel whole and love myself with the inexcusable brutality undeniably a part of that ancestral and soil history without being linked to racists all over the country by their false assumptions.
My intuition, not fact, tells me that as white landowners living in the southern United States since the American revolution, my ancestors probably held slaves. I like to hope not, but most likely my heritage is involved in some way. This recognition makes it difficult for me to reconcile my love and admiration with my shame.
It is further complicated by a Confederate flag stapled to a tree at a camping spot all the way in North Idaho. Or the flag waving large from the back of a jacked up white pickup truck with a tiny blonde pale girl driving who, my intuition also tells me, has never been East of Montana.
The South, as a whole, is striving to take Confederate flags and monuments down not only because of the history it glorifies, but also because as University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves said in a statement referencing the deadly clashes in Charlottesville and his motivation to remove four Confederate monuments from the UT Austin campus, “Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”
Here, 2,552 miles west of Virginia, people adamantly fly the Confederate battle flag for exactly that reason. It represents hatred. Flying a flag thought to represent the South feels like an attempt to make me a co-conspirator in their ignorance. The Confederate flag is synonymous with the Civil War South and with the South’s violent history, which unfortunately has outlasted the Civil War.
In her poem “Everybody in America Hate the South,” Jacqueline Allen Trimble wrote
America ought to say
thank you, Miss South, thank you for being like
Jesus and taking on the sins of the whole country.
Flyers of the Confederate flag use the South to speak for their blindness. That flag represents families divided, women raped, bodies mutilated and dismembered. Grief. A wound that continues to bleed. Flying the Confederate flag advocates American injustice and indecency—massacred Native Americans, interred Japanese, exploited migrant workers.
Throwing the Confederate flag up around an old growth tree at a campsite along the Coeur d’Alene River robs America of its potential. We, as a nation, have been stumbling for a long time. Divided, we will fall. Take the flag down wherever it is being flown.
Let’s turn our humiliating and inhumane history into something good. If for no other reason, so that we can begin to forgive the history running deep and hot in our veins. So that our nation can find reconciliation, forgiveness, and wholeness. So I can find my way home.
How do you work to heal the still bleeding wound caused by the South’s history? Tell us in the comments.
Image credit: Flickr