I am a son of the South. I have lived here for 32 of my 36 years. After those other four years, spent in Europe, I chose (with my wife) to return here rather than move on to some other part of the country or world. A well-traveled professor of mine marveled, “You Southern boys always come back to the South.” To which I could only reply, well, why wouldn’t we?
The South is The South for many reasons. In an ever more connected world, our region has been a little slower than others to let go of the things that make us unique. This is both for good and for bad. But it is, and we are not the only ones who know it. Years ago, in Australia, a woman asked my wife if she still wore hoop skirts back home. That struck her as ridiculous, until I reminded her that her sister owned just such a garment which she wore for a side job as a Scarlett O’Hara impersonator — almost always for groups visiting from out-of-town or even overseas.
So we do, in many ways, live in our own little world here. Or should I say, worlds.
Race is a complicated issue in the South, far from the cut-and-dried matter outsiders assume it to be. It’s why a black colleague of mine, Rick Badie, recounts buying firewood from a man who displayed the rebel flag on his porch — but who also invited Rick to sit for a spell and drink a beer with him. It’s why I’d venture to guess anyone, black or white, who has lived here very long can tell a story with similar contradictions. If race is the great scar on the American body politic, we can’t pretend we inhabit a different limb. We live where the skin is still tender, because the wound is still healing.
For that reason, the “recent unpleasantness” is not just a local euphemism for the War Between the States. The “unpleasantness” has been as recent as Wednesday night, when nine people were killed after a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina.
We do not yet know why exactly Dylann Roof was driven to the margins of society. But it is hardly shocking that the part of the fringe to which he gravitated was the one that here looms too menacingly and too close by, like a strangely shaped shadow just beyond the campfire’s light. Humans are a tribal species, and in a place like South Carolina there are some relatively healthy choices for scratching that itch: Baptist or Methodist, Tiger or Gamecock, Democrat or Republican. But if the mainstream options don’t appeal, those at the margins of the South always have another choice at hand in the battle flag and other totems of the Confederacy.
There are, to be clear, those who study the civil war and even the C.S.A. with deep interests that have nothing to do with racial animus: family ties, local history, the same inexplicable magnetism that draws folks to anything from football to punk rock. But it is hard to argue a century and a half after Appomattox that flying the battle flag of a defeated army serves much more than stirring old divisions.
Despite having lived in the South 90 percent of my life, I have never understood any other attachment to that emblem. It is a striking image with a certain degree of visual appeal, the reason my 11th grade self used it as the background for a poster about Faulkner’s “The Unvanquished,” a misjudgment the depth of which I only realized years later. But no argument on artistic grounds is any more persuasive than appeals to its historic value, not when a central part of its history is an integration-era renaissance as a symbol of defiance and unabashed bigotry, re-stoking an unpleasantness that didn’t end in 1865. Neither is the smirking detente offered by a T-shirt from the 1990s: “You wear your X (Malcolm) and I’ll wear mine.”
It is a testament to the gains we have made in the South that the violence at Emanuel AME Church was carried out by one delusional young man whose actions — if not beliefs — were disavowed publicly even by a leading white supremacist. There was never going to be a cavalry riding into the “race war” Roof told police he wanted to start. But if there is neither justification nor great sympathy for the flag Roof all but carried back into battle, why has it not completely disappeared from polite company, not to say the grounds of South Carolina’s state capitol?
Societal inertia, a defiant streak, misplaced pride, historical ignorance, actual hatred? A little of each. But let us not also discount a possible reluctance to lend even a little credence to those voices that call out about collective, intergenerational guilt, which seem ready to turn a given inch into a taken mile. Many of the same voices that immediately sought a partisan political advantage from last week’s horrific shooting have, to name one past example, suggested opposition to Obamacare was chiefly the product of “racist tea-baggers.” Remember that tribal impulse: When one finds one’s side attacked as guilty, even or maybe especially by false association, defensiveness is a natural reaction. Taken too far, it can even make a false association almost seem true.
But that, too, is no justification for the otherwise unjustified. Ultimately, it only empowers those same voices one would deny a victory, by echoing their argument that an entire wing of the American political spectrum is motivated by hate.
When describing oneself as a “conservative,” it is worth asking what one seeks to conserve. Those of us who are from and of the South cannot conserve our region’s culture and heritage by continuing to embrace, or even appearing to embrace, a symbol that mostly undermines them. It’s time to move on.