Finally, an elected leader is speaking with a bit of clarity, determination and with no hesitation. Mississippi Governor Bryant has spoken and said the Confederate flag remains, even if every other elected official has cowered to the ridiculous calls for removal of our state’s flag. Before you fall into the typical “She’s a racist” response, at least give me the courtesy to explain a few things.
For years, Mississippi has been the go-to state for everything that’s wrong in this country. We’ve ranked low on surveys that paint a dark picture of “the worst of…” and we rank high on other surveys that many say should make us all ashamed. The reality is, when you hear a Mississippian say, “leave us alone”, you can be sure it’s a collective suggestion based on an inability of any outsider to actually “get it” when it comes to why we do the things we do. Our declaration of, “You’re wrong” is always met with, “…but the media says…”
When Hurricane Katrina hit several years ago, people were astounded when Governor Haley Barbour stepped up to the plate, like a true leader, and did what had to be done. You see, he knew that to fall to the will of the federal government would have meant turning his state into the government’s whore. While the media bellyached about the injustices just west of us in Louisiana, Mississippians were quietly rebuilding. We prayed quietly and hoped quietly – and when it was all said and done, we rejoiced quietly. We knew first, it was the only way to get it right and second, it was just as well because it’s all we know anyway. We rely on faith, family and neighbors. And we’re good with that.
After Governor Barbour left office, Governor Bryant stepped up to the plate. He too has shown an amazing determination to not be a follower. He’s said no to Medicaid expansion, despite the pressure to fall in line. And just today, he’s said no to the media’s demand and others whose demands are far too shortsighted when it comes to the Confederate flag.
By the way – he and Barbour are the only two current/former governors who have had the courage to dismiss this ridiculous call for the flag’s removal.
For most of us, the Confederate flag does not raise images of a segregated south. That’s because most of us weren’t raised with the stories that the rest of the nation uses to beat us over the head. We know the dark tales, but those stories about the KKK, burning crosses and brutality against our fellow Mississippians are told with shame by our elders. Nothing prideful at all in those stories. We know the fear, we know the grief and we know the anger that brews in our hearts every time one of those stories are retold.
Just so we’re clear – and really, I’m not trying to antagonize anyone – but what exactly is it we should apologize for? Would an apology for the evils committed years before we were even born help? If so, then why have the decades since, filled with apologies, not appeased those who feel slighted? How long must anyone apologize for those brutalities committed by people we did not know?
I used to think of the United States as a powerful, unified force to be reckoned with. The world admired us and those who didn’t admire us, at least they feared us. When it became clear our own president was doing anything but ensuring we stand together, I thought to myself, “Well, we in the south stand together.” After I’ve seen so many do the politically correct thing for the sake of doing, well, the politically correct thing, I realize we’re in trouble. As long as we allow the past to dictate our present day and our future, we’re all screwed.
As I said, the Confederate flag means an entirely different thing to most of us. There’s not a single time spent on the river, drinking beer and eating crawfish that we don’t have the Confederate flag flying somewhere. It might be from the bed of a truck or it might be flying from a pole someone planted in the sand. For most of us in the south, it’s about living good and doing it while we’re young. It’s indicative of country music, sunburns, cookouts and falling in love with those we love, whether we’re riding horses or are on the sandbar. Under the sun. Under the moonlight. Some of the best times in my life have included that flag, even though it hadn’t occurred to me until recently. So all of those demanding change because it’s indicative of ties that bind too tightly, just know that for the rest of us, it’s about freedom and all that comes with a southern, even redneck, state of being. And by the way – when y’all call us rednecks, you should know we’re flattered. That’s a compliment down here in Mississippi.
Really, how much longer is anyone going to fall in line behind a media’s ulterior motives? Aren’t y’all tired of it?
And if you’re interested, here’s part of a chapter that I opted not to include in a recent writing project. There’s not a writer I know who doesn’t have a hard drive filled with chapters of “Eh, maybe in another story”. This is one of those stories that I didn’t include, but it feels quite appropriate now. You should also know that I spoke with my mother about this today (it’s true, written from the perspective of fictional characters). She too remembers the American flag flying. The Confederate flag was not flying. As you’ll see, I should know. I was there.
And with that, Leslie kicks it off, “Hey – do you remember being forced into the floorboard in the back seat of the car when we lived on the coast? We couldn’t have been more than five or six at the time. “
After thinking for a minute, Pen realizes she hadn’t thought about that for years. At the time, the two sisters, huddled in the floorboards of that old Granada, were convinced they were being punished for some unknown crime committed moments before being ordered to “get down”.
“Yeah. Why are you bringing that up now?” Pen asked her older sister.
“Stay with me here. Do you remember me confronting Granny one night after one of those trips?”
Even as Leslie is asking the question, Pen is shaking her head, almost afraid to hear what’s about to be told to her, but knowing it’s coming anyway.
“I’m assuming that’s a rhetorical question,” Pen mumbles, to which Leslie rolls her eyes and says, “Yeah, whatever. Hush. This is serious.”
Leslie pauses, and then begins.
“OK, so one night, I asked Granny what we had did wrong to cause Mom to punish us. When she told me we hadn’t done anything wrong, I actually threw a fit and demanded to know why we weren’t allowed to go trick or treating.” Pen was growing more confused with each word her sister was rapidly unloading.
“Wait, what? How would Granny know?”
“Because she was usually with us us…remember? It was us, Mom and Granny most nights.” Leslie pauses, hoping her sister’s memory would return minus any further clarifications.
Still with a blank look, Pen says, “I don’t know, Leslie.”
And with a roll of her eyes, Leslie returns to her story, figuring Pen would catch up.
“Just listen. One night, I caught a glimpse of a big fire and a bunch of people dressed in costumes. It looked like a party. The way I saw it, we were either being punished for misbehaving or Mom was trying to make sure we didn’t find out it was Halloween because she didn’t want to do the whole trick or treating thing.”
Pen is staring at her sister tell a story that she was a part of, but feeling more of an outsider. She was on the outside, looking in. Why hadn’t Leslie told her that their mother was avoiding Halloween, she wondered? Before she can say anything and further distract them from the story, Leslie quickly pushes her hair, complete with pink icing, behind her ear and continues.
“Granny got a kick out of it, which only made it worse for me. I was then convinced that not only was Mom plotting against our opportunity for candy loot, but Granny was in on the deal too.”
Standing up, Leslie moves toward the oven to pull the cakes out.
“So, anyway, do you have any idea what that was?”
“No. What was it?”
“It was a KKK meeting!”
“Oh my God! Are you serious? How does…I mean, why…” she trails off, uncertain of what to ask.
“Well, remember, it was the late 60s, early 70s and there was still a lot of hatred, especially in that little Podunk town. It just so happened that Mom and Granny’s Bingo nights were sometimes held on the same nights those meetings took place. And because there was only one way in, we had to drive past them. Mom didn’t want us to see that.”
“Oh my God. How did we not know that?”
“Well, for starters, we were kids. And probably, too, I guess Mom didn’t want us to see what hate looks like when we were just beginning to live our lives. She probably was afraid of gunshots, too and felt like she could protect our little psyches and our physical bodies by insisting we get down into the floorboard.”
“Our little psyches,” Pen interrupted. “You’re such a nerd.”
“Yes, brat…our little psyches.”
The two sisters turned their attention to the cake layers, neither speaking but each lost in their own thoughts as they tried to understand the mindset of people, some of whom were likely their neighbors, ones who attended the same church they had attended for years and maybe even ones who opened the doors to their homes for them, smiling and excited to fill their bags with Tootsie Rolls and Chiclets and candy cigarettes when it really was Halloween.
Something startles Pen, who’s suddenly realized everything makes sense, even when it doesn’t, “Wait. Remember that sign above that laundry mat? The one across from the grocery store that was wiped out one of the hurricanes?”
Knowing what she’s about to ask, Leslie answers, “Yeah. That ‘whites only’ sign had nothing to do with separating laundry.” Leslie had asked all those years ago what the sign meant, only to hear their mother mumble to herself, “And I was so happy when she began reading…”
“That sign meant no one but white people,” Pen said, more as a declaration than a question. “My God, Mom must have felt like she always had to be a step ahead. It was all around us, wasn’t it? I mean, she…I…God, Leslie! How did we not know all of this? I mean, how did we…,” she trails off, unsure of what to ask. Suddenly, the memories come flooding back and the look on her face tells Leslie that neither will ever look at their childhood in the same light again.
A couple minutes later, Pen says softly, without looking up from her task of icing the cake, “Was it as bad as they say it was?”
Leslie knows what she’s asking and while she doesn’t have proof of her answer, she knows it to be true. “Yeah, I guess it was. I figure Mom wouldn’t go to those kinds of lengths to protect us if it wasn’t. I mean, passing those meetings, held right out in the public with no fear of the police kind of tells the tale, right?”
“Yeah. I guess. How do you know there was no fear of the police?” Pen asks, even though she senses it’s probably another one of those questions she should not have asked.
Taking a deep breath and never looking up from the cake, which has become a very interesting one based on the fact both are determined to keep their eyes trained on it instead of each other during this conversation, Leslie says, “Because that’s why I thought it was Halloween. The ones dressed in white, I thought were supposed to be ghost costumes. And when I saw the cops, I thought they were costumes too,” she says quietly. She doesn’t finish her thought. She knew she didn’t have to.
In an even quieter voice, and dropping her spatula into the now-empty bowl of icing, Pen says, “Yeah. Ghosts.”
For a split second, when Leslie looks up, she sees that same little tomboy sister who was mischievous and mean and sweet and hopeful. In that split second, she realized that must have been what their mother and grandmother had felt every moment of every day; an unbridled determination to shield them from all that was wrong and evil and to give them both a chance of finding faith in people, minus the jaded images from a segregated south.
One last thing: when the old man who “hosted” these events finally died, he took with him much of that hate. I never remember another event like this. Ever.