Grace and Oppression

“You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.”

It takes a certain amount of bravery to speak out, but even more to act on your convictions. Bree Newsome, a writer, singer and activist, climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina Statehouse in Charleston and took down the Confederate flag. She did this 10 days after nine black people were murdered in their church, during Bible study.

Photo credit: Adam Anderson/Reuters
Photo credit: Adam Anderson/Reuters

For people who don’t know — and I’m finding more and more people who are blissfully unaware — the Confederate flag flies all over the South. It’s Southern pride, I’ve been told. And after a weekend of celebrating pride and equality for all people, the Confederate flag isn’t about pride. Heritage and history, sure. But as many politicians have been saying over the last few days and over the past several years, there are some parts of our heritage that are better left in a museum. Parts of our heritage that do not showcase or welcome the current state of our lives, but throw opinions of worth and identity in the faces of people who do not enjoy life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness under that flag.

I was born and raised in a small, predominantly white town in Upper Michigan. And we studied The Civil War in class, in brief, informative bursts. In these sections of our history books we found the battle flag of the Confederate States of America, an outdated, oppressive symbol tied forever in my mind with slavery. Of pain, suffering, and the blood of my ancestors. Too often, we try to forget the legacy of the United States because it’s uncomfortable to talk about.

When my family moved to Tennessee when I was in high school, I glanced at the cars in the parking lot and the t-shirts of students I noticed in the halls and felt a small sense of panic billowing up inside of me. There was the Confederate flag, pulled from history books and decorated all over cars, shirts, backpacks, and bulky cell phones. On a band trip, a young trumpet player used a little red pillow with the flag emblazoned on it to prop her head up against the window.

In Tennessee, off Interstate 40, a large Confederate flag flies proudly. I’ve passed it often. When I complained about this to people who I knew would listen, I was told it was on someone’s private land, and they were free to do with their property as they pleased. And so I daydreamed of tracking down their address, pulling down their flag, setting it on fire, and standing there as I watched it burn. I’m tired of having the argument. I’m tried of the reasoned conversations, of trying to sit down and describe to someone what it feels like to have this kind of oppression placed on you, day by day, to the point where you begin to get used to it. Where you accept it and stay quiet about it. You let your colleagues and peers continue to flaunt their “Southern pride” because you have given up attempting to explain your worth.

The flag issue builds up in the news every few years and then it dies down again. For personal expression, do what you please, but the flag that Bree Newsome took down early Saturday morning flies over a government building. Gov. Nikki Haley says the flag should come down, but it’s protected by law. Two-thirds of their governing body will vote (eventually) about taking down the flag. Many politicians are supporting taking the flag down. But people like Bree Newsome grew tired of waiting, especially as innocent people are buried due to actions taken under the support of that flag and what it represents.

After Bree Newsome was placed under arrest, the Confederate flag was put back up, in accordance with South Carolina law, just in time for a pro-flag rally. President Obama has routinely sidestepped race issues, often prodded by his detractors as politicizing the problem, as if by relating to other people he wasn’t doing his job. His job includes protecting all citizens and that often means teaching all citizens about the rule of law. Maybe people are only capable of changing so much. Maybe it’s easier to turn away from fact, reason, and emotional pain than to address or accept it. Meanwhile, black churches in the South are still burning, but you may not have caught that on the news. During President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, he moved away from the man and focused on the senseless massacre on June 17th. Then, he discussed the flag:

“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness, it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers, it would simply be an acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong. It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.  It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union.  By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.”

President Obama has been talking a lot about grace lately, attempting to speak to everyone’s moral instincts, the ones that teach us to be better people. Symbols matter. They alter perceptions and shape identities. Symbols that blatantly support hate or derision or inequality don’t belong in the United States, or any country that proudly flaunts its status around the world as the land of the free. Part of honoring our history isn’t just learning about our past, or keeping our past alive, it’s about learning from our past, as well. And that will take an inordinate amount of grace.

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