As I wind down the mountain lined roads towards the miniature metropolis that boasts one of the few malls near my hometown, an aggressive passion that borders on hostility waves at me defiantly from every holler and car window. Even a brief trip to the next town serves as a nagging reminder to my family and me of a reconstructed narrative that for many continues to whisper—even scream—horrors of the past, but for others is clutched dearly, even revered. I feel my chest tighten, and my extremities turn to lead as I am forced to acknowledge the lingering taint of the Confederacy.
I have always felt within and without in my Southern community. With Northerner transplant parents, the mountain songs have never been my own but still they stir something within me; hearty biscuits and gravy are not regular guests at our dinner table, yet a meal feels incomplete without a brimming glass of sweet tea; generations of us have not toiled in the heart of the Appalachians, but still as I soared with my running shoes tied tight, I felt a breathless unity with the blurring auburn mountain leaves.
When away, I long for the familiar distinct scent of autumn, the postcard views, the chilling yet warm embrace of the mist that shrouds the leafy peaks. I miss the homespun passion peddled at craft fairs. I miss the summer’s rhythmic humming that enfolds the inky star-painted skies, views untouched by the pollution of city rays.
Yet despite my hint of an accent that my hometown is deaf to but that outsiders immediately detect, despite the 20-plus years my father has tirelessly served ailing patients in local hospitals, or the unbreakable bonds I have with a place where I lived for 18 years, my hometown’s endless devotion to the Confederate flag has reduced me to an insignificant (or nonexistent) member of my community as I am defiantly told what a symbol means. I have an innate connection to the place where I excitedly attended GRITS (Girls Raised In The South) club meetings after class in elementary school, where my little brother proudly fished tadpoles from mountaintop ponds on weekends (where I believed fairies inhabited our ivy-covered backyard,) however, my skin color leaves me on the periphery.
They roar and rally for a heritage that hurts. All that matters is what the flag means to those who fly it, it does not matter what it means to me and to many others like me. My aching alienation and fear do not matter; it’s not even heard, the land and the heritage are claimed and I am no longer a part of it. I am written out of the story. They have granted themselves the authority to rewrite the narrative of the past and to define the symbolism of the present. Any comments contrary to Confederacy veneration are promptly and firmly admonished. Where I see a history of true racial horrors and polarization, they paint a portrait of perfect chivalric heroism infused with an aggressive love for the South. While the Confederate flag serves as a proxy for a romanticized epoch, notions of noble heroism, and celebrations of heritage, it remains a symbol of resistance intrinsically linked with indelible negative connotations.
Feeling threatened and increasingly devoted to the Confederate flag following its removal from the South Carolina State capitol and the surrounding controversy, many Southerners began to display the flag with increasing fervor, defending it with dedication, organizing rallies and flaunting it from car windows, doorsteps, truck beds and t-shirts. Many defy anyone who suggests the flag’s retirement, and rue anyone who questions this espousal, dismissing and disbanding them with aggression. My hometown has developed into a tempestuous climate of hostility. From rowdy resistance to unhearing insistence, this sweeping ardor is not something that I identify with, yet to many it is the the badge of a true Southerner.
Here, allegiance to the Confederate flag is not merely reserved for caricatures of dismissable “rednecks”—a falsity I innocently believed. I have been disenchanted by the realization that they are not the archaic few; I am the “other.” Contentious attitudes are spewed from the mouths and Facebook pages of countless friendly acquaintances and former classroom companions. They are met with enthusiastic cheers of approval. They receive reverent “amens” and I am told to “be respectful” when their passions are met with opposing ones.
What I once naively dismissed as an outdated emblem reserved for the pages of history books and the car bumpers of a select few people I would never come in contact with, now refuses to go overlooked. What was once a shake of the head is now a rising shudder at every red light, roadside and rest stop. Reignited passions now define the landscape. I have been told to get out if I don’t like it: “Just leave the South.” A banner is being chosen over a human being. More value is placed on nostalgic pinings than on people. The story has become theirs and theirs alone, half truths spun around a stubborn spool.
It stings, and I know that they are not listening to me. My distress is met with combative haranguing, or trivialized and dismissed as radical hypersensitivity. Yet foolishly I still feel an aching for the mountain’s haunting hymns, and the country crafts that line hometown fairs, the colorful, cultural gatherings that take place under festival tents. I remember the memories built bundled up under the moth-clouded lights of the high school football fields, and late Sunday afternoons spent in adoration of wooded paths, guided by a chorus of tittering creeks.
My world has become a sloppily stitched patchwork of my love for my home and the fierce animosity that I feel emanating from it in return. My comfort nestled in the leaf-veiled hills diminishes with each stubbornly shared Facebook barrage and with each fleet of flag-decorated vehicles that zips by on the highway. It is believed that any true Southerner pledges allegiance to Dixie’s rebel flag; if inhabitants respect and love their home and their predecessors they are expected to embrace this history in its entirety. For many, being a Southerner is compressed within the ideals the flag represents or is believed to represent. It is a false symbol of valor and Southern sentiments. Infatuations with gallantry, pride and nostalgic fantasies stubbornly override the flag’s racial history. Rather than living with these juxtapositions, this troubling history goes unacknowledged. However, the past does not have to be revered to be remembered. There is a space between forgetting and glorifying. While a burdensome past is glorified and all complexities suppressed and ignored, I continue to live awkwardly in the wake of the disparities that nag at me as I press on, loving my home.