Visiting Virginia a few summers ago, I stopped in a small city. It was a literal crossroads of sorts. Fancy antique stores and cheap thrift shops lined the road. Around these buildings people had set up long tables for further display. My partner and I sauntered through the buildings. As usual in such places we found a wonderful mix of treasure and trash. Later, he wanted to peruse the tables. Usually I would have raced ahead but I found myself hesitating as I watched one of the tables being prepared. Two men arranged an amazing array of items, items that had one unifying theme. They all displayed the Confederate flag.
While I had to pass that table to get back to the car, I did not get close. Eye contact was made with one gentleman. With both our heads held high, we nodded in that southern way of closed lipped acknowledgement. It was not an unexpected sight especially because this encounter took place shortly after all the hullabaloo of removing the Confederate flag from institutions nationwide. Not unexpectedly, at least to me, online sales of the flag (and in-store sales depending on where one lived) went through the roof. But it’s America, right? As private citizens, those gentlemen could choose to sell the flag. And I could choose to walk away.
Recently one of my brothers who lives in southern Virginia described driving past an estate where half of the owner’s lawn was covered by a Confederate flag. I told him I wanted to ask the owner what was the intention behind such a display. He joked that I probably wouldn’t make it halfway up the driveway before the owner would step out with his licensed gun, and perhaps his dog at his side, to encourage me to leave his property. Okay, my brother became a bit more descriptive and I chastised him for making such jokes. If the owner wanted me to leave his property, he could. It’s America, right?
For those who do not know, I am an African American woman who grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. When I return to my hometown or attend a reunion at the school I attended in North Carolina or visit family now settled in South Carolina, I have at least two expectations. One is to bathe in the beauty of the southern natural landscape and two is the likelihood of seeing Confederate flags. After living in New England for nearly twenty years, I certainly have that first expectation. There is no New England state that I have visited where I have not experienced great natural beauty. But that latter expectation … no, I guess I did not have that one though I now do after last weekend.
I later described it as being caught up in a Klu Klux Klan rally but no one wore a hood. There were no torches or anyone burning but there was plenty of black smoke and revving of engines. I’m sure there were guns but none were on display. Nothing illegal was done that I could see except for some bikers racing by in the breakdown lane but they didn’t do so for long. They just did it to keep up with the pack, or I guess I should say the convoy, of three dozen or more vehicles — trucks, cars, jeeps, bikes — driving along the highway from Massachusetts into Rhode Island, waving the Confederate flag. The American flag was flown too of course.
When I saw the first truck, a large black pick up, with Trump and Pence stenciled in white on the side, I thought, “Well, this is America.” Then as we kept driving along I saw more vehicles, a beat up Corvette with a Confederate flag nailed to the roof, more pickup trucks with large chimneys and flashing lights in addition to their flags, bikers with the flags pinned to their leathers. I really, really, really didn’t want to be in their midst but there was no other route to our destination.
I could avoid that table in the Virginia flea market with its sea of Confederate flags but I could not escape this experience. We all had to share the road, and we did so for a very long time. Finally the vehicles all left the road, to pull into a Rhode Island rest stop. Their final destination I have no idea. We completed our journey into the quiet of Rhode Island’s small towns. I slumped back into the seat, exhausted. Why was I exhausted?
Later that weekend, people asked me how did I know that there were three dozen or so vehicles in the convoy. I explained that I counted them. With the luxury of being a passenger and not the driver, I looked at each vehicle surrounding and then passing me. I looked at license plates (several New England states were represented). I looked at the drivers who would not look back at me. I got the feeling that they had all been instructed to keep their eyes on the road and to do nothing intimidating individually because what they were doing as a group was much more effective.
I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, likely a combination, but there’s a thing that happens to me in certain situations. It’s the confluence of past and present. There’s a scene in the movie 12 Years a Slave, and a scene in the movie Glory, and scene in any movie involving slavery, where a man or woman is tied up and whipped. I have many a friend and family member, of different races and ages and life experiences, who will turn away. I cannot. My back straightens. I hold my head high. Not so much to bear witness but it feels almost like channeling ancestors who did what they had to do to survive but they would not be subjugated. To sit in that position for an hour, so tense, was exhausting.
In that Virginia flea market, when I made eye contact with the vendor selling the Confederate flag, and nodded at him in acknowledgement, in a different day and age, for such behavior, for stepping out of my place, I would have been whipped. I know, I know. There some who might say, there you go stirring up the past again. But that past is a part of my American heritage, and every American’s heritage.
I am a major proponent of “just go with flow” and “just let things go.” Being caught up in that convoy for about an hour, those philosophical tendencies were replaced with something else. I increasingly wanted the drivers to look at me. I wanted to look into his or her eyes and to see who they were. And I wanted them to see me. As with the man in Virginia with the Confederate flag covering his lawn, I want them all to explain to me the intention of their display and to do so with other words than “It’s about heritage, not hate.”
I had my camera with me, of course, but I refused to pull it out. There was no need to capture in pixels and post on this blog such imagery. But I did want to share an experience that I will not let go of but I will certainly move beyond.