When I was sixteen years old, my high school debate partner and I found ourselves in an Effingham, Illinois, convenience store, very late one night, buying a pack of Confederate flag stickers to decorate our debate file boxes. Stopped there on a long road trip, we were taken aback that those reviled flags, prominently on display in this rural Illinois town, had followed us out of the South. File boxes were statement pieces that boasted all kinds of bumper stickers, restaurant coasters, bottle tops, and any other kinds of adornment debater-nerd types were inclined to use to prove their cool. Hyper aware of how uncommon teams of Black debaters were, we figured that a couple of Black girls from the South rolling around tournaments with the Confederate Flag prominently displayed were sure to raise eyebrows.
We were right. As we prepared to debate, a middle-aged white male judge looked quite displeased with us as he questioned why in the world we would promote such propaganda. We gave him an inchoate explanation about how we figured that one way to draw attention to the absurdity of the flag was to have Black people embrace it. He didn’t look convinced. And come to think of it, neither were we.
On Saturday, when I watched video of North Carolina-based activist Bree Newsome scale a flagpole in Columbia, South Carolina, to remove the Confederate Flag from state grounds, I saw glimpses of me and my friend, two Black girls trying to figure out how to resist. While others had been spinning in mainstream and social media about the symbolism of the flag, I knew intuitively that one does not climb a flagpole and get arrested merely because of symbol. That flag is not merely symbol. For those of us who grew up looking at it on our state houses, and prominently displayed on cars and even as window curtains, it constitutes active injury.
My teenaged self never conceived a world in which we could just scale the pole and take it down. I could not image that White people would willingly assent to giving up their “heritage,” as all those “heritage not hate” bumper stickers proclaimed. To me, that flag affirmed an unstated and active desire on the part of my white classmates and local neighbors who flew the flag to return to a world in which my ancestors were chattel. To watch them fly that flag in the '90s and then to have a relative send me pictures of them still flying it proudly at a hometown parade just this past weekend, confirmed for me that my neighbors were people who believed in a limited universe of possibility for Black people. That some of these same people smiled, treated me cordially, and were generally good people did not and does not change the fact they prefer a world predicated on Black subjugation.
The flag is a souvenir of too many material atrocities perpetrated on Black people by White people for us to ever mistake it as symbolic. In fact, there is nothing qualitatively different about the rebel flag and a postcard depicting a lynching. Both objects commemorate chronic histories of acute atrocity directed toward African American people. The celebrations that both objects signify remind us that white people got significant joy out of the enactment of violence upon American Black people.
Since the massacre of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, two weeks ago, there seems to have been a swift national consensus, that it is time for the flag to go. Yet on the Left, I have seen comrades and colleagues talking about flag removal as a symbolic rather than substantive victory. Removal of the flag, they rightly point out, does not amount to a real blow to structural racism.
Similar concerns about the lack of gravity in symbolic victories have also been a part of the conversation from some of my left queer friends and colleagues about the Supreme Court’s ruling last week in favor of marriage equality. For my Black queer friends, it was hard to celebrate being able to get married, when Black folks are walking around in mortal fear of the police and in morbid anticipation of the next racially-inflected tragedy. Marriage equality seems to mean little in the face of rampant violence towards trans people, and structural barriers to a good quality of life that disproportionately affect queer and trans people of color.
I get that. As much as I can get it as a straight, cisgender woman of color.
But on the day that the SCOTUS rendered their decision, I cheered on a text thread with a recently engaged homegirl, who was moved to the point of tears that she and her intended can now get married in the state where they reside, rather than having to travel to a state where gay marriage is legal.
I get that we don’t want to fall for the okeydoke – that we don’t want to mistake symbols for substance, that we want to see real systemic and structural change. The removal of the Confederate Flag and the hoisting of the Rainbow Flag feel like so much more than symbolic victories to me.
When my debate partner and I purchased and displayed those flag stickers, we were two Black girls actively figuring out how to negotiate our Black girlhood and emerging Black womanhood in predominantly white spaces, among friends with whom we shared time, interest, and human connection, despite ever more divergent political world views. Though our master plan wasn’t especially masterful, we knew that the flag symbolized a system that inherently sought to limit and curtail, our freedom, our personhood, and our possibility. We knew it, because we knew that the confederate flag was not something that Black people championed. We hoped our bodies in possession of those flags would expose the thing we sensed but that no one would admit. We were trying to take power away from a symbol that we felt powerless against.
Other than that one wise judge who asked us to explain ourselves, the flags flew on our file boxes mostly without comment. As Black girl nerds in a predominantly white environment, the two of us had already been deemed, “not like other Black people.” So perhaps those who encountered us chalked our choice up to weirdness.
For me, though, the flag, then as now, represented a lie – a national lie we continue to tell about our belief in inclusion, diversity, and democracy. It has never just been a symbol. The nine massacred souls in Charleston, South Carolina, remind us that that flag has bodies on it. Millions.
That Bree Newsome risked life and limb to take it down, after Dylann Roof took life and limb to hoist it high, should let us know that this was never just about symbols. But symbols matter, too. And in this moment, when racial trauma comes faster than I can catch my breath, I think there is some wisdom in the thought that small victories are indeed worth celebrating.