July 4, 2015
The Confederate flag advanced from the right, while Caroline, Sam, and every other child in the street collected candy flying from the floats. I grimaced, but the Sons of the Confederate Veterans had as much of a right to participate in Prattville’s Fourth of July parade as I had to watch it. “Kids, let’s sit this next one out,” I said.
“Huh?” They didn’t appreciate my intrusion. Or didn’t understand it. They hadn’t come here to celebrate American Independence. They’d come to celebrate Tootsie Rolls, Jolly Ranchers, flying discs, and plastic bead necklaces. They were clustered with an eclectic group, all dedicated to the same pursuit. The family to the left sported their stars and bars proudly. The sandy haired boy to the right had a nondescript shirt. And the African American girl, who had arrived late and been standing behind the adults until Caroline noticed her, wore blue.
“I said sit down a minute,” I murmured.
“Why?” Caroline demanded.
I glanced at the float, a gesture utterly lost on her. “I’ll explain later.”
You don’t “explain later” to her brand of Asperger’s. If you want compliance, you explain now, and you do it concisely. I know this. I can’t accept “later” myself. But I couldn’t condense 150 years into thirty seconds, either. She grasps the Civil War, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement on an intellectual level, but she’s only recently begun to internalize these things, to understand that racial equality didn’t magically arrive in 1965.
The family on our left had also noticed the truck. “Oh, they sometimes give out flags!” the mother exclaimed.
I leaned in very close, between Caroline and Sam’s heads. “If they are handing out Confederate flags, you may not accept one.”
Now Sam joined his sister. “Why not?”
This, at least, they got. They sat at almost exactly the same moment that the African American girl’s grandmother called her back to the sidewalk.
Yes, of course that float was handing out Confederate Flags. As soon as she realized this, Caroline popped up again. I repressed a groan and facepalm. But before I could snag her shirt and re-seat her, she spun around. “I get it,” she stage whispered. “Racism.”
She’s a visual child. She had to see the flag to know what I was talking about.
Scott and I clued Sam in later. He understands what racism is, so the message may have clicked. But he’s eight. He’s white. It’s very hard to explain the subtleties and historical realities of racial privilege to a kid who still thinks his electronics are entitlements and howls “No fair!” when we take away access to his tablet.
The float passed quickly. The boy on the right and the kids on the left took flags, our children were not offered any, the African American girl returned to the curb, and she, Caroline and Sam rejoined the others.
They all got on with the more important stuff, like candy. Everybody looked out for everybody else, each trying to make sure the others got plenty as the good stuff came down the line. None of them cared about skin color.
I’d like to say this proves something positive, but that’s so much horseshit.
Because here’s what else I noticed.
Our family arrived early and stayed until the end. In the whole line of floats, not one group handed out the American Flag. Not one. I’m no over-patriotic trumpeter, but who the fuck thought it was cool for the Sons (Great-grandsons? How many generations are we removed by now?) of Confederate Veterans to hand out the Stars and Bars without ensuring that another association handed around the Stars and Stripes? On the fucking Fourth of July? Maybe I overlooked them. Maybe they were on the opposite side of the street or came through even earlier in the morning, but I sure don’t think so.
For that matter, none of the southern states seceded on America’s Independence Day. Given the parade’s veteran theme, the SCV was probably encouraged to participate, but what the hell place did that flag even have besides on their float? (Where it still offended me.) We aren’t exactly awash with living Confederate soldiers. Hell, I didn’t see any vets from World War II, and there were only a few from Korea and Vietnam, and that was largely after the parade. They for some reason were carrying Old Glory.
More than that, while there were a few African-Americans marching with other groups, the majority of the vehicles with African American drivers came last. Very last. Maybe this was an administrative oversight, but it was a big one if so. The event was attended by families of all races. Could not one rational human being have looked at the line-up and jiggled some cars around to make it look less like modern Jim Crow?
No, the kids and their egalitarian sweets don’t signal the ushering in of a new era to me. Maybe they signal hope, but I’m skeptical about even that. How can anyone argue that the Confederate Flag isn’t about prejudice? How can we expect those kids, so colorblind now, to grow up with the sense that they are all equals, when the symbols of national separation trump the symbols of national unity at a Fourth of July parade, and the parade itself is so obviously divided along racial lines?
Removing the Confederate Flags from state buildings is symbolic of a larger need. It doesn’t deconstruct ingrained prejudice and hatred. We’ll never eliminate the whack jobs, the ones who take out personal grudges against the world on innocents. But we can’t sit by and encourage them with silence, either, especially not in the deep South.
Happy Birthday, America. You’ve come a long way, baby. But you’ve still got a tough row to hoe.