Why I’m Going Flagless this Fourth of July

A southerner reflects on his culture, flags, and Independence Day

This Fourth of July, I will  fly no flag. The nation I will celebrate is the South.

My Southern pride has roots not in some imagined antebellum past with fancy clothes and Spanish moss, but rather in a culture I love and that lives in my bones.

I have spent a number of years in other places around the world -- Germany, England, the French Riviera. When I travelled I took with me not so much my American-ness but my Southern-ness. I took my manners. Where a drunk from Syracuse might be all mouth and a bright sweatshirt, I’d smile politely and give a quiet nod--even in close quarters like the London Underground. I would greet people at a pub as if I were walking up to an old drug store counter. I’d cook meals and make barbecue sauce for friends. I was consciously seceding from a stereotype (Americans abroad) and being myself all at once.

This was not an affectation. It was my flag.

Speaking of flags, I don’t think sentiments for the Confederate Flag always and in every case represent racism or ignorance. Civil War buffs and southern diehards still carry their great granddaddy’s letters inked in blood and shame. Just as the descendants of slaves can be quick to blame people alive today for that terrible legacy, today’s white Southerners want desperately to believe that there is something more meaningful to their heritage than being the descendant of somebody with a whip.

So it’s complicated.

And yet people who cling to that flag aren’t trying hard enough. 

Flags are just so much shorthand. People from the South have plenty of stories and symbols and helpings of their culture to share. There is no need to resort to using that stained old standard. War and human suffering are not the only ways to define history and cultural meaning.

What distinguishes Southerners from others is sweet tea and porch swings, bourbon and barbecue, for starters.

If you are from the South, you have a slower way of talking and maybe a lilt in your accent. Lightning bugs make faery fire around your old piedmont oaks. You can hear pickers among ancient mountains that are green with moss and rhododendrons till the vistas turn blue at the horizon. Out on the coast, the smell of shrimp boils and grills fill the night after days pulling in crab pots or fishing for flounder. All of this is yours. It’s better than any meaning ascribed to dyed cloth.

Your literature includes Faulkner, Hurston, Wolff, McCarthy, Welty, and O’Connor. 

You are friendlier than everybody else in the country, and the people who move nearby learn to be friendly too. If you are from the New South -- those urban magnets where all the northerners are moving -- you can be proud of this, too. I think of my hometown, Charlotte, North Carolina, rising up in glinting shafts of light and spires of wealth. When I return, I am struck by how cosmopolitan it has become — and yet still so beautiful. I think of FEE’s new home, Atlanta, which has taken our organization into its bosom, from Irvington, New York. I live in Austin, Texas, which is a strange and wonderful city.

The South has risen again.

If you’re white and southern, you need not carry that bitter history in which your great, great grandfather lost his brother or his dignity in the war. It is not your cross. He was probably either conscripted or conned by a bunch of rich slave owners into a war of their making. The flag was a distraction designed to cast the spell of tribe over a cause that probably kept your ancestors in poverty. Remember: that slave owner was probably denying your great, great granddaddy an honest job due to that peculiar institution.  

Now we have new tribes, painted up in stadiums or arenas calling “Roll Tide” or “Go Tar Heels” and these are mini-melting pots that defy race.

Of course, we should never forget the past. My great grandmother slaughtered hogs at first frost among black neighbors who’d help in exchange for chitlins and some of her livermush. She was a poor sharecropper. Her husband, my great grandfather, helped a black friend euthanize his rabid son between two corn-shuck tick mattresses because that’s all you could do in those days. They didn’t even notice the Depression because they were poor before and after -- together.

Things are not always so black and white.

I remember living in Chicago back in 2000, chatting with some people in a bar. They heard my accent, which I’m sure is most pronounced in Wrigleyville. I told them I was from Charlotte. They asked: “Isn’t it really racist there?” I said, “To be honest, Chicago is probably the most racist place I’ve ever been.” Just two days before, I’d heard an Irish guy from the south side use the N-word. And in terms of segregation, it’s more Thomas Schelling than Jim Crow, but it’s segregated nevertheless.

Now, there are a lot of people freaking out over everything Confederate. The New York Post has called for a ban on Gone With the Wind, a movie made by a Jew from Pittsburgh. Apple has ditched an app about the Civil War. People are calling for statues and war memorials to be pulled down, as if the path to post-racial Utopia will be paved with burned books and broken busts.

But this is not us either, not Americans. I’m loath to get all gooey and collectivist on you, Dear Reader. But if there is one thing that defines Americans as a people, it’s sure as hell not censorship. Toleration, that fine virtue we took from our British cousins, sometimes means letting people say stupid things. And, of course, we reserve the right to say stupid things right back.

At the risk of writing something stupid, I want to close by explaining why on this Fourth of July I’m going flagless.

I used to think that flags attached to principles. I grew up putting my hand over my heart and thinking that liberty and justice for all was what I was pledging my allegiance to. But I no longer think it’s terribly healthy to swear allegiances to flags, especially one that has flown over so many bad ideas. If the confederate flag flew over slavery, Old Glory has flown over Japanese internment camps, occupying U.S. forces, and Congress.

So I think I’m going to give up on flags for a while.

This Fourth of July I’m going to go through the motions and eat a hotdog with slaw (Carolina-style). I might watch some fireworks. But under those bright bursts, I hope I meet someone from another country -- a human being with blood, bones, and aspirations for success and freedom -- someone just like me, and yet carrying something of their culture.

And I will think of all my friends from all those other countries I’ve lived in, when I was an unofficial Ambassador from the South. I will celebrate secession -- not the one with the stigmata of slaves, but the algorithm of leaving a system that isn’t working in order to start something newer and hopefully better, just like the Founders did. I will celebrate high-tech cultural cosmopolitanism and 21st century collaboration the Founders could have only dreamed of.

And of course I will take my Southern-ness with me. This is my history, my story, my sense of the good life.