How To Not Sound Racist While Standing Under a Confederate Flag
Twenty feet in the air blows a flag; red, white and blue. Its stars and stripes signal a certain pride to the traffic passing below. Its pole was dug at great cost to the owner, who is old and in declining health. It took him three days and two shovels to move the required amount of Michigan soil, rocks and roots. Lacking the funds to purchase a tall, aluminum flag pole, the flag’s owner, a man named Royce decides the next best thing would be to go to his buddy’s scrapyard and find the longest, straightest, least-rusted piece of pipe he can find. Knowing Royce’s plan, the scrapyard friend gives him the pipe for free. He even welds two chain links about three apart to the top of the pipe to serve as the flag’s anchors. As far as Royce is concerned this is the moment the pipe successfully becomes a pole. Getting the pole home presented a new set of challenges, chief among them was how to fit 20ft of something in 6ft of pickup bed. Royce’s 1994 Ford F150 is up to the task. To be considerate of other motorist, he tied a red rag onto the 12 foot of pole overhanging from his pickup. He gets home without incident, but the rag is gone.
In order to put the pole in place Royce backs his pickup into the yard so that it would tip from the bed of his truck into its pre-dug hole. If it was even five years ago Janice would be upset about tire tracks in her yard. Today it will take a miracle of concentration to get her to notice. Before setting the pole in place, Royce attaches the red and blue flag to the welded chain links. Realizing his pole lacks the pulleys most flagpoles have, it occurs to Royce that he will not be raising or lowering his flag anytime soon. Maybe that’s why the aluminum ones were so much more expensive, he thinks to himself. Adding a couple of bags of over mixed concrete he sets the pole in place. Doing his best near-sighted eyeballing, he holds the pole as the concrete hardens. After the concrete sets, Royce notices the pole leaning more towards the house more than it does to the road. Nevertheless he is satisfied. His pole is strong and mostly straight, proudly displaying the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.
One of the first people to notice Royce’s new ornament of the old south is a woman named Hannah. Hannah has two dogs, a live-in boyfriend and a sister in California she talks to once a week. She volunteers at her local United Methodist Church even though his tells her friends from college that she is still an atheist. Once a week, on trash day she does her best to separate everything correctly, with most of her glass, plastics and aluminum making into their respective bins.
Arriving at home she finds her boyfriend Taylor standing in the kitchen. He is eating cold pizza and watching television on his lunch break.
“You are not going to believe what I just saw.” Hannah says. “You know that shitty looking house on the right side of the road if you are coming from Clarkston? It’s just before you turn into the sub?”
“I can’t picture it, but go ahead. What happened?”
“They have a Confederate flag flying in their yard! As in the actual Confederacy. As in General Robert E. Lee. As in we wear grey uniforms and think black people are property! And in Michigan! You know, that great bastion of southern pride…Song of the South, sweet potato pie and I move to Ann Arbor!?! WTF!?! They live hundreds of miles from anything remotely Southern. They’re in the Midwest. They are in the Big Ten. Why do they have that flag in their yard?”
Knowing Hannah is not done, Taylor attends to the work before him, and by work he means his pizza and the last 10 minutes of SportsCenter.
“It’s just the laziest way to be a racist.” continues Hannah. “Being a white supremacist in suburbs of Michigan is like being a misogynist at an all boys school. If you are going to a racist pig, at least have the courage to live somewhere the stakes might matter. I guess I have more respect for the Mississippi racist than the Michigan racist. Is that wrong to say? I feel wrong saying it? I don’t know if I should have said that.”
Meanwhile, satisfied with the work he has done for the day, Royce fires up a red Weber grill and throws on a trio of steaks. One for him, one for his wife, and one for a black lab named Wally, but whose full given name is Stone Wally Jackson. All three steaks will be served well done, with a side a microwavable fries and cold ketchup.
“You know”, Hannah says, “I’ve always had this fantasy about telling a racist piece of shit off to his or her face. What do you think I should say? Not saying I will confront them, but if I did, what would it be? What would you say?”
Still mostly into his pizza and TV, Taylor offers only slight resistance saying, “Maybe they aren’t from around here. It’s terrible, but maybe the flag and what it represents really is just a part of their culture?”
“Yeah.” says Hannah. “So their whole thing is that the flag is a symbol of their heritage right? It’s not hate, it’s just a part of their past that they want to remember. What if I turn that argument against them? What I go over to that guy’s house and flip him off right in front of his face. Middle finger, right in his fucking mouth. And here’s the best part, if they offer any rebuttal, if they are offended in any way. Do you know what my response is going to be?”
Taylor does not. Or if he does seeing the fire behind his girlfriend’s eyes makes him too afraid to answer.
“With my middle finger right in their face I’m going to say ‘Why are you mad? This is not a symbol of hate, but heritage. My father flipped people off, and even his father and grandfather before them. All of them gave people the finger. So because it is my heritage, you can’t get mad.’ What do you think?”
Finishing his pizza, Taylor put his plate in the dishwasher, stacking it in line with the other three similarly sized plates ready to be washed.
“I’m not sure what to think. I think I trust in your instincts in this instance.”
“I’m gonna say something to them.” says Hannah without listening. “I’m going to go over there and confront whoever it is that lives there. Do you want to come?”
Taylor excuses himself from the occasion by mentioning how swamped he is at work, telling Hannah that he really needs to buckle down and make phone calls for the rest of the afternoon. “If I wasn’t so busy I’d come with you.” Hannah is unsure of his sincerity, yet resolute in her own. The drive from her house to Royce’s is short. She sits up straight in her seat listening to Rage Against the Machine in order to maintain her righteous anger. Her Subaru Outback splatters in the mud pulling into Royce’s rock and dirt driveway. Getting out of her car, she sees an older man attending to a smokey grill.
“Hey!” she calls from his driveway.
Royce, focused on his steaks, looks up.
Feeling herself unheard, Hannah walks closer. “Hey you at the grill! Yeah! Is this your flag? Huh? Is it? If that’s yours than fuck you!”
She stares at the man at the grill as he stares back at her. His stature grows small with each muddy step she takes through his yard.
Royce looks up again from his grill work and sees a young woman shaking her fist and yelling in his general direction. His initial reaction is to ask himself what he might have done wrong. Not thinking of anything, Royce asks, “Can I help you?”
“Yeah you can help me! You can help all of us by taking down that symbol of hate and oppression.”
“I’m sorry young lady you are going to have to speak up. I left my hearing aid inside.”
Hannah moves close enough to Royce to touch him. “I said I want you to remove that flag in your yard. It gives our neighborhood a bad name. People will think we’re all a bunch of racists.” Hannah points at the flag and asks, “But maybe you are ok with that?”
Still unclear as to what the young lady wants, Royce thinks about running in the house to grab his hearing aids. But after seeing her point to his new flag, Royce thinks that maybe if he talks about it enough, he will have answered her concern.
“Well I put that up earlier today. Took me a while to dig the hole and pour the concrete. It’s not as straight as I like it, but you know, do what you can I guess?”
Hannah feels sweat forming on her lip and brow, as her argument goes nowhere. She again asks if Royce is ok with being known as a racist. To which he hurriedly replies, “Yeah uh huh. You know, I don’t hear so good young lady. I’m gonna run inside and get my hearing aids. Forgive me, I’m doing my damnedest.”
Immediately, as if falling backwards through a tunnel, Royce falls to the ground. His left arm pulls hard against his chest as he loses all consciousness. Hannah runs over and does her best to help him back up. Unable to lift him, she yells for help but there appears to be no one else home. She runs back to the car to get her phone. Hannah reaches the emergency dispatcher.
“9-1-1, What is your emergency?”
“There is a guy, he lives not too far from my house. I think he is having a heart attack. He just collapsed right in front of me.”
“Ok Ma’am, don’t worry. I’m going to help you out. Can I get your name?”
“Ok Miss Hannah, my name is Latisha. Do you know your location?”
“I’m not too sure. I’m on M-23, not far from the McDonals and Kroger outside Clarkston. I don’t know the address. I don’t live here. We’re right off the road. We’re underneath a oh…umm…Confederate flag. You can see it from the road.”
“Mmm…426, this is Dispatch. We have a possible medical emergency in the vicinity of M-23 and Ratalee Lake Road. Be advised, victim is under a Confederate flag. Ma’am is the victim breathing?”
“I think so. It’s hard to tell. He’s not moving. I just want you to know, that I don’t live here and I don’t have anything to do with the flag.”
“It’s ok Ma’am. Can you tell me his name?”
“I actually came over here to confront whoever it was that put it up. It’s just that when I did he passed out right in front of me.”
“Ma’am, can I have the victim’s name?”
“Oh, I don’t know, we’ve never met. This is the first time something like this has ever happened to me.”
A small, bent over woman in an over-sized blue gown comes out of the house. She looks at Hannah, then at Royce, then at her yard, “Oh no, someone has tracked up my yard.” She heads back inside.
“Hannah, the emergency team is on their way. Will you please stay on the line with me?”
“Great. Paramedics should be arriving soon. Is there anyone else there on the premises?”
“Oh, his wife is here, at least I think it is his wife, but I don’t think she’s all there. She looked at him and left.”
“Hannah can you check on the victim again? Can you see if he is breathing?”
“Hang on…I think he is. It’s just really slow. You know, I had this plan. I was going to come over him and I was going to come over here and shove my finger in his face. I was going to flip him off for having a symbol of hate in our neighborhood.”
“That’s great Ma’am. Do you know if the victim has any health issue?”
“Does being racist count? I’m joking, but not really. It really is a mental health issue. There’s been so many studies done that link racism and mental health. I hope he’s ok. I mean, I hope he is physically ok and that this can compel some compassion out of him. I mean he looks harmless enough. You just can’t ever tell what’s going on inside someone. My plan was to flip him off and tell him that giving people the bird isn’t hateful because my father gave people the finger, and so did his father. So it’s not hate, it’s my heritage. You know, flip their argument around on them. Do you think that would have worked?”
“I really can’t say Ma’am.”
“Look, I’m sorry what is your name again?”
“Look Latisha, I’m an ally, ok? I don’t have anything but contempt for these people. I think racist should be locked up and forced into racial sensitivity training. And I’m not just an anti-segregationist. I believe in institutional racism. I see redlining and gerrymandering as on-going symptoms of this country’s problem with race. I’ll even go so far as to say that reparations are probably the only way this country atones for its racist past. Personally I think every white family that sends one of their kids to college should also pay for a black kid to attend that same school. That’s the only way we make ourselves whole. Black History Month is great, but we need to do better. So I’m here to do the real work Latisha. I want to make a better country for people like you.”
“Ma’am I’m white.”
“I’m not black. I’m white. My parents are named Larry and Patrica.”
“Oh…I’m sorry. It’s just that Latisha sounds like an African American name. I guess I was just thrown off by how it sounded. Now that you mention it, you don’t sound very African American.”
“And how does an African American sound ma’am?”
“Hey…hey Latisha come on. Be a buddy. That’s not fair. You know that’s not what I meant.”
“How was I supposed to know what you meant?”
“I guess you weren’t. I guess I just had an assumption in my head of a certain type of woman who answers phone calls all day. And then you said your name was Latisha. I guess my brain formed this picture of you as, you know, the stereotypical, sassy African American woman who does those types of jobs. I’m sorry if I offended you. I’m realizing now I too make assumptions about people and if I did that to you, again I am sorry.”
“What do you mean sassy? My tone and demeanor has been professional throughout.”
“No I wasn’t saying you are being sassy, just that there is a stereotype of a sassy, African American woman, you know, who works in an office, and she’s says things like ‘Go ‘head!’ and ‘I’m not the one!’ She’s usually a bigger gal.”
“So I’m fat now.”
“No I don’t mean you. I mean that’s what the stereotype looks like. You are your own beautiful person Latisha. I’m sure you are beautiful no matter what you look like. I think everyone is beautiful and worthy of respect and dignity, unless you’re a racist piece of shit with a Confederate flag in his yard.”
“My grandfather was from South Carolina and he flew a Confederate flag in his yard.”
“Huh. Well shit.”
“Ma’am I suggest that you stay on the line until paramedics arrive. If the victim gets worse you can tell me, but we do not have to talk.”
“No, yeah. I think that would be best.” says Hannah. She and Latisha remain on the phone with one another, neither saying a word for another five minuets before the ambulance arrives. Hannah hangs up on Latisha without a word. A paramedic asks Hannah if he has any allergies or health issues. “I don’t know. I’ve never met him before. I just got here.”
“You mean you just happened upon a guy having a heart attack?”
“Kinda huh? Well the police will be here in a minute to ask you a few questions. Let’s go boys!” Royce is loaded onto a stretcher and into the without any response. Hannah speaks to a nice city cop officer with a tattoo sleeve on both arms. He takes her statement and personal info before going inside to talk to Royce’s wife, dismissing Hannah to go home. As soon as she turns the key in her ignition, Rage Against the Machine starts bounding through her speakers. She turns the music off, hoping the polite office didn’t here anything. Back at home Taylor is again in the kitchen looking for snacks.
“Hey how did it go? Did you tell off that racist piece of shit?”
“I don’t know.” says Hannah. “It didn’t go like I thought it would.”
“Well, what happened?”
“I went over there, and was starting to go into my whole thing, but he was having a tough time hearing me because he was an older guy. When all of a sudden he falls down to the ground. So I called 911 and an ambulance came and I think he’s dead.”
“Yeah. He said he was doing his damnedest to understand me, and that he was going to get his hearing aids, and he just fell over. I think I was the last person he ever saw.”
“Wow.” says Taylor. “You definitely did your damnedest on that guy.”
“I don’t ever know what that means.” admits Hannah.
“I guess I don’t either.”
The funeral for Royce Lee O’Neal is being held six days after he raised a Confederate flag in his front yard. In attendance are loving members of his family, several dozens of his friends and acquaintances, lots of guys from the Rotary club, a couple members of the Local 713 Union of Pipe-fitters. Also in attendance is the person who indirectly caused his fatal heart attack. On her way to the funeral, Hannah drives past Royce’s house and notices the flag is no longer flying from its perch, leaving a naked, crooked piece of pipe standing 20ft tall with grassy tire tracks running up to it. The funeral home is a couple of towns further north, closer to where Royce grew up. Hannah finds her Suburu a parking spot among a flock of muddy pickups and beat-up SUVs. Not wanting to draw any attention, Hannah shows up to the funeral right as it begins (11am), sits as far back as possible, and debates slipping out a little early. The two story funeral home smells of floral death; flowers mixed with the formaldehyde and furnished with heavy couches and chairs in evergreen and navy. The stripped wallpaper peels from the corners, freshly varnished floorboards snap and creek underfoot. It’s as if the entire house stands in-between life and death, an American portal between this world and the next one. Hannah can see Royce from the back of the parlor. It is an open casket service which means everyone is either looking at him or trying to avoid looking at him.
Standing near Royce’s head and pillow is a wispy, arched man in a suit one size too wide and one size too short. Hannah guesses him to be the minister, the man charged with saying something significant about her racist neighbor. After a few hymns, the minister reads from the Book of Psalms. He then offers a short homily. His words are not charged with religious rhetoric about the end of days or any need for zealous evangelism. Hannah notes that if anything the preacher’s words about Royce are rather sweet. He tells a couple of funny stories, mentioning even the time Royce dressed in drag at a Halloween party. The congregation laughs. And when he tells of the time Royce took in one of his grandsons, practically raising him, Hannah hears sniffs and Kleenex being pulled from the box.
Afterward the sermon, a young woman in maroon dress sings Go Rest High on that Mountain. Hannah has never heard the song before and is moved to tears by the chorus. The service ends sober and sincere and full of hope, a tone anyone would want their funeral to possess. Hannah picks up her purse ready to escape quietly out the back. However she notices a line forming at the front of the room as people shuffle by the casket for one last glance at Royce. She turns around and joins the line. Everyone shuffles, their heads bowed, their eyes bright. Hannah reaches the front and peers into the steel, white box, its insides lined in silk and cotton. Royce looks peaceful and content with his current predicament. Gone is the agony Hannah saw on his face a few days ago. He wears a light blue suit, probably purchased for the occasion. In that moment, Hannah wonders how she will be buried. What dress will she wear? Where will her final resting place even be? Next to mom and dad in Florida? Perhaps somewhere here in Michigan? Maybe next to ol’ Royce. She is glad she has come. If nothing else she and Royce share a final moment together.
Hannah leans in a little closer, but as she does she notices something inside, covering the bottom of Royce’s body like a blanket. Its colors do not match the decor of the casket, or Royce’s suit. The blue of the covering is much darker, the red very bold, and lined with white stars in the pattern of an X.
“I will never understand you Royce. I don’t even know if I want to.” Hannah leans closer, close enough to kiss the corpse if she wants. “But I’m doing my damnedest.”