Editorial: The Symbol
By Richard Gaw
This past Sunday afternoon, the Chester County Press reporter went looking for a symbol.
He was responding to an email he had received a few days before, from a man who shared his grief, his sorrow and his rage over seeing the symbol prominently displayed at a home near where he lives in southern Chester County. Worse still, he wrote, the symbol was being flown within minutes of one of the most prominent historically Black universities in the United States, which he worried could possibly lead to confrontation between the university and the homeowner.
As he drove, the reporter recalled some of the content the email contained, and how its emotion seem to leap from the laptop computer he read it on and into his conscience. It was the language of our American history, though not the pretty parts about the mountains majesty and the pursuit of happiness, and the biggest fallacy of all – the belief that all men are created equal. Rather, it was the gospel of repetition – the latest entry in the repeated testimony of African-American citizens that has accounted for centuries of inequality.
“Just to share this last point and why this is so personal for me -- with an element of venom I am trying to keep in check,” the email read. “I just found out within the hour that one of the reasons my 12-year-old stepdaughter was crying as much as she was late last night is because she probably saw the Confederate flag and didn't want to tell my fiancée, her mother or myself. She is a girl of color and loves this area and Chester County so much from all of us moving out here from Center City Philadelphia four years ago, and now we’re having to work a little harder for this not to scar her.
“Until this flag comes down we have to change our movement here in our own neighborhood so she doesn’t see this.”
The homeowners in the homes on the country roads that the reporter drove by on his way to the symbol were very generous in their acknowledgement of the country they lived in. American flags flew at tilted angles as if they were bowing in quiet respect. The reporter lost count of their number, but no matter; he was caught up in what the definition of this flag had come to mean for him throughout his life. He remembered how his father honored the family’s American flag; he kept it neatly folded into a triangle and placed it in a wooden box until it was time again to unfurl it beside the front door on Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, Independence Day and any other occasion he thought was pertinent. It never touched the ground. To the reporter’s father, the American flag was the fabric of what it meant to be an American citizen.
The reporter eventually arrived at the symbol.
There it was, not flying proudly like the flags he had just passed but crumpled and bunched as if battered by a summer wind, with just the protruding two intersecting blue stripes on a red background showing. This was a conscious decision, he thought, on the part of the individual who had raised it, but one that the homeowner – and every homeowner like him or her -- has the right to make. In accordance with the freedoms associated with being an American, no laws were being broken.
And yet, for any American to make that conscious decision to fly the Confederate flag is to also acknowledge the irreversible repercussions of what, for many, it stands for. It is a conscious decision that welcomes the opening of a massive wound, one that digs deep into some of the ugliest chapters in the book that tells the history of America. It is a conscious decision that wraps itself in the story of what began in 1619, when the first Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia, to become either slaves or indentured servants.
It is a conscious decision that has bound the homeowner to the pages of a 400-year odyssey that has been splayed with images of shackles, human backs the color of the Earth whipped into servitude, the police waiting on the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge with billy clubs, tear-gassing and hoses, heads drenched with milkshakes at lunch counters, Bull Connor’s dogs, Emmett Till, four girls in a Birmingham church, Colored Only, the second-floor balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and, most recently, torches in Charlottesville, and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among countless other African-American men and women who have been killed at the reckless hands of law enforcement.
Isn’t it ironic, the reporter thought, that one of the greatest freedoms given to the citizens of this country allows this citizen the freedom to fly a symbol so firmly entrenched in racial history and tension.
And yet, while we may not agree with that right, we must at least respect it.
The reporter wondered what would eventually happen to the symbol. Will the homeowner continue to raise it, thus exercising his or her constitutional rights as an American? Would he or she simply and somehow acquire good taste and take it down? This homeowner, being given the right to fly this flag, has the right to choose.
The Chester County Press reporter remembered how his father would take the time to fold the family’s American flag properly before placing it back in the wooden box, with the delicacy of a surgeon. The reporter would watch his father work meticulously. The colors in the box all seemed to blend together to form an imperfect tapestry, but one that needed to be cared for and protected.
Whether it is in keeping with our beliefs, that homeowner who flies the Confederate flag has that same right to treat his or her flag with the same sense of decorum.
The reporter then drove back home, past all of the American flags.