Making A Home In The Shadow of Confederate Symbols : Code Switch Two new essays explore a subject we're fascinated with here at Code Switch — how people navigate public spaces awash in images they deplore in order to make community and belong.
NPR logo Making A Home In The Shadow of Confederate Symbols

Making A Home In The Shadow of Confederate Symbols

Over at the New York Times, Jack Hitt considers the ubiquity of one particular icon of the post-Confederate South. "In front of nearly every courthouse or at the main intersection of nearly every town in the South, you will find a Confederate memorial," Hitt writes. "From the late 19th century to the early 20th, the icon of choice was not a fountain or an obelisk but a young man in the prime of courage. He is Johnny Reb, staring attentively ahead, at something."

Hitt argues that the omnipresence of so many these monuments has slowly altered and expanded the boundaries of what we think of as the Old South: Kentucky was a neutral state during the Civil War which sent more troops to the Union side than to the South and yet today, the state boasts 64 Confederate monuments compared to just 11 for the Union. "And Kentucky is now popularly thought of as situated in the heart of Dixie," Hitt writes.

The way politically loaded symbols that are everywhere can muddy our allegiances is something we wrote about at Code Switch over the summer, after a mass shooting at a Charleston church at the hands of a white supremacist incited a wave of soul-searching about the Confederate flag in public life. Back then, I wrote that the very ubiquity of radioactive iconography means that they tend to become mixed up with all sorts of personal meaning. The Confederate flag remains the sigil of a vanquished American slave-ocracy and white supremacy at the same time that it has become a shorthand for a particular, Southern-fried brand of youthful Boomer rebellion — more Lynyrd Skynyrd than Stonewall Jackson.

These types of images are all over American life — particularly in sports, where teams like the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians, where stereotypical caricatures of Native Americans are central to the way people from those places make community in big and small ways. It's that tension between belonging and ugly imagery that runs through Kiese Laymon's fantastic feature, "How They Do In Oxford," in this month's ESPN: The Magazine. Laymon, a Mississippi native, made a promise to himself as a child that he would never say the nation's pledge of allegiance at any place that prominently displayed the Confederate flag — a promise he had to finally break this fall when he attended his first football game at the University of Mississippi. Ole Miss is a storied football program with a messy racial past and that is completely awash in Confederate symbols. The team's name is the Rebels; its mascot, up until very recently, was "Colonel Reb"; the Confederate flag takes up a full quadrant of the state's official banner, which is waved around triumphantly by fans at the team's games.

Laymon casts an ambivalent eye on that imagery — what kind of self-respecting black person plays for and roots for a school where Rebel flags wave excitedly? — even as he finds himself swept up in a game in which the Rebels demolish a visiting team by nearly 70 points. It's a great, thorny exploration of the sacrifices we make to belong to a community.

Here's Laymon recalling a scene at one game from earlier this season:

A band starts playing this mashup of "Amazing Grace," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Dixie," a Confederate anthem that originated during the minstrelsy era of the 1850s. I'm standing next to 
a middle-aged black woman and black man in matching jean shorts outfits. They look slightly less confused than I am.

The woman starts to clap near the end of the band's performance.

"You clapped for 'Dixie'?" the man asks.

"They play that one song at my church," she says.

"Right," he tells her. "But you clapped for 'Dixie,' though?"

"I'm here," she says, as the entire Grove erupts in a chant of Hotty Toddy. "You asked me to come. I'm here."