In late August I was in Natchez, Mississippi, an overnight stop between Memphis and New Orleans, at the end of a three week road trip across some of the Southern US states. My family and I returned from dinner to a mostly vacant hotel, entering through the bar, where a large group of African-American people celebrating some occasion sat around a table enjoying their evening. Tired from a day of driving, I went straight up to bed. However, my 70-year-old grandfather, a fan of the three Ws (whisky, Westerns and Willie Nelson) and on his first real overseas holiday stayed at the bar to indulge in a nightcap.
The next morning he told me of how the white bartender, in the middle of a casual conversation, whispered to him that he was disgusted at the reality of having to serve black customers. My grandfather, who is by no means the most liberal or open-minded man (some would simply call him old-fashioned), was shocked to hear this, as was I when he told me. It sounded like a line out of To Kill A Mockingbird, yet it came straight out of the mouth of an employee of a well-respected hotel. A hotel that seemed to employ many black people (as I saw few white staff members), in a town that is 44 percent African-American.
All in a state that still has “the Confederate flag” infused into the top right-hand corner of its own state flag.
I wish I could say that that was the only time I saw that flag throughout my trip, but unfortunately it made more guest appearances than Quentin Tarantino does in his own films, evoking the same response, starting with “oh look, that’s pretty funny” and quickly descending to “okay, this is getting ridiculous now”. The so-called “Confederate flag” (although there were many different ones) was tattooed on car bumpers in Nashville and hung from windows in Atlanta. Flags were sold in every souvenir shop, including those on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina (some Native Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War).
I’ve stayed out of the recent debate around pulling down statues of Confederate generals because I wanted to take the time to properly think, rather than just say the first thing that sprouted in my mind; as seems to be the trend these days. And, after visiting the places such as the National Civil Rights Museum (erected at the hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated) and talking with African-Americans, whether they were Uber drivers or tour guides, I’ve come to my conclusion.
As a British person it can be easy to slip into condescension when talking about the United States (especially after recent political decisions), but that can just be hypocritical and unhelpful. I am a white Englishman, so to talk sanctimoniously about historical white Americans is simply laughable, mainly because, here’s a fun fact, a lot of white British people have done some pretty awful things throughout history as well! If you go back far enough in American history, it’s your choice where you draw the line between an English person and an American person.
As with most countries and their respective national flags, the Union Jack has long been a symbol of British pride, particularly during World War II. During World War II we knew that we were fighting on the right side. We knew that Nazi Germany was the enemy. There was no doubt about it, and there still isn’t. If you were to ask people from all over the world, most would agree. World War II, to put it simply (and perhaps naively) was a battle between good and evil, like the final showdown in a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western.
It may seem extreme to compare the Nazi Party to the Confederacy, and perhaps it is, but both had similar principles. Both groups fought for positions of power in order to target minority groups and supposedly preserve white heritage. Thankfully both lost, and I wish that this could be a reminder that morality and righteousness always overcomes prejudice and racism in the end, however, in light of recent events, I wouldn’t want to speak prematurely.
The American Civil War was about slavery. There’s no denying that. Therefore, the parading of Confederate flags quite simply shows that the person doing so believes that black people should not be treated as equals to white people, and belong on a plantation somewhere farming cotton or tobacco. This is all in the same way that someone exhibiting a swastika is proudly endorsing the extermination of six million Jews. There is no justification for this and, in 2017, there is no place for it.
From my own observations, many seemed to display the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride, or even “redneck pride” in several instances. I hope that at least some of the people doing so were simply uneducated in the area of the American Civil War and didn’t just exhibit them out of pure spite and racism. But, if I’m wrong, then racism in the South is much more widespread and evident then I imagined.
During my time in the South I met several African-Americans who spoke of how they faced prejudice on a daily basis, and felt as though Confederate soldiers seemed to mock them from beyond the grave through their many large statues. Statues that belong in a museum, with other fossils, and not in a park surrounded by Bellagio-style fountains that seem to praise and honour men who were willing to die so they could keep slave labour on their plantations.
The following is something I was told by a tour guide at a slave museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Whilst my online research (albeit limited) could not verify the factuality of it, I thought it was an interesting thought and worth sharing:
When people were taken from West Africa to be slaves, they were stripped and laid on top of trays like meat, which were then stacked on top of one another. They were packed into ships where they were expected to remain motionless in their own excrement, until they reached America. If a slave died on the ship, as many often did, they were simply thrown overboard like waste. The blood from the bodies attracted sharks, which followed the boats for miles. For years, sharks continued this tradition, knowing that they would be guaranteed a meal. Then, after the Civil War, when slavery ceased, the ships stopped, but the sharks didn’t. The routes of the slave ships became programmed into the brains of the sharks, and generations of sharks continued to swim those routes, as they still do today.
I see a lot of people brush racism aside and deny its existence. But, as civil rights leader John Lewis put it: “The scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in the American society”. And racism isn’t solely an American problem. It is littered throughout the history of countries all over the world, Britain in particular, and is something that still plagues the Earth today.
So, perhaps we’re not unlike these sharks.