During my first year orientation at DePauw, my seminar classmates and I finished exploring Robe Anne Park and decided to indulge in the magical place known as a Dairy Castle. It was a bonding experience as we chatted, walked to the back of the park, and made a left turn out to the road. And suddenly, the laughter and the jokes stopped. Feet melted into the black top. My peers stood wide-eyed as we all tried to digest a large red pick-up truck adorned with a Confederate Flag decal across the back window and seductively arched silhouette of a woman decorated in the same pattern on the bumper.
Four Black women stood suspended in time, transported back to an era we had only seen in documentaries riddled with slurs and had heard from not just our grandparents, but our parents who warned us of potential dangers and risks that Black children are told religiously at the dinner table.
“Do we keep going?”
“Are we safe?”
“Can I even go into Greencastle alone?”
“What if whoever owns the truck sees us?”
Questions that rushed out when hearts skipped a beat staring at an image we had been taught to fear, and rightfully so.
This was August 2013, and here we are approaching the beginning of our senior careers, and we as a community still live in the perpetual fear.
The Confederate flag is considered to some to be a sign of Southern pride that does not have a connection to slavery or intolerance, but mostly celebrating heritage. However, for people of color, it’s a sign that is telling us to be weary of our surroundings, to stay in the safety of campus, and hope to God that we go under the radar when we are the most vulnerable.
Because students of color on our campus are followed by trucks, even in places that should be safe, with Confederate flags and are called derogatory names. Because we wait inside Wal-Mart for twenty minutes after we have checked out because a truck with a Confederate flag circles the parking lot or tirelessly revs its engine in the furthest, darkest corner without ever entering the store. Because a prospective student felt that she could not attend DePauw because she and her family felt unwelcomed when seeing the flag as they toured on campus. She did not feel as if she would be safe in the community.
And why are we shrouded in this aura of fear?
Because while it is easy to say it is a sign of those fighting for what they thought was right at the time, it is impossible to separate the divisive racial tension that has surrounded the flag. South Carolina seceded in 1860 due to the “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery,” and the election of Abraham Lincoln who believed “that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.” Until 2015, the Confederate flag was proudly flown above the state house.
The Confederate flag was predominantly used in memorials after the end of the war, but came back in full force in 1915 with the airing of the film Birth of a Nation. This film revisioned the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, heroicized the creation of the Ku Klux Klan, and depicted Black men as unintelligent and sexually aggressive. All done in the name of the Confederacy under the Confederate rebel flag. All done in the tenor of the times, yet lasted far longer in a crippling manner for Blacks and Whites alike.
Fast forwarding through history, we see the flag used by the Ku Klux Klan, a known domestic terror organization that uses tactics such as murder, lynching, arson, rape and bombing of African Americans. It became the unwavering banner of White supremacy. In 1963, Governor George Wallace of Alabama uses the flag in his Segregation Now, Segregation Forever campaign. We see it being waved as Black children attempt to walk into schools while protesters hurl racial insults. We see mass shooters such as Dylan Roof stand under it as he murders nine Black worshippers in 2015.
For these reasons, this is why I as a Black woman do not feel comfortable around Confederate flags. My fellow peers and I do not have the luxury to say that the flag reflects a noble heritage of those standing up to authority because this flag was not meant for us, it was meant to oppress us and instill fear. This is why as a community we hope to have productive dialogues with Greencastle community members about the flag. We hope to encourage the city to issue a statement that it does not condone the use of known and documented intimidating materials. This isn’t stepping on the right to free speech, it is simply saying that we, too, live here and deserve the right to feel safe. If one feels that the flag should be continued to be flown, then that is on the individual. We legally cannot stop them because that is their right; however, the flag hinders local businesses because students may not feel comfortable frequenting areas that compromise safety or an enjoyable experience. It hurts our university because we are losing bright students because of the lack of inclusion in the city and on campus, although both communities are attempting to be more inclusive. It ultimately damages the town-gown relationship because there is a lack of trust that we will hold each other accountable to be active bystanders in troubling incidents.
The desire to be included and safe in the community is not a right given to only a few, it is a right given to all. We can be active agents of change. We can grow together and ensure one another’s safety. We can begin to understand the cultural and political significance of controversial materials. We have this ability, and we are stronger together than we are divided.