Freedom of expression is a wonderful gift we have in this country and Canada as well (a tip ‘o the hat to my Canadian followers). With the ease of instant worldwide communication when anyone, including me, can publish an opinion — or hundreds of them all day long through places like Twitter — freedom of expression is not only a gift, it quickly becomes a threat, a goad in the side, a source of much discord. The opposite of harmony, the underlying theme of my blog.
Ever since the Confederate flag came down in the wake of the despicable killings at the Wednesday night Bible Study in Charleston, S.C., many of us have noted an uptick in the number of Confederate flags flown on trucks, cars and front yards. On that dreadful Thursday morning as full news of the horror of that shooting rolled out, I listened on the radio feeling the precious spirit of an ordinary Wednesday night Bible study fellowship shattered forever. That could have been my church, my small Wednesday night group.
I will always remember how and when I first became aware that the Civil War was not over. It was 1969. My family moved from the north to the deep south and I was a senior in a high school that had been forced to fully integrate that year for the first time. I was teased because I was a “Yankee,” which did not really hurt, because I was white. But my jaw dropped when one kid added “Damn” in front of his taunt and uttered the line that still shocks me to this day: “If we could fight ‘cha again, we’d win this time.”
Yeah. That was 1969.
My mother, living in Indiana, talks about seeing loyal Confederate flags from lawns and trucks there in “Yankeeland.” And I get that for many, the old flag is history, a piece of cultural and family heritage, reminiscent even of a certain elegance — the mansions, the parties on the lawn, the Gone with the Wind era genteel society. As whites.
People say it is freedom of expression to display the Confederate flag. But no matter how loudly people remind us that the Civil War was more generally about “state rights,” it was, fundamentally, the right to own slaves that people fought and died for.
As the old saying goes, “My freedom of expression ends where your nose begins.” And the painful, deeply divisive cut of racism through our country’s heritage sometimes means leaving history and cultural heritage for museums, books and films. We need to continue the painful, ongoing reconstruction of a better society. We must reach across history, misunderstanding, war, murder and mistreatment to build new relationships. The good families of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston have already shown the way in their early, amazing expressions of forgiveness.
My father and mother did a wonderful thing in moving our family 900 miles to a new culture. I’m grateful for that difficult year — difficult not only because of new awareness of how blind I’d been to the deep continuing discord of racism, but also because I was simply lonely as a new girl my final year of high school.
My friends and family in the south still live every day in a more racially mixed culture than I currently do. We have to make an effort to step across racial boundaries in my part of Virginia (not so much in Richmond, Hampton, Newport News and points south, with much larger African-American populations). Our churches in the Shenandoah Valley are still largely segregated places. Many of our work places are not racially mixed. Perhaps our factories and fast food joints and nursing homes are the places where black and white and brown rub shoulders, working together, today. Our challenges to get along as long-time immigrants (mostly from European countries), forced historical immigrants (mostly African) and recent economic immigrants (mostly from Central and South America) are huge. We are all, except for native indigenous peoples, immigrants here.
We know Jesus reached across cultural and racial boundaries. The times he lived in were no less prejudiced and racially divided than we have today. The conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman (racially despised by Jews) at the well (John 4) continues to give me hope today. As we go about our daily lives, we can work to get to know just one individual at a time on a human level. We need to converse and find out what makes them tick — or ticked off. These are simple ways each of us can begin to change and maybe heal the scars that slavery brought upon our dear land. And don’t expect smooth sailing.
Melodie Davis is a Mennonite/Presbyterian author, Third Way Cafe editor, columnist and blogger at FindingHarmonyBlog.com, where this post first appeared.