In October 2006, I went on one of my first tours of the U.S. playing music with my band, Earl Greyhound.
Among other things, our band was an interracial three-piece made up of two people with black skin (Ricc and Kamara) and one (me) with white. I remember that time fondly because every day was a new experience, and our band was excited to be getting some attention and playing outside New York for the first time. One night, halfway through, the tour, we were scheduled to play a small club in Athens, Georgia, just a block or two away from the University of Georgia. We were in good spirits and ate together before the show at a college restaurant where I had fried green tomatoes for the first time.
There was a local band of four guys in their early 20s at the club who were playing after us; they seemed plenty friendly and were eager to have us stick around to watch them play. We planned to do so and once we’d finished playing, cleared the stage of all our equipment.
About 15 minutes later I was in a hallway in the back of the club that opened out onto a side street where bands would load in and out. I could see that the door had been propped open and then saw our 1991 Chevy Gladiator van fly up to the door and come to a screeching halt outside it. It was particularly startling because I’d never seen anyone else drive that van from the inside or out. I was the only one among the three of us with a driver’s license, and as a result, had to do 100% of the driving. It was something we either joked or fought about frequently on that tour.
So I was that much more shocked when I saw it was our drummer, Ricc, who was the one driving. With the van still running he jumped out of the driver’s seat and hurriedly started packing the van with all our instruments. I asked him what was going on and he said that we had to get out of there immediately because we weren’t safe. He said that he saw the other band’s equipment and that they had a giant Confederate flag on the front of their drum set.
I don’t remember being that surprised and chalked it up to some “Dukes of Hazzard”-type swaggering. I couldn’t see the threat — we had been yukking it up with these guys not 15 minutes earlier, and moreover, they were half Ricc’s size and age. In hindsight, and more to the point, I couldn’t see the threat having grown up white in America: of having never felt the fear of racist violence being directed at me, of having misunderstood the history of lynching as something limited to the past, and unaware of its persistence in present-day America..
I see Confederate flags on a daily basis here in Otsego County; flying outside homes, stitched on to the shoulders of jackets, and in place of front license plates that I see driving on the state highways. It’s been explained to me that northerners who display the rebel flag and claim not to be bigots, do so to show anti-government defiance of a system they don’t think represents their interests, resistance to a changing world, and most often as a provocation to anyone in their orbit; as if to say, “Just try and tell me to take my controversial symbol down — I’m someone who does as they please without regard for anyone else.”
And it works. I’m not going to approach someone who fits that description. But when I think about the level of terror Ricc might have felt when he was confronted with that symbol in 2006, I realize it’s not something I can continue to shy away from.
As it turns out, the Confederate flag as we know it was actually the Virginia State Battle Flag during the Civil War. The official flag of the confederacy was mostly white and as a champion of its design explained at the time “As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause” (Savannah Morning News 1863). The Virginia State Battle Flag, which was part of the above design, was mostly forgotten until 1948 when the KKK resurrected its use.
So in case there’s still any confusion among you who flaunt the rebel flag, that’s precisely what the confederacy advocated: using violence to fight for the dominance of people with white skin over those with black skin. That’s what the display of the flag promotes.
That’s the nightmare of our history you remind me of when I see it in front of your house, on your vehicle or your jacket; the nightmare of a crowd of southern whites I’ve seen posing for a photograph with the hanging, dead body of a black teen; the nightmare of stories I’ve read about babies ripped from the arms of their screaming mothers; and of a widow grieving for her lynched husband then turned over by the sheriff to his killers, who hung her upside down, beat and burned her to death with motor oil and cut her open so that her unborn baby could fall to the ground and be stomped upon. I can’t begin to imagine, nor can I speak to the nightmares my friends with black skin experience when they see your flag.
It’s my hope that when the coronavirus subsides Ricc will visit my family in Otsego County and that Kamara and her family will as well. If it’s your intention with the display of the Confederate flag to try and intimidate my bandmates, their families, and people who look like them with an unspoken threat of violence, I doubt I can separate you from your bigotry. For the moment it is your legal right to carry on doing as you please with your flag.
If, however, you mean to show that you reject the system that rejected you, a system that has increasingly favored the rich over the lower and middle classes during the last six presidencies despite promises to the contrary, or only to announce that you are against the way our country is changing and not to be messed with — please find another way to do so.
Matt Whyte is a musician who lives in Roseboom with his wife and two daughters.