I have had the most difficult time writing this article. It took me the whole of Confederate History Month (known also as April) to do.
I figured it was just because I’m over-thinking, as I always do, bending far too often to the little internal editor who keeps reminding me that my language isn’t vivid enough, that I’m being repetitive, that my metaphors are corny and I should erase my last five lines and start over again. I was five pages of rambling notes and decapitated paragraphs in when I realized that I’m struggling so much because this is a story that I’m tired of telling. I’ve been trying to write it down since I graduated from college in 2004 and I am weary of the words. I screamed them vainly from my freshman year to my senior, and once I left the campus for good, diploma in hand, I decided I would just shut up about it for awhile. I was drained. Even now, six years later, it’s hard.
I went to a very small, very white private liberal arts school in Lexington, KY—when I began in the fall of 2000, 20 of the total 1,100 students were black (including me). That was a record, the most in 220 years of the school’s existence. I didn’t visit the campus before I committed to attend. They offered me a scholarship and it had a good academic reputation within the state, and that was good enough for me. The first thing I remember seeing after pulling into the main parking lot in the middle of the dorms is a building with a solid row of Confederate flags hanging in each and every window of its second floor.
That building was the boy’s dormitory. The school, being so small, didn’t have the space or demand for Greek housing, so they had Greek halls instead, one hall for each frat and sorority in the two largest dorms. The second floor of the dorm, the one with the Confederate flags in the windows, was the Kappa Alpha hall. I instinctively stayed away from KAs, as they were called, after finding out that they were the owners of all the flags, and doubly so after I heard about the frat being founded by Robert E. Lee, and triply so when it was mentioned that they were dedicated to “traditional Southern values and traditions.” (It turns out that it was not, as rumored, founded by Robert E. Lee—he was, however, named as the fraternity’s “spiritual founder” 1923.)
The KAs weren’t the worst part; the campus was thoroughly littered with crumbs of this “traditional South.” The dorm that housed the KAs was called Jefferson Davis Hall, so named after the president of the Confederacy. There was an absolutely gigantic portrait of him in the lobby of the dorm and a too-large bust of him in the library. It didn’t help that the campus itself was terrifyingly beautiful. The school’s administration building (which was used as a hospital for Union soldiers during the Civil War) is a large, stately, blindingly white building with Romanesque columns that jutted endlessly towards the sky, which seemed perpetually blue, even in rain. It sat atop the roundest, greenest hill you’ve ever seen in your life, and at its bottom was a wide arch of grassy land lined with exploding dogwoods and the world’s saddest willows, sweeping their narratives into the ground below. It made me nervous. It looked a little too much like the set of Gone with the Wind for me to enjoy it, especially with the rest of the Confederate residue clinging about, both on campus and off—there was a nameless, faceless Lexingtonian who made a hobby of riding around downtown in a bulbous red pickup truck flying a full sized Confederate flag in its bed and laying on his horn, which (of course) played “Dixie.” There was no escape from it for me. I used to joke that I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw an actual Confederate soldier walking through campus, feeling right at home. I was wrong.
He was dressed from ankle to Adam’s Apple in pale blue beneath a long wool coat with dull gold buttons on the breast and a cap to match. I shrugged it off, not wanting to believe what I already knew—that I really did just see one of my fellow students dressed as a Confederate soldier. I later learned later that it was a KA in costume to celebrate the end of something called Old South Week. This at least explained why I was awakened to a bunch of shirtless boys waving rebel flags screaming the words to “Dixie” underneath one of the weeping willows a few nights before (Editor’s note: This actually happened). From what I understood, Old South Week was a KA function, a weeklong celebration of old Southern customs and traditions, which included boys dressed as soldiers, girls dressed as delicate, magnolia-scented Southern belles in lace chokers and hoop skirts, and beer. Lots and lots of beer. I later heard stories of some outrageously offensive pranks pulled during Old South week at other schools; the one that sticks out most sharply in my memory is one where celebrating students dumped cotton balls all over a grassy campus lawn so that the janitorial staff, which was all-black, would have to bend over and pick them up while they walked through in their costumes, taking pictures.
I couldn’t imagine what I would have done if I would have seen something like that. I didn’t fully know what to do with what I had seen. I was angry. I was incredulous. I felt unsafe. And when no one cared, I felt invisible and insignificant.
We tried to talk about it. Teachers held in-class discussions about the matter and the general state of race relations on campus (a few professors actually had me come and sit in on these discussions because there were no other black students in their classes to present “our side”). We tried to hold campus-wide forums on it, but no one showed up but us black students, the ones who so desperately wanted to tell the ones draped in the Confederate flag what it did to us and why it was important to consider everything that flag stood for, not just chivalry and wrap-around porches and hayrides and sweet tea. I wrote about it and had quite a few pieces on race on campus published in the school paper. On more than one occasion, I found my articles ripped out of newspapers and taped on walls with things like “A GREAT EXAMPLE OF IGNORANCE” scrawled across them in permanent marker.
The majority of the campus maintained that they weren’t celebrating anything hateful. They were simply paying homage to their Southern heritage (as if we, too, were not Southern), honoring their roots, showing their appreciation for where they came from. But what kind of place was that? If I were to participate in Old South Week, what kind of costume would I wear? Would I be on a wrap-around porch with ruffles around my neck enjoying a mint julep, or sweating the day away in the campus kitchen? Why didn’t that matter to anyone?
This is the problem with the slant telling of history: excluding something or someone sends the message that that something or someone is not important. I can understand the kids on campus not wanting to include slavery in the celebration because it’s kind of a wet blanket. Still, the answer isn’t in simply ignoring it. When you acknowledge history, you don’t get to pick and choose. In erasing from the past, you symbolically erase from the present. All of the discussions we had lead to nowhere; whenever the issue was brought up, those on the opposing side clung to their “heritage, not hate” posters, and they eventually stopped talking about it altogether. That’s what hurt the most; no one even tried to see our side. Nobody cared how those Confederate flags made us feel or entertained the idea that they could have meant something different to us. The message we carried from that: we didn’t matter. We were insignificant.
The event was ultimately moved off campus, but I didn’t consider that a victory. It was a decision made by the administration and challenged by many of the students, and when it was all over, they felt like the victims, the ones punished, penalized, and inconvenienced by slavery, a beast that breathed, in their opinion, because we kept it alive. Slavery was so many years ago, they said. I’ve never personally owned a slave. Let it go. Just let it go already.
To them, letting it go meant ignoring it. To us, letting it go meant finally having our concerns and issues being seen as valid, finally feeling understood.
As of now, I’m still holding on, waiting for the chance to let it go.