Choosing Our Humanity: Cody Nelson and the Confederate Flag

“I may not be from the South, or never been down there, but I stand with the South and their belief”

Those are the word of high school senior Cody Nelson who was told he can not fly the Confederate Flag from his car while it is parked in the school parking lot. Cody is from Crosby, MN a small town where folks “grew up flying the flag.” And my heart is on fire.

****

I grew up on some f*ck the government shit. My family worked too hard for too little, and I knew it wasn’t “fair.” I have vivid memories of my Grandma, Mom, Dad and anybody else who had survived long enough to teach me the ropes telling me “life ain’t fair.”  It cultivated some kind of anger that I can’t even name. It’s a strange anger because it exists in this space between privilege, exploitation, isolation and humanity. Having beige skin and being perceived as White has granted those of us with this anger a certain amount of access, a certain amount of privilege. That privilege, though, exists side by side with the deep and very real economic exploitation that fuels capitalism. At this point one of two things happen 1) we “make” it and fully embrace the desolate reality of whiteness or 2) we remain the white working poor, “white trash,” and  that anger burns even hotter. It is here, at this crossroads, that I return to Cody Nelson, his friends and an alternative.

In the KARE 11 piece Cody’s friends tell’s Boyd Huppert that they grew up around the flag and don’t think it’s a big deal. This is followed by a cosign from a person of color assuring us that they are not racist because he’s known them his whole life. This is the logic they have fed us working poor whites, and we know it’s wrong. In our souls, we know it’s wrong. Maybe that person of color believes that his friends aren’t racist, maybe they don’t call him the N word behind his back, or maybe they do, either way that is not what racism is. Racism is about that strange place we occupy, that space between privilege and our humanity. Racism is about systems that were set up to cater to our white skin. Racism is about the fact that when people see us they think we failed. They call us trash, they call you, Cody and friends, rednecks and  hillbillies. They call you backward for not capitalizing on the privileges your white skin afforded you. And despite the economic exploitation we face, our white skin has impacted our lives. But, like me, it hasn’t satiated your anger and you are striving to give the system the finger. That is what the Confederate flag is about to you . I understand that. But is that what you are doing?

South Carolina seceded from the United States to guarantee it’s citizens the right to own other human beings as property. The rest of the South followed suit. That is terrible. Cody Nelson says “[i]f they think it represents slavery that’s their opinion” and he is wrong, it is historical fact. Here is what is missing from that: The Union didn’t abolish slavery out of some moral impetus. The North had a different economy, a different form of exploitation, more humane in that workers are not slaves nor property, but exploitative nonetheless. More importantly they were just as racist. The North embraced white supremacy as wholeheartedly as the South. The North continues to feign some sort of racial progressiveness while maintaining the highest disparities between whites and people of color. This is our country, North and South. Whether you are flying the Stars and Stripes or the Stars and Bars. Different sides, same coin. So what is the alternative?

***

My anger won’t go away. I’ve accepted this. In fact, I’ve embraced it. I’m mad. This shit ain’t fair and I know it ain’t. I grew up around the serenity prayer: ” God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”  It used to bring me some sort of comfort. It doesn’t anymore. I am no longer accepting my own powerlessness. We can change everything. We have to decide, then, what are we going to change. Will we continue to perpetuate the divide and conquer tactics that date back to colonial Virginia? Are we really going to accept the choices of the United States or the Confederate as if they aren’t both guilty of embracing White Supremacy? We don’t have to. We don’t have to offer our anger to the likes of Donald Trump who would turn it towards our Brown and Black brothers and sisters. We can turn it towards the George Washington’s, Jefferson Davis’, Abraham Lincoln’s, Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ of the world: the elite who keep us fighting each other to the death while they rake in the money. We can choose our own humanity. It starts by taking down the symbols of our division, Confederate or otherwise.

 

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