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Derek Jennings

Rally 'round the flag

Whew-ee! Ain't nothing better than starting off the year with a big ol' controversy. You know, like the kind we got going South of the Border--south of the North Carolina border, that is, where the Stars and Bars still flaps unapologetically over the South Carolina Statehouse. New Year's Day marked the official commencement of an NAACP boycott of tourism in the Fort Sumter state, the only place in the nation where the Confederate flag has that official distinction. The boycott has, in turn, inspired neo-Confederate and Southern-heritage groups to march and rally in support of the flag.

Of course, history has known no group of human beings so put-upon, so oppressed and dispossessed as white Southerners. Why, these folks are asking, did the NAACP have to come and make matters worse by poormouthing a proud historical symbol, near and dear to a certain kind of Southern heart?

Must be a misunderstanding somewhere, y'all. Because it appears that the NAACP sees something different when they gaze upon the Stars and Bars. Let me take a guess: They see what I (along with a vast majority of non-lobotomized black folk) see. We see a visceral reminder of the fact that white people only became their "fellow Americans" after three-and-a-half centuries of holding their ancestors in slavery. We see a symbol that occupies a position on the ladder of hate just a couple of rungs down from white sheets, hoods and swastikas.

The last time a major flap erupted over the Rebel flag, the Olympic Games were coming to Georgia, which had anticipated hip-hop back in the '60s by "sampling" elements of the Confederate banner and incorporating them into its state flag. This became big news while Atlanta was furiously reinventing itself as a New South metropolis, trumpeting its slogan, "The City Too Busy To Hate."

"Hey--what kinda B.S. is that?" I remember thinking at the time. "Y'all gonna hate me when you get some free time? Uh ... Thursdays are good for me."

I get another dose of cognitive dissonance when I listen to the New South revisionists insisting that anyone offended by their flag has got it all wrong. It's mere happenstance, you see, that the resurrection of Old South symbols in the '50s and '60s coincided with the ascendancy of the civil rights movement, and with increasing pressure to end both de jure and de facto segregation in the South.

Of course, the more genteel brand of neo-Confederate will politely ascribe his or her views to what I might call benign ancestor worship--that, and an undying devotion to the cause of states' rights. After the Jan. 9 march on the South Carolina Statehouse by hundreds of Rebel-flag-wavers, national Southern Party co-chair Madison Cook patently denied that there were any racist connotations in his beloved symbol. "The flag is flying over the South Carolina Statehouse to honor the dead who fought for individual liberty and constitutional law, and the right to peacefully secede from the Union," he said.

Nobody ought to question the cultural need for revering and respecting the memory of the 600,000 who died in the Civil War. But you can recognize that need and still wonder: Why are so many of the folks who get all misty-eyed over the war the exact same folks who tell African Americans to "get over it" when we insist on remembering the tens of millions of our ancestors killed in the Middle Passage, or the hundreds of thousands who died under subjugation in the South?

Let's be clear: For the Confederacy, states' rights meant states' rights to own slaves. Not convinced? Digest this little morsel of historical irony: The Confederate States of America limited its own states' rights by stipulating that member states not abridge the right to own slaves. If, say, North Carolinians had an official change of heart regarding the chattel status of African people, they'd have been S.O.L. (State Outta Luck).

My own historical memory is not so warped that I see the Civil War in purely "good guy vs. bad guy" terms. African Americans sure enough caught hell from the old Stars and Stripes, too. Lincoln did not lead a war to end slavery; he led a war to preserve the union. Discrimination ran rampant, and still does, in the North (or "Up South," as 19th-century blacks sardonically dubbed it).

But the "right" to subjugate black people was not a core value represented by the Stars and Stripes. It was a core value symbolized by the Stars and Bars.

None of that should come as news to anyone. Certainly not to the folks at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who, anachronistic acronym notwithstanding, are boldly stepping into the future by confronting the past.

Let's be clear here, too: The national chapter of the NAACP is often a place where headlines not only get made, but chased. I know I wasn't really feelin' 'em on their previous crusade, when they went after the "whiteout" of network television. Couldn't help thinking there just might have been one or two issues ahead of that one on black folks' collective priority list.

Maybe that was just my shortsightedness, though. Come to think of it, my chest did swell with pride as a young lad in the '70s when the cast of Norman Lear's poignant docudrama, Good Times, was busy each week keepin' their heads above water, makin' a way when they could. And every time I watched George Jefferson pimp-strut his way across that "deeluxe apartment in the sky," I just knew that I could grow up to be somebody.

But this time, instead of boycotting a company, Kweisi and Co. have chosen to boycott a state. Boycott a state?!? You gotta admit: That's a serious power move. But a genuine issue of overwhelming concern to black Americans? Nah, not really. At least not on the surface.

Like the TV crusade, the South Carolina boycott is symbolic politics. Taking that flag down tomorrow would not measurably improve the quality of life of any black person living in South Carolina. But it would say plenty about the power of the NAACP as the voice of black America. And it would say a lot about the way black power will be exercised in the future.

African Americans are starting this century as chattel of the political system in another presidential-election year, relegated to delivering (or failing to deliver) a swing vote for the Democrats. But we're also entering the 2000s with $400 billion in annual spending power. The NAACP's South Carolina campaign recognizes that in a world increasingly driven by capital, the respect we can expect to receive will depend heavily on how we "leverage" this spending power.

The people at Texaco can attest to the potential impact of a big-time boycott: The company's racist meltdown cost it billions of dollars when outraged Americans of all colors shirked its products, spelling temporary disaster for Texaco's all-important stock-market capitalization. With an estimated $280 million in black tourist dollars at stake, the South Carolina flag issue can be construed as another test run for a new model of exercising black power. That's what makes this particular symbolism more relevant to me than who shows up on Friends.

Yeah, there are dozens of issues more critical to our survival as a people than yanking the red carpet out from under the deluded feet of neo-Confederates. The deplorable state of education for African-American children (a top priority for Durham's local NAACP chair, the Rev. Curtis Gatewood) could certainly benefit from a full-court press by the big guys. And how about some symbolic action against the prison-industrial complex, with its insatiable appetite for putting blacks and other minorities in chains? I'd like to see some press conferences and magazine covers on that.

For now, though, I'm willing to back the NAACP's latest show of strength, and cross my fingers that it'll be not an end, but a means--a means of getting to the point where our leverage can be used to make a real difference. I've canceled my family getaway to Myrtle Beach. Just doing my bit to show that we ain't whistling "Dixie." EndBlock

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