Earlier this year I saw this truck around town a number of times. A Chevy pickup with an Oklahoma license plate, donning a vanity plate that had the “Don’t Tread on Me” graphic over the Confederate flag. My blood boiled every time I saw it.
One day in early summer, I was driving down a street near my home and I saw the truck parked in front of a house that was holding a yard sale. I drove past the house. I stopped. And I circled back. I parked in front, got out of my car, and strolled around, looking at things and observing people.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that the person who owned the truck was related to the home owner, if not the home owner himself.
I asked about a couple of items that I was truly interested in. I told the man and the woman running the sale… his sister… that I might come back. And I left. But as I was walking to my car a voice in my head said, “Stop. Go back. Ask.”
I went back and I opened dialogue with the man who owned the truck. “I have to ask you… what’s up with the Confederate flag?” The conversation that followed was a lesson I did not need to learn.
The man proceeded to tell me how he created this vanity plate… the Confederate battle flag with the “Don’t Treat on Me” flag superimposed on it. He sells it on the internet. He started with the typical, “You don’t know what the flag means.” And I corrected him. I know damn well what the flag means.
It turned out this was his childhood home and his mom was in a nursing facility. He and his sister, who now lives in Kentucky, where preparing the home for sale.
He told me that he was a Vietnam veteran and he pointed to a diamond stud earing in his ear. “I got this when I was 20 years sober.”
He seemed like a nice guy.
As the conversation moved forward, he shared with me, “I wasn’t a racist until I was in the military.”
Holy Good God Almighty… he admitted he was a racist, without me even suggesting the word. I cannot dislike this man, because he is honest.
He shared with me that he served with a number of Black men. When they were on furlough, these men acted as though they didn’t know him. My first thought was that they might have been cliquey, like when I was a kid. A bunch of guys hanging with their peers. And I am not condoning cliquiness, because, in my experience, it’s kind of a subtle form of bullying.
And then I wondered. Maybe he was just not a likable guy.
As we continued to discuss racism, I looked over at his sister’s car and noticed a couple of comforting bumper stickers. One was a peace sign and I can’t recall the other. Thinking I might have a comrade, I asked, “What do you think?”
She proceeded to tell me that she was not racist and that people are not racist where she lives in Kentucky.
Wait. I feel the need to say twelve Hail Mary’s and beg forgiveness from my friends of color.
She said, “They know to stay in their place.”
And this was well before Trump’s rise to power.
With that, I closed the conversation politely and went home to my safe place.
So, as every good essay should, it’s time to circle back. The end of the story must have a link to the start of the story. The closing.
As you may know, after I lost my job two years ago, I started a yard care business. Late this past summer I did some work for a customer who owns a rental property in Plainfield. On day two of the project, the owner was there to do work on one of the units. While giving me a tour of the apartment and showing me how the former tenants had destroyed it, our conversation somehow shifted and we were talking about the neighbors a few doors down. The very house that had many months prior displayed the Confederate flag that I initially wrote about. My first “siting.”
I returned about a week later to continue the job, only to find a new tenant moving in. He, his significant other, and their five kids. They were very nice and their little girl was a ray of sunshine, asking me question after question after question. She innocently asked, from a second floor window, “Why are you in my yard?”
The next time I returned, I continued with the front yard, which was now decorated with a Trump sign. I had to keep telling myself, “It doesn’t belong to the person that hired me.” And I had an entire conversation in my own head, asking myself if I am at a point where I can decline jobs at homes with these signs, promoting a Presidential candidate that I am vehemently opposed to.
As I turned the corner to work more on the back yard, my heart dropped and my blood pressure spiked.
As previously suggested by a childhood friend, which I did attempt with Mr. Oklahoma and Ms. Kentucky, I decided to engage. I was working my butt off, but I chose to take the time to ask. To communicate. Peacefully.
This young man, who I affectionately refer to as “Matthew” because his glowing smile and perfect teeth remind me of actor Matthew McConaughey, was happy to engage. And then I notices something else. As if the flag near his child’s toys and the family picnic table was not disturbing enough, his buff young shirtless chest was tattooed with the image. No lie.
He claimed that he displays the flag as proof that it “doesn’t make people kill.” He was referring to the Charleston murders and his argument made no sense to me. It was asinine, at best. As the conversation continued, I realized that explanation was a cover.
“I’m not racist. I have Black friends.” I would argue, Mr. Man, that they may be your friends, but you are not theirs.
It got better. “I just don’t understand why they talk like that when they’re with other Black people. It’s laziness.”
I asked, “Talk like what?” He explained. I cringed. And my stomach tied itself into a knot.
I suggested to “Matthew” that perhaps it was a dialect or a cultural thing and not laziness. And, again, I politely brought the conversation to a close and went about my work.
Sadly, five children are being raised among that thinking. And the neighbors directly across the street care for their bi-racial toddler grandchild and they have to look at that flag every day.
The South will rise again? This bonehead isn’t even a southerner.
Will I engage again? Never. My belief that people who fly this flag, especially northerners, are racist has been confirmed. I don’t need to engage.
Will I write more? No. My point is clear.
Will I post more pictures with addresses? Sadly, yes.
Celebrate diversity. It’s a beautiful thing.
Hug a person of color.
Pray for peace.
Photographed Summer 2016: