Every once in a while a friend asks for help with a writing project. I’ve known Melissa since we were five years old in kindergarten, long enough to call her “Erlene” out of habit because she went by her middle name in high school, and long enough to remember her brother as the fastest runner and biggest hitter in Little League. So when she asked me to look over this essay, I was happy to oblige. What I found was a deeply personal essay about the world I grew up in, and the parts of it I never saw. This is not posted here to start or continue any controversy, but to help her get her words out to what might be a little wider audience.
I’m not going to discuss this post in the comments, I’m not going to debate this in comments, and if you’re a dick to my friend in comments, I’m not going to approve the comment. We clear? Good. This is her story, and I think it’s got a lot of deep meaning. I’ll tell you a little more about this road tomorrow, the parts of the story Melissa doesn’t know I know, and may not know herself. But for today, lend your eyeballs to one of my oldest and dearest friends, a woman whose entire family I hold in the highest esteem – Melissa Rouse.
“The Road of Fear”
1981- A Black Mom’s History Lesson about the Confederate Flag to her 8 Year Old Daughter
If you were an 80’s child raised in the South, you probably watched “The Dukes of Hazzard” on Friday evenings. Mom fried fish for her and my father and me and my brother had our favorite; pork ‘n beans. This was well before Beanie Weenies. Back then you cut up a couple of hot dogs and put them in a pot of baked beans and voila, pork ‘n beans! I grew up in a very small town; Sharon, South Carolina, a town of five hundred or less in population. Black and white folk were cordial, but there wasn’t much in the way of mixing; however, there weren’t major problems. Everything was pretty under toned. Before I went to Kindergarten, my experience with white people was in the grocery story or out in public. Although the neighbors down the street would help my dad and vice versa, there was a mutual respect more along the lines of work ethic. If you had a good work ethic, you were respected. So there goes the line in the sand.
Back to the point at hand; Friday nights as a youth. My brother and I loved to watch “The Dukes of Hazzard.” I can name all of the cast from memory: Bo and Luke Duke, Uncle Jessie, Daisy, Cooter, Enis, Rosco and his dog Flash, Boss Hog and of course the car that Bo and Luke Duke drove, The General Lee. Man that car was fast! A two door 1969 Dodge Charger, doors welded shut, bright orange with a beautiful red, white and blue flag with a big capital X with stars on the top. Remember this is coming from the eyes of two young and impressionable black children who had not been previously exposed and educated about the Confederate flag, nor the naming convention behind the infamous car. One Friday evening after eating our delicious meal of pork ‘n beans and watching an episode of the “The Dukes of Hazzard”, it occurred to us that we should draw the flag that was emblazoned on top of the General Lee! I know it’s sad, but we didn’t know any better at the time. We pulled out our papers and crayons and began to feverously draw the best renditions of the Confederate flag that a 10 and 8 year old Black American child could possibly draw! Once we were done with our masterpieces, my brother being the oldest and most competitive, called our mother over and asked her to be the judge and pick the best drawing. Well, let’s just say that it went downhill from there.
“What in the world is this?!!” she yelled. My mother grew up the daughter of a sharecropper in York County, South Carolina in the height of Jim Crow. Everything was separate and unequal during those times, so she has a lot of segregation history stored in her memory bank. She hadn’t told us the hardcore truth about our history before then, but our eyes would soon be opened; wide open! My brother and I stood there with blank faces and explained that we were drawing the flag that was on top of the General Lee. In a short history lesson, my mom told us about how her family would travel down a cut through road, Suttons Springs Road, on their way to church. Sometimes on a late summer’s night as they returned home from church, the Ku Klux Klan would be out in the field having their meetings, right off of Sutton Springs Road. She recounted that they would be out in plain view, white robes, pointy hats, crosses burning and the Confederate flag swaying in the wind.
“That flag means they don’t like you because of your color! They brought us over here as slaves and they fought to keep us as slaves! You are never good enough in their eyes and you have to work twice as hard to get ahead! You hear what I say?!” She ended her lesson, shook her head, shrugged her shoulders and stated in a soft hurt slow tone, “That’s just the way it is.”
So, in a span of five minutes we got a very rudimentary crash lesson on the Confederate flag and why I was not liked and wouldn’t be liked by some white people for the rest of my natural born life because I have a beautiful brown skin tone. It just couldn’t be, I thought. I explained to my mom that some of my classmates live off of Sutton Springs Road and that they were nice to me. Her response, “That may be true, but don’t you go down that road. We ain’t got NO business driving down that road!” From that point on, Sutton Springs Road became the road of fear in my eyes, and the Confederate flag, a symbol of hatred.
As I got older and began to drive and take on more risk, I drove down that road. It shaved off 10 minutes commute time. I pay South Carolina and York County tax, so why wouldn’t I drive down that road? As I turned onto the road, my heart fluttered a bit as I envisioned the sight that my mom saw as a youth. The flames rolling off of the burning crosses alongside that big X swaying back and forth, as if to say go back, you are not wanted.
I realize that some believe that the Confederate flag is part of their heritage and not hate; however, one of the primary reasons behind the Civil War as well as the flag being used as intimidation following the lost war gives pause to most Black Americans. Many old pictures from lynch mob gatherings and Civil Rights conflicts occurring post Reconstruction have some form of the Confederate flag being displayed by white supporters along with their look of disgust. The flag not only represented the South in a lost cause, it also became the face of Jim Crow backed racism.
The Confederate flag should not fly on or above our state capital, as we have two flags that should be honored, the American flag and the South Carolina State flag. However, I think any American has the right to fly whatever flag they so chose on their own personal property, unless of course your homeowners’ association discourages that type thing. As well, confederate memorials should not be desecrated, as we all should have a reminder from whence we have come.
June 17, 2015 was a sad day in not only South Carolina history, but in American history as well. Nine lives were taken because of racial hatred, but for me the ensuing issue surrounding the Confederate flag has given me pause to rethink how I now chose to view it.
“It’s an ugly callous that reminds me to always try to love and never hate. It’s that reminder, that there is a brighter day and to keep on pushing regardless of what someone thinks of me. It reminds me of scripture, “Though they slay me, I will trust Him…” (Job 13:15). Regardless of my connection, it’s a reminder to call out a wrong, even when the wrong side of history has been taken. The Confederate flag, a choice to continue in love or to falter back in the line of fear and hatred. My choice is to love without hesitation.”
It’s been more than 34 years since my mama stood over me and my brother and gave us a quick life lesson on race. She now travels Sutton Springs Road from time to time. Little by little, hearts begin to meld and life brings about change.
Melissa McKnight Rouse
Rock Hill, SC