Under Two Flags

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When I was 12 years old, I sewed a Confederate flag onto my jacket. I didn’t intend to make a stand or provoke my classmates, most of them African-American. I just didn’t know any better.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when I grew up there, Richmond, Virginia, was a hundred years past the Civil War, but remnants of the Confederacy still cast long shadows throughout its former capital. As a white Richmonder I saw the flag decorating caps and T-shirts, flying from houses and museums. I never stopped to question its presence, much less consider its meaning. I believed that Gen. Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate leaders whose statues lined cobblestoned Monument Avenue were heroes. Why else would they sit on pedestals?

I was more preoccupied with finding my own place in the city. My family had moved from Chicago when I was seven, right after my father died of a heart attack. Richmond was my mother’s hometown, and she wanted to be near her family as she grieved.

At my new school, my classmates teased me for talking “like a Yankee.” My fourth-grade teacher made us call the Civil War the “War Between the States,” reflecting the Southern belief that the states had fought solely for the right to make their own laws. She taught us that most slaves had been happy, singing spirituals as they planted tobacco in their homespun clothes.

At my summer camp in North Carolina, where the elite families of New Orleans, Savannah, and Atlanta sent their daughters, we sang “Dixie” in the dining room. I learned to stand every time the song started and raise my fist when we got to the line “In Dixieland I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.”

These lessons hardly prepared me for my assignment to a black school when Richmond started mass busing in 1971. My mother could have found a way out of it, like most of the other parents in my neighborhood. She was a daughter of the South, a graduate of segregated schools. Yet her years in Chicago had shown her that integration worked, at least in our small Hyde Park neighborhood. When busing started, my older sister and I were probably the only white children in Richmond who had already gone to a racially mixed school.

That left me, at the age of 12, caught between a hearty chorus of “Dixie” and my personal experience that going to school with black children was no big deal. I was one of 106 white students assigned to join 513 African-Americans at Binford Middle School. Each day I stepped off the bus to face hundreds of children who viewed me as the enemy and either ignored me or made fun of me. I remember those months in a physical way: my head down, shoulders hunched to avoid the constant glares, elbows, and jostling in the halls. Many of the teachers quit. The principal, afraid of fights, canceled all sports and after-school activities.

Maybe if one of my teachers had explained the African-American view of the Confederacy instead of shunning all topics with the remotest hint of racial controversy, I would have ignored the patch I saw for sale at the Virginia State Fair in 1972. It was a checkered racing flag crossed with the Confederate Stars and Bars.

“Go, Confederates!” said the ponytailed salesman, eyeing my wad of frizzy hair, my dime-store earrings, my eagerness to fit in.

“Yeah!” I said, and handed over the money.

My mother made no comment as I left the next morning, the new patch on the front of my jacket. Despite her support for integration, she didn’t see the flag as anything objectionable. I practically strutted up to the door of the school. Finally I felt like a Richmonder!

I hadn’t gotten 20 feet inside when a black girl I didn’t know shoved me. She narrowed her eyes, jabbing me where the patch was sewn on, cursed, and stalked off. Stunned, I went into my homeroom.

It took Lori, a black girl who was in a lot of my classes, to tell me what I had done wrong. Petite but high-spirited, she was the only girl who let me touch her Afro, which was much softer than it looked. After lunch that day Lori pulled me into a corner of the cracked and weedy asphalt that served as our playground.

“That flag on your jacket,” she said, the usual teasing edge gone from her voice. “It’s got to go.”

My stomach somersaulted. Still, I didn’t know exactly what I had done wrong. I waited for her to say more.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” she said. Lori and I had stumbled into the no man’s land of racial misunderstanding. As 12-year-olds we were more open to social change, but we lacked any kind of perspective on history.

“Don’t you see we would still be slaves if they had won?” she said.

No answer I gave could possibly stanch the shame that flooded my face.

I wadded up the jacket and stuffed it into my knapsack. When I got home, I took out my mother’s manicure scissors and cut out every one of my careful stitches. I shoved the patch in the back of my drawer. I’d certainly never wear it again. Yet I also couldn’t bring myself to throw out the reminder of all I still had to learn.

I wish I could say that I made friends with black students in middle school, but the divisions and mutual misunderstandings ran too deep. My next school, an educational experiment called the Open High School, was more successfully integrated, probably because we all applied for admission and felt more like a community. But Richmond’s public schools, which had been 70 percent black when I started sixth grade, were 82 percent black when I graduated from high school. They’re 90 percent black today.