Friday, January 10, 2014

`Lives Are Private Integrities'

In Texas, one of the eleven former Confederate States of America, I see the familiar “stars and bars” of the Confederate flag with no more frequency than in the other four states where I’ve lived. Where I saw it most often was Indiana. I lived there for two years (1983-85), working as a newspaper reporter, and often wrote stories about the activities of a motorcycle gang, the Iron Horsemen. Like the swastika, the flag was part of their regalia. When I accompanied police on a raid of the bikers’ clubhouse in Richmond, Ind., the flag was hanging on the wall. It may be relevant to know that sixty years earlier, in 1925, Indiana had more Ku Klux Klan members – some 250,000 – than any other state. In addition, in the late nineteen-sixties, I surreptitiously witnessed, from a distance, a cross-burning at a Klan rally. This was on the rural fringes of Cleveland, Ohio. 

Guy Davenport, a native of Anderson, S.C., paid attention to motorcycle gangs, flags and most everything else. In 2001, the literary journal Callaloo invited Davenport and other writers to address the controversy surrounding the continued flying of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina capitol in Columbia. Many of the responses are predictable, but “The Confederate Battle Flag,” among the last things Davenport wrote before his death in 2005 and not yet collected in book form, is nuanced and deeply infused with historical knowledge: 

“There is such a thing as obsolete patriotism: that's what I see when the South Carolina capitol displays the Confederate flag. And here we need to turn to the ambiguity of all symbols, for this flag obviously means one thing to some people, and something else to others. And how does a democracy deal with ambiguous symbols?” 

Davenport writes as a native Southerner who neither repudiates his roots nor plays on them. Always independent, he’s neither a guilt-ridden liberal nor a Jeff Davis-minded reactionary. In his great essay “Finding” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), Davenport recalls a boyhood “reunion” with the descendants of slaves once owned by his forebears: 

“And once we found a black family with our name, and traded family histories, blacks being as talkative and open as poor whites are silent and reticent, until we discovered that their folk had belonged to ours. Whereupon we were treated as visiting royalty; a veritable party was made of it, and when we were leaving, an ancient black Davenport embraced my father with tears in his eyes. `O Lord, Marse Guy,’ he said, `don’t you wish it was the good old slavery times again!’” 

Note the tone – neutral, letting the facts speak for themselves. Neither Dixie campiness nor self-righteous outrage and phony apologies. In the flag essay, Davenport recalls Dave and Ina Dooley, the former slaves who lived in the house next door. He grew up playing with their children, but there’s no hint of the some-of-my-best-friends braggadocio heard among Northern whites. He treats Ina not as a demographic category but a person: 

“Lives are private integrities and unique arrangements in a society. Did Ina give the least attention to the Confederate monument in the town square? I imagine, however gratuitously, that she couldn't have cared less: none of her business.” 

Read the entire brief essay to fully appreciate the elegantly rounded closure of the final sentences, but for now savor these sentences:      

“For the past forty years the United States has been conducting a sociological experiment the outcome of which has yet to be seen. We're far from being a pluribus unum; we’re still very much Mark Twain’s `damned human race.’ If a display of a defeated flag is a snag in the process, pull it down.”

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