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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I used to wear a Confederate flag on the back of a concert t-shirt when I was in high school. Lynyrd Skynyrd was on the front. I never saw them in concert; the lead singer died a couple of years before I started listening. I owned (almost) every album though. I was big into Molly Hatchet too—though, to be honest, I never really got over the change in lead singers on their third album. ZZ Top was up there too, and not their mid-80s synthesizers, just the 70s albums. I also knew “Whipping Post” and the Molly Hatchet cover of “Dreams,” but I’m afraid I just wasn’t cool enough for the Allman Brothers in my teens.

So that Confederate flag on my back meant one and only one thing to me: Southern Rock. As implausible as it sounds, it never occurred to me that it might mean something else.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, a no man’s land of overlapping northern, southern, and mid-western culture. My classic rock station kept Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” on heavy rotation, while most stations above the Mason-Dixon wouldn’t touch it. My suburb had maybe a 10% Black population, but illegal yet never-challenged redlining policies by local real estate agents kept those families sequestered in one corner of the town map. When a Black family did move in down my street in our otherwise all-white neighborhood, someone threw a burning cross in their yard. I’m not sure how long after that they moved out.

My parents helped desegregate the local police force by taking them to court and winning. That’s why our house kept getting egged and someone wrote “NIGER LOVERS” on the side of the garage. Racists can’t spell, my mother joked.

I wasn’t the brightest student either. I must have had some vague knowledge of the Civil War, but it was no more present in my mind than any other ancient history-book event I skimmed for a quiz and instantly forgot. This was decades before the KKK left Confederate flag flyers on my Lexington lawn or I saw that flag waved in unison with Nazi swastikas in Charlottesville. A part of me would like to go back to my high school ignorance. The world doesn’t seem half as ugly when you’re not required to pay attention.

I can’t erase my adolescent love for southern rock, but to preserve it, and anything else good about the South, requires disconnecting it from the symbols used by slave owners, Reconstruction-era vigilantes, Jim Crow-era bigots, Civil Rights-era segregationists, and modern-day neo-Nazis.

I think I get why that outrages some folks born here. If you grew up understanding a symbol to mean one thing and one thing only, family pride, who has the right to say you’re wrong? My continuing nostalgia for southern rock is nothing compared to a family identity passed down through generations.

I deeply respect that love of family. It’s why I reject the Confederate flag.

Slavery was the greatest anti-family force in the history of our country. Couples, parents, children, siblings, they were legally torn apart for the financial convenience of owners. I can’t imagine never seeing my children or wife again. I can’t imagine persevering through forced labor, forced poverty, and the constant threat of physical violence against myself and my loved ones. I can’t imagine my wife and daughter being legally raped and their offspring sold. Slavery is beyond anything I can imagine.

Although the Confederate flag means different things to different people, it obviously means slavery to many people, and I can’t stomach that association. But that’s easy for me. I didn’t grow up cherishing it. The greater feat of compassion would be to understand the flag as a personal symbol of pride and to still let go of it out of love for others who aren’t part of your own family.

All lives matter, but the Confederacy waged a war under the belief that Black lives don’t. Virginia has been around over four hundred years, but it was a part of the Confederacy only four. Southern pride can’t be identified with symbols linked to slavery and the century of violent bigotry that followed it.

Loving the South means letting go of the Confederacy.

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