On Mississippi’s Confederate Flag

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Most major newspapers have vehemently criticized Mississippi’s decision to keep a Confederate symbol on its state poles. It is de ja vu for me because the same issue was on the burner when I moved from South Carolina to the Northeast. The same editorials and debates, all over again.

The problem is this. Some southerners, mostly white folk, identify their heritage with the Confederate flag. But that heritage includes, among many things, slavery. Those people cling to memories of their great grandfathers who fought and died in the Civil War, but Black Mississippians remember what those soldiers died for. Just like that flag to some is a nostalgic reminder of debutante balls and southern hospitality and gentry, it is a reminder of lynchings and burning crosses to others. To black folk, it is the cruel domination over their race.

So what is the answer? To fly or not to fly Confederate flags?

Consider this analogy.

As a Palestinian born to refugees, the Israeli flag is a symbol of my people’s endless suffering. It reminds me of the hundreds of Palestinian villages that were razed atop its massacred inhabitants; of my people who were evicted and to this day live in the squalor of refugee camps. To me the Israeli flag is a symbol of racism and the cruel domination over my people, not to mention my own family’s plight.

But I also know that to many people it is a symbol of hope. It represents Jewish unity and the end of their persecution. It is the flag that greeted Holocaust survivors with a promise of relief and freedom and it is a symbol at the core of their spiritual and social rituals. I don’t believe that the majority of Israelis hold that flag dear because it is tainted with Palestinian blood. Nor do I think white southerners cling to the Confederate flags because it is linked to awful crimes against black southerners. Neither flag can deny its dark side, just as the American flag cannot deny the Trail of Tears.

To this day my heart sinks when I see the Israeli flag being waved for public reverence, particularly because my tax dollars effectively support that flag. I suspect that African Americans feel the same way when they see the Confederate flags over their tax-supported buildings. And I’ll bet that Native Americans feel that way about the Stars and Stripes.

Ultimately, my life’s fight is for my history and heritage, toward the day I see the Palestinian flag waving with majesty on high. There will be those who will always see my flag and kafiyeh as a symbol of darkness and suicide bombs. But to me it is the lost olive groves and stolen orchards; the stone villages of Palestine, and the headdress my great grandfather wore to the ripe old age of 136.

Does that mean that symbols of the confederacy ought to live on? Yes. Not because they represent slavery. Certainly not. But because history, having been, must always be. It ought not to be distorted or concealed. More importantly, it ought not to be forcibly taken from a people whose personal and collective identities are linked to it.

Good and bad, people are entitled to their history and the flags symbolizing it. But with that comes the responsibility of owning and acknowledging the dark side of the past.

Soon, Israelis will celebrate their “Independence Day.” An entire culture will rejoice in the coming true of the ‘Jewish dream,’ but if past celebrations are an indication, there will be no recognition that their dream came true only because a most profound nightmare was created for the Palestinians, one with which Palestinians are still forced to live.

This is what makes the Israeli flag such a painful swallow for me. There has never been an acknowledgement. Certainly no compensation for confiscated property and no repentance for all that has been inflicted upon the Palestinian society.

While slavery is no longer a part of American culture, racism and discrimination are alive and well, not just in southern states. We’ve never really atoned for what we did to the masses of human beings that were shipped here on slave ships. We’ve never come to grips with all that the Confederate flag really means. Some form of reparation has gone toward the debt owed for slavery, but not enough, and not officially.

Active acknowledgement and active repentance would go a long way for me to be able to accept, deep down, the Israeli flag. So the answer is not in banning, and concealing flags. Rather, it is in coming to terms with all the flag entails. It is in official repentance for slavery, dispossession and oppression. It is in reparations for those crimes. Reparations from the Federal Government. Finally, finally, it is in mutual respect of estranged hearts, as equals.

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