I have a confession to make.
As a teenager, I had a Confederate Flag hanging on my bedroom wall. Or as I called it – a Rebel Flag. Don't get me wrong, I grew up in California's Bay Area, and my mom was a hippie. I consider myself to have been raised very much a Democrat – to this day I still have framed photos of JFK hanging in my office. My views on racism, sexism, abortion, gay marriage, and a number of other social issues have weighed heavily on the liberal side my entire life.
Though I may suffer the blinders of white privilege, I feel I can say I have always been an ally, even before I really knew what that meant.
That being said, I still hung that Rebel Flag up. I grew up in a neighborhood that was simultaneously a ranching cowboy community, a suburb of Oakland, and home to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), making the neighborhood about as oddly diverse as you can possibly imagine.
But still I hung that rebel flag.
So, the question you may be wondering is, why? Why would a smart girl in what can safely be said one of the most liberal and diverse areas of the entire country be doing hanging that damn flag in her teenage room next to her Grateful Dead posters?
Because I loved my music. I listened to everything from Metallica to B.B. King to Zeppelin to Jimi Hendrix to Howlin Wolf to Glenn Miller to the Beach Boys, and so much more. Music was as important to me as breathing. And one of the bands I loved the most was Lynyrd Skynyrd. That's right, the good old southern boys who had been waving that rebel flag at their concerts since the early seventies. I knew every song word for word, and even made my way to see them live a few times.
To me, their music represented freedom and family and summer afternoons on the river. They represented pride and passion and a true appreciation of nature.
And somehow, in those years I mixed up those good feelings with what that flag somehow meant to me. Even though somewhere deep down, on some level, I knew better. I just tried to pretend in my own mind that the flag hanging on my wall--well, what it meant to me--was somehow stronger than what it meant to the world.
I was wrong.
One day, somewhere in the latter half of my senior year, that flag came down. I packed it away for a while, but eventually tossed it. There was no specific epiphany or incident that occurred. I never had a conversation with someone who pointed out the error of my thought process (my parents were always of the mind that lessons such as those were things we would have to figure out for ourselves).
It was just that eventually I couldn't pretend that the flag meant something other than what it did. Racism. A war fought over human lives, and the symbol of those lives was this flag.
I still love my Skynyrd. I can't lie about that. I still have a big beautiful rose tattooed on my back with the words "Free Bird" written underneath--a token of those teenage years of rebellion and my deeply rooted love of the music that touched me that will always be a part of me.
But that flag no longer hangs anywhere near my home. And it never will. On the rare occasions I see it flying (which is pretty rare, this is California after all) I have to take a deep breath. Because each time I see those stars and bars I can't erase the feelings of regret, dread, and sadness that are so deeply rooted in them.
But I, as a seventeen-year-old girl, did not need a shooting in a church to make me feel those feelings. I did not need protesters, or the media or the President to tell me. I needed a little human decency, my heart, my soul, and a very basic sense of right versus wrong – and I figured it out on my own.
Music – like my Skynyrd – will always be subject to interpretation. What their music meant to me will always be something unique to who I am and where I came from. And it will always mean something totally different to the girl who grew up in the Deep South or in upstate New York. But that is how music is supposed to work. We take from it what we need and we fit it into how we feel. Music can be a deeply personal thing.
But the flag and what it represents in our country's history – is not a piece of music. It is not a piece of pop culture or art that is subject to interpretation. It is, quite simply, what it is. And it is time to stop pretending this flag is something other than what it is. A symbol of hate. A symbol of ignorance. A symbol that reminds us of how truly dark the human spirit can be.