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It Wasn’t the Confederate Flag that Enraged Me

It Wasn’t the Confederate Flag that Enraged Me

It was a hell-hot southwest Louisiana day. I had just left the investment property my wife and I had recently purchased. A contractor, a fat white man who claimed he was only contracting because some lunatic had runoff with all his savings, had just given me some surprising numbers regarding the amount of work needed. “Ain’t a damn thing level or plumb about it,” he said, and he was certain that I shouldn’t have bought the house sight unseen because who was going to buy a house with such a big elephant, a city drainage canal, sitting half full and very stagnant along the unfenced backyard.

“Won’t take much for a kid to fall in,” he must have said. “Then what you got?”

I turned up the radio’s volume. I didn’t want to bother with the contractor’s assessment, though he might have been right. Flood insurance was going to be a must, and a gator and moccasin-proof privacy fence would undoubtedly set me back, even at a day laborer’s rate, a grand or two.

I made the block and, sure enough, there was an ailing white craftsman with more Confederate flags waving than a circa 2020 NASCAR event. There was a blue one with the red x. There was a red one with the blue x, the one I was used to seeing. The one we children hardly noticed atop General Lee all those years we watched The Dukes of Hazzard and laughed, revved our imaginary Dodge Chargers, as if we understood that kind of evasion.

The flags were everywhere. Waving proudly on back yard flagpoles, plastered against carports and workshops like championship pennants, even a couple here and there as small as dinner napkins. “I’ll be,” I must have said. “Their nerve.” 

My gut was hot by then. A whole lot of head shaking. Especially when I saw the fading blue Hurricane Laura tarpaulins patched against the roof like Band-Aids against a hemorrhaging body. All those flags and no homeowner’s insurance, I thought. Hell, FEMA would have been glad to help.

My TEDx-worthy argument was getting the evidence it needed as I long knew that I was preparing for an us-versus-everyone-else talk about race with a woman in my central Texas suburb who asked me why Black people, not some Black people, were poor. And I told her that there were far more poor whites in America than Black, and she dismissed me with a scrunch of her nose, an eye roll, and told me that she would catch me later.

I braked hard. Didn’t even bother checking my mirrors. And as discreetly as I could, I raised my phone and snapped some pictures. Folks wouldn’t believe it. All that dismantling and for what?

I brought my eyes past the potted ferns, a wilting century plant, and a royal blue bird house. My eyes rested on the home’s open front door, and I was no longer interested in the flags. 

The pedestal fan oscillated—a sort of pleading for cool amid the soupy Louisiana heat, like throwing a handful of ice cubes at a grass fire. I immediately knew that I would write about what I was seeing, perhaps ignorantly believing that their whiteness should have gotten them further along.

Maybe I’m just an angry Black man trying to understand why I hate poverty so much. Trying always to create a new image of myself, one that estranges me from the mirror reminders of my impoverished childhood. Yeah, perhaps that is why I raised my phone. Why I kept my foot pressed so long against the brake. Why I was prepared to wave by any number of cars that might have stopped and honked behind me. Well prepared to smile off anyone who shot the bird my way and told me to mind my business. 

I rested the phone in my lap. I pictured some shirtless and barefoot child inside the home claiming their mama’s EBT card like it was credit. I remember the first time I found my mama’s book of food stamps stuffed inside her purse. I think I had been sent there to retrieve her pack of Kool and a lighter. Promised that, if I found the cigarettes before she finished her hand of solitaire and the last of her Milwaukee’s Best, she would let me light the Kool, take two puffs, and attempt to blow smoke rings. 

The stamps were colorful. They were bound. FOOD COUPONS was written in the largest font across the booklet. The stamps’ collective worth was also written on the booklet’s front: Value $65.00. I held the booklet. Moved it side to side as if the images were holographic. As if, on the 1 Dollar coupon, the roomful of white men signing the Declaration of Independence would eventually change into mama and the three of us children lounging inside some penthouse mansion.

Statistics show that the silver spoon that I am trying to give my Black son will dissolve into aluminum foil if he is not careful as Black boys who grow up in well-to-do homes are more likely to see poverty at some point in their lives, far different than their white male counterparts.

I’m deeply afraid for my three children. Yeah, I want a better America for them. One that will allow them to walk a southern neighborhood and not experience a symbol of history that should have long gone out with the trash.

I’m sad for the white boy who saw me that one day trenching in the backyard near the canal and brought me a cold bottle of water. I sort of knew that he would. I saw him as I was driving up moments before. He was walking, as if lonely. The middle of the day. Home early from a dentist or doctor’s appointment. He wore some school-affiliated uniform. Navy polo and khakis. 

“Here you go, mister,” he said, with a boyish smile.

“Thank you,” I said.

The water was so cold in my hand, and I was so thirsty. Trenching with a shovel ain’t easy. Condensation gathered against the plastic like wet jewels. When the boy was out of sight, I tossed the bottle against the ground and tried to forget about it. But I couldn’t. I wondered if the boy lived in the Flag House. Sent there by some hitman to poison me. 

Each time the bottom of my foot pressed against the shovel’s step, I kept thinking. The boy didn’t owe me anything. I didn’t want anything from him or anyone else. Why would he think I wanted his water? Hadn’t he known that I had vowed a long time ago never again to be a charity case. That I owned more pots and windows than he could shake a stick at. That I would never lug in a box of commodities like our mama did, all that government cheese, potted meat, canned milk, and a jar of peanut butter nearly half our height. No, I didn’t want the boy’s water.

The shovel must have hit another root. I paused and wiped my brow again. Watched the rain clouds gather and darken above me. I laughed. Then looked down the length of trench to again check its grade. I remembered the conversation with the next-door neighbor days prior when she, retired and single, had first offered me inside her home to see the renovations she had made. “You might get some inspiration,” she told me. “No, I’m good,” I promised her. Then she went there. Proved me right for not going inside her home. She said that we, as if I were part of her we, had to do something to protect our borders. “For God’s sake,” she said, “they could be rapists or anything.” I had heard that somewhere before, and I was certain she believed it.

I drove the shovel harder against the root. It snapped like bone. Then I remembered back to my own school-age years. To when we Black boys were donning Malcolm X hats and shirts. Claiming the Motherland with our leather and beaded necklaces and their African medallions. Red. Yellow. Green. Black. And daily, in their rebuttal, white boys were wearing their own shirts: You wear Your X I’ll Wear Mine. We played football with some of them. Called ourselves teammates. Attended each other’s birthday parties, hunted and fished together as if it would ever matter.

The boy left, and I felt ashamed. I could do better. And for damn sure the folks living in the Flag House could do better. We as a country can do better.

I checked my mirrors once more. Pulled my phone from my lap and placed it in its holder. I must have thought about the contractor. One of the last things he said before we parted was that he didn’t see color. “Don’t much matter none,” he said. “I see your heart, brother. That’s good enough for me.” 

I didn’t call him a liar to his face. I’m not sure what I would have called the folks in the Flag House had they ever come out. I turned the music back up. Peered hard again at the open front door. Thought about whether I was making too much of it. Whether I had it all wrong. Yeah, maybe the open front door was because they were moving in new furniture. They had just let the dog out. A fish-frying or toast-burning experiment had just gone wrong. No, it wasn’t that. The open front door was telling me something. And surely that something seems to keep on revolving. 

View Comment (1)
  • I love this piece. It makes me feel like I’m right there watching you dig that ditch. Knowing that you are doing it because you’re young, and you can, and you just don’t want to spend the money right now. Especially to be taken to the cleaners by the fat racist white guy.
    So well written, as it should be, I mean you’re an Assistant English Professor. But it’s more than that, it resonates with me, it lets me know a bit about who you are, your background, the fact that you bought the property sight unseen, but you don’t fit in that scary neighborhood. The confederate flags say it all.
    Was the water bottle sealed? Did you ever drink it? So cold in your hand, condensation? I would have drank it. But I love cold water.

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