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While in Minnesota last week, I found myself at a crossroads once again. I was scheduled for an orientation for a truck driver job, along with four other truckers. Of the five of us, I was the only Black person; no females in attendance.
I sat next to one of the younger guys who I spoke briefly with at the airport. He seemed okay, typical stereotypical white guy trucker if there ever was such a thing. You know, deep Southern accent overweight with bulging belly, tobacco-smoking, red meat eating, red blooded country boy.
As there were several minutes remaining before the first orientation session was to begin, we began the regular trucker small talk. You know, “Where you from? How long you been drivin’? Where you tryin' to get your route? You OTR regional or local? Rather drive stick or automatic?"
While speaking, we found that the only thing we had in common was we both love trucking. I’m from Michigan, he was from Texas. I’m regional (meaning I drive only a specified number of miles from my residence) and he’s OTR, meaning Over The Road, trucker jargon for driving a dedicated route that usually spans three or more contiguous states. I prefer automatic; he preferred the mechanisms and feel of the manual transmission.
I further learned that he had come to orientation with his father, an older replica of the stereotypical trucker. After listening to his reasons for attending, it had become clear that medical bills and treatments not covered by insurance were the primary cause of being at the orientation. After sharing some personal information about my own reasons for attending, we both sat impatiently waiting for the instructor to arrive while the last remaining pre employment screenings were done. Second after second ticked, the silence weighing more heavily as I pondered if he and I really had anything in common worth speaking on.
Then, out of the blue, I look to my immediate right and see him fiddling with some random stuff from his pocket. Amongst those things was his wallet. It was a faded brown leather wallet with a small confederate flag on it, with the outline of the flag and the stars dark brown against the leather.
I tried not to overreact or display any negativity; after all, just minutes ago we swapped insurance company battle tales and got along decently. However, I vowed to myself many years ago to do my best to confront and challenge racism; behaving in a way that addresses the issue as intelligently as possible, when possible.. .otherwise as directly as necessary. Anyway, at that time, I decided that the best choice would simply be to move to a different seat. I hoped that the instructor entering the room to begin the session would make my move less about him or his flag; and more so about me moving to the front to absorb the information easier.
A couple of hours passed, and going into our first break period, one thing was clearer. Whatever I may have believed about this father and son based on my initial impressions were, at best, incomplete. Both were charismatic, funny, candid, and knowledgeable about machines in general, trucking in particular. More importantly than that, I realized they were either good people with some bad ways or bad people good at acting.
As the class emptied out for the smoke and restroom break, I noticed that only the guys’ father and I remained seated. He mentioned how his health issues forced him to stop smoking and how much better he felt being tobacco free. I chuckled a little bit, partly because I recently made a failed promise to myself to leave tobacco alone, and partly because I realized how I needed to proceed to address the flag issue.
I asked him if he could spare a couple minutes to give me some insight into why some white people such as his son still feel it’s okay to promote that flag. I told him that I believed he was an intelligent man whose experience I respected; I also acknowledged that there are alternate meanings to the symbolism behind the flag and maybe he could inform me of some history that is new to me.
Now, before I relate to the reader what he said. I’ll succinctly as possible share my background with that flag and why I took such issue with it. First and foremost, the week prior, I caught the last 25 minutes or so of Blackkk Klansman on HBO and I was emotionally charged as I watched black and white people fight valiantly against white racists displaying their neo-Nazi and confederate flags.
For many years, even being an educated, well read student of history, I presumed that the confederate flag was simply the flag of the 13 colonies that seceded from the Union. I also presumed that the people who still support the flag are those that would prefer things return to the pre Civil War era.
However, after reading even more books about slavery, the “civil” war, and the ramifications of this conflict, I realized the confederate flag represents what it always has represented. This flag really represents a statement that says it’s not only okay to, but also worthy of war over; the right and duty of the federal government to support as well as institutionalize chattel slavery in perpetuity, openly.
Incarceration (which by the way is a legal loophole for the perpetuation of slavery) allowed me to read dozens of books written about that era that I’d rather not mention here. These books outline the billions of dollars invested in this traffic of human beings without justification. Near each ledger entry, along with a brief description of the person, was a dollar value amount. The amount of money made then off of the slavery trade parallels the huge sums of money generated by narcotics. Corporations, individuals, states and yes, the federal government, all increased financially, from the slave trade.
They made so much money off of the slavery trade, an entire branch of finance was perfected based on buying and selling of people’s future potential earning power. In other words, additional loans were generated from the initial loans some businesspeople received when they purchased land, materials, and humans. Sort of like futures and options on the stock market, or, like athletes being traded by their agents who are leveraging the potential revenue potential of their star player.
Needless to say, after reading these books, and, seeing television programs about genealogy through slavery up to today, my view of the confederate flag is horrible. I have not yet been shown or taught anything by anybody that would cause me to think any differently. Especially not from the explanation I got from him, or his son. This is what the father said to me, paraphrased slightly.
“Well, y’know, we all bleed the same and if the good lord would’ve wanted one color, we’d all be one color. We gotta start treatin’ each other right so that will never happen again. I can’t lie I have had some bad experiences with you know, blacks, but I also know some good ones too. My son just like lotta’ people, y’know, just like the flag cause it’s southern, that’s all. I just try to treat all people like people.”
That’s the father’s words to me. I explained briefly my own viewpoint, that the flag represents white people's refusal to look at “black” people as anything other than property, and yes, the Civil War was largely based on money lost due to the abolition of slavery and denying individual states rights to support chattel slavery. If I’m not mistaken we both agreed to call all racism evil and leave it on a note of acknowledgement and reconciliation.
A couple more hours later, after lunch, the son and I had a conversation about the flag. I can’t lie, the father was a sly old man who revealed little; but what he didn’t say was revealed through his offspring. The son tells me that the flag doesn’t represent anything more than southern pride. I ask him how he can be proud of a flag used in a war based on the money made from trading people against their will.
I explain to him how enslaved humans were separated from their biological parents at birth. (I almost said how it’s similar to immigrants separated from their parents today by government agencies but I knew him being from Texas, that wouldn’t have gone well.) He tells me what he was taught about slavery, again, paraphrased. “You know, when the slavemaster had kids with a slave, the slave was taken from the field and brought into the big house and treated good like one of the family, you know. A lot of slave owners were good to their slaves.”
I then shared with him that slavery is so ugly that a lot of it is taught with lies because the truth is so harsh. I told him that those women were raped, and very few were having consensual sex. Even fewer were being treated any better than any person living under those conditions. I told him that those enslaved peoples were not looked upon as family for the most part, they were looked at as property with a dollar sign and an expiration date attached to them.
He then opens up his iPhone and shows me some internet explanation of the symbolism of the flag, which said that the red represents the blood of Christ and the stars represent St. Andrew or something like that. He then said that his buddy was black and that one day his black friend was getting jumped by some white racists and he intervened by fighting those racists. I told him that was honorable and we need to spend more time fighting for each other as people than against each other.
We ended the conversation with him saying he wasn’t responsible for what his ancestors did a long time ago and how he treats people as people right now. He then said the flag is worn and immortalized in bronze and in white peoples’ hearts to make sure that what happened back then doesn’t happen today, and how Robert E. Lee wrote in his autobiography that he worked the fields with the slaves and wanted to free the slaves. I told him he may want to read more and study some books with a not so good view of slavery to get a better viewpoint of the flag.
Imagine if I had been a young white trucker who happened to sit by him at orientation. Imagine this dialogue between the two of us. “Hey buddy, uhh, why you got that flag on your wallet? “Oh, you mean this, well, lemme ask you a question, have you ever been picked on or beat up by some black piece of trash and couldn’t do nothin because you were by your self?” “No not really, but uhhh...”
“Well it don’t matter much because you white and you always got people watching yer’ back. Ya wanna learn what this flag really means stick around me and my pops. He’ll set you straight on your history and what they don’t want to tell you in the school history books.”
Just like that, another dedicated neo Nazi or white racist is indoctrinated into that point of view. I now have reason to suspect that these trucking orientations and companies, especially owned and ran by racist whites, are also breeding and recruitment grounds for young white people who don’t know any better.
I encourage all people to do whatever is possible to educate racists around them in some way, even if it’s reminding a racist black dude about the young white woman who was killed at a protest rally against white racism; even if it’s remarking to some racist white woman that black people helped save a truck drivers’ life that had been assaulted by black people.
Interestingly enough, I happened to notice that someone drew a swastika (backwards by the way) on the chrome by the buttons in the hotel elevator that all of us orientation attendees were staying later the same day. Further, the following day in orientation I noticed that neither the father or son extended themselves to me in a greeting or anything. In fact, I didn’t speak with either of them intimately or cordially, for the duration of the orientation. Southern pride, my ass.