I saw this on a bike ride the other day. My reaction to it was different than it would have been a few years ago. Pastor Leon made sure of it.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the Confederate battle flag being displayed publicly. I never liked the message it sent. But I’d typically curl my lip when I saw it in a yard or in the back window of a pickup truck or on a bumper sticker, then move on. In other words, it didn’t materially impact me, so I was able to forget it almost immediately.
But when I passed that flag on my bike this time, my reaction was much more visceral. That blue X on a red field was more offensive, more obscene, than it’s ever been before. That’s a good thing.
This change was due mainly to the writing of my book, “Black Preacher in a White Town,” and my subsequent immersion into African-American culture via Twitter, websites and podcasts. I now understand better (not perfectly, but better) the feeling of disgust and revulsion of the black community to this symbol.
Heritage, Not Hate?
The typical argument for defenders of the Confederate flag is that it’s about “Heritage, not hate.” They’re simply honoring the bravery and courage of the South in its effort to throw off the northern oppressor (oh, the irony). The Civil War, they repeat in an infinite prerecorded loop, was really about glorious “States’ Rights,” and not about slavery at all.
Although I never bought into those arguments, I thought it was at least a defensible position. Now I see that my position was itself indefensible. My eyes have been opened. Thank you, Pastor Leon.
Pastor Leon (Rivkin) is the protagonist of my novel. He’s the black preacher that leaves his inner-city Baltimore church to start a new church — Needle’s Eye Fellowship Church — in the affluent white suburb of Kensington Park. From the beginning he faces covert and overt racism from the wealthy and privileged, and discovers the lengths to which they’ll go to erase him and his church.
Becoming Pastor Leon for the better part of a year while writing the novel has profoundly changed how I feel about many things.
Becoming a Black Man
When writing a novel, the author sinks into the mind of their characters. If you don’t do that – if you don’t think like they think, feel what they feel, react how they react – you can’t do your job properly. You can’t write an honest story. Entering into Pastor Leon’s mind for an hour or more every day helped me understand how a black man might feel about a host of issues, from inequality to poverty to law enforcement to Confederate flags (I won’t say “how all black men feel,” since they’re not a monolithic block of groupthink automatons.)
So when I rode by the Confederate flag, I slipped into Pastor Leon’s mind and heart, and tried to feel what he would feel.
He felt multiple things. He felt anger at the continued blindness of white people who still don’t understand how that symbol denigrates black Americans.
What Pastor Leon Felt
Pastor Leon felt sadness that even now, 154 years after the war, so many whites continue to believe flying this flag is an acceptable practice. And that they fly it proudly, dismissing anyone who objects as a snowflake or Social Justice Warrior.
He felt despair at the generational racism that modern-day use of the flag represents: parents passing down their prejudice to their children, who respond with unquestioning belief in the lie of States’ Rights. He wondered how many more generations will continue this practice, how many more children will swallow the poison and believe it’s honey.
Pastor Leon, because he’s a man of great compassion, also felt pity for those who don’t understand. He knows how destructive bigotry is to a person’s soul, especially when the person refuses to see it. He understands that the racist is shackled in his own invisible bondage, a slave to the darkness that proclaims it’s OK to celebrate a culture that viewed other human beings as disposable, no more valuable – heck, less valuable – than a horse.
That darkness is wrapped in a red flag that screams “States’ Rights!” so loudly that the small voice whispering “No, no, no! It’s wrong, it’s evil, it’s an abomination…” is drowned out like the cry of a baby in a hurricane.
Pastor Leon knows what’s really going on with that flag. He gets that it’s no different than flying a Nazi flag in your yard and not caring that Jews may see it. “Germanic Rights” and all that.
Finally, Pastor Leon wondered if the person flying that flag could change, could be made to realize their error, and take that flag down. Being an optimist, he believed it was possible. Being a pastor, he would pray for that person’s conversion from hate to love.
So thank you, Pastor Leon. Thank you for helping this white man understand better. I pray that I become more like you.