Born Under a Bad Sign

By Ryan Sparks | Photos by Kevin O'Mara

I stood still outside the Holy Ground, a large neighborhood bar in New Orleans on the corner of Jefferson Davis Parkway and Canal Street when a strange parade came through the crosswalk and toward the patio tables, its participants keenly aware of the observers lining both sides of the sidewalk. We held our place, letting the Confederate flags borne by the marchers brush over our faces and shoulders.

Both sides were gathered near the broad green median to wait for the statue of the first president of the Confederate States of America to be removed. The police department had arrived earlier with barricades, generator-run spotlights, and canine units. A group of protesters set up a small encampment from which they marched like a bizarre color guard every hour on the hour around the block, exchanging jeers and chants with citizens supportive of the removal. If you couldn’t make it to these demonstrations, you could watch live video of them all day long, uploaded by people on both sides or the gathered news media.

This was the second of four monuments the city of New Orleans planned to take down within the span of a month, the final action of a long process that began—like so many similar removals of Confederate flags, icons, and monuments around the South—in the wake of Dylann Roof’s unconscionable mass murder in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 2015. After several studies, a long search for contractors who wouldn’t be dissuaded by death threats, and a few dubious lawsuits, the city of New Orleans finally unbolted and wrenched free its monuments this past spring. There was an inescapable atmosphere of paranoia during the period of the removals; even in the 21st century South a strain of pro-Confederate fervor flares up whenever such things occur. 

It was hard to predict how out-of-hand the protests might get, especially since they seemed coupled to the same antagonistic behavior prevalent throughout the country in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. These vocal fans of the Confederacy stood near the monuments at all hours of the day and traded rumors in person and in closed Facebook groups about when the city’s contractors might begin work. And, as it turned out, several of these protesters had traveled from not just out of town but from states outside of the Confederacy itself, and many were supported by sympathetic and far-flung contributors to their online crowd-sourced fundraising efforts. Men and women used up their vacation days or took leaves of absence from their commitments in order to parade up and down the Jefferson Davis neutral ground or to stand around Lee Circle in the center of the city, decrying the erasure of their respected heroes from public sight and, as they would have you believe, from public memory and the historical record. Some with wealth and means who preferred not to get their shoes dirty bought full-page ads in the local newspapers to accuse the mayor of rewriting history.

One night I walked among the protesters in an unassuming way, as if I had just stumbled upon the spectacle. Several were willing to talk, but weren’t willing to get into a real discussion until they knew which side I was on. Even then, to talk to them was to run through an obstacle course with several points of entry but no exit: to them, the removals were a political stunt undertaken by mayors and city council members pouncing on a sympathetic moment in order to shine brighter as liberal heartthrobs, or a misguided attempt to correct the wrongs of a homicidal maniac who might share their particular politics but did not represent their morals, or the next step in an ongoing “cultural marxism” or “white genocide,” a purge begun in earnest by President Obama that now bled into the pop culture embraced by younger generations.

Like the original secessionists and the Dixiecrats who later resurrected and repurposed their battle flag, contemporary Confederate supporters can talk at length about who they are against and why those forces are malicious and subversive. They have many opinions on all the ways a government abuses its original citizens in its supposed pursuit for false equality—its hunger, its waste. But when it comes to explaining why we should still revere these particular participants in our nation’s ugliest drama—Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis—and why their bronze figures should be civically admired (or, at least, dutifully maintained) the talk quickly turns to intangible tenets of pride or respect for the dead veterans who fought for what they believed in. They rely on a loose interpretation of honor, weaving it into a shimmery dropcloth that covers up the record of slavery and its replacement, a system that hewed as close to its practice as possible in order to fulfill a similar result: white hegemony in the region with the highest black population in the country.

The most durable explanation these people have for their defense of existing Confederate icons is that their passion is for “heritage not hate.” In other words, they partake in a pride in being Southern that predates and transcends the Civil War. They have adopted a smirking, self-reliant preservation instinct that may be rebellious in nature but isn’t, they swear, dependent on prejudice or subjugation. The flag has different meanings to each and every Southerner, and that is one reason it shouldn’t be mocked or hidden away, their logic goes. If you happen to claim a different meaning than they do, then obviously the flag can contain multitudes and the monuments are necessary to maintain an ongoing, vigorous debate.

Of course, the more energy they exert describing which translucent varieties of freedom of speech are being eroded by a wayward government, the faster they use up the limited fuel that the “heritage not hate” argument provides. After running out of things to honor, they switch to their reserves: resentment and disgust at the idea that their beliefs aren’t just outdated they’re actually wrong.

But this isn’t Southern pride. It’s well-entrenched rebellion against any interference in the status quo, and as complicated as our colonial history and its aftermath is, there is one simple belief that undergirds it all and affects everyone’s actions: there is a right way of doing things and then there is the way black people do things.  And the Confederate-supporters may be the most vocal about it, but there are many others who at least subconsciously agree with them that “real Americans” are in a constant fight with antagonistic forces. They mistrust those who aren’t satisfied with merely giving the black experience breathing room, who believe that it is just as substantial and valid.

We still live within spitting distance of enthusiastic cheerleaders eager to see black people intimidated back into “their place.” These are the people who counter in comment streams that for every Confederate monument that is removed the government should also pull down a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., a cruel tit for tat.

Dylann Roof didn’t bring his personal Confederate flag with him into that church along with his handgun, but he did provide a paraphrase of its complaint: Y’all raping our women, and y’all are taking over the world.

The people who think this way did not go away in the sixties, or the seventies, or the eighties, or the nineties. Theirs is not an attitude that will one day just die of old age, leaving all of us who are younger and enlightened unburdened by their hatred. And, of course, these people are not confined to the South. The Confederate flag is embraced in communities far to the north and west of us. It accompanies protesters in Indiana and flies at rallies in Washington state. It’s crossed the Atlantic and has been unfurled in the European Union. 

The flag isn’t “ours” alone anymore, whether in respect or in shame. The people outside our region who embrace these colors and defend these monuments may not have been raised on black eyed peas or biscuits and gravy, but they have co-opted the way our ancestors used racial prejudice as a method of self-defense. It’s a sad testament to the Southern mythos that has people from all over the world revelling fondly in dreams of segregation and dismissal.

Standing outside the Holy Ground, listening to both sides yell their catchy slogans at each other, I had to contend with the realization that the fight over the monuments was a proxy war and that so much more was being left unsaid and unexamined. The debate now moves on to what to put up on the bare pedestals, which figures better represent the contemporary spirit of the city. While the replacements are welcome, we shouldn’t forget that the anger and tension that were so tangible in those weeks aren’t being boxed up and packed away with the old figures.

Ryan Sparks is the editor of Southern Glossary. Follow him on Instagram @instasparks.

Kevin O’Mara is a photographer living in New Orleans with roots in middle Tennessee. His book Used Photos was the first solo artist book published by Southern Glossary. Follow him on Instagram @brotheromara.

This essay first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Southern Glossary. Order in print or PDF here