The Confederate flag shirt was the first thing I saw as I watched a cousin I had never met walk through the door. Jon and I were at a memorial gathering at my cousin Terry’s home. We were celebrating his brother Tony’s life with only a few of my 32 cousins on my dad’s side of the family. The majority of the handful of relatives there were acquainted with Tony only the last few years of his life. My sister Barbara, his brother Terry and myself knew Tony from childhood on.
I have mentioned in other stories that a good portion of my extended family did not have a lot of formal education with most only completing high school. Quite a number were highly skilled in trades or small business admin duties with a couple of cousins who worked as nurses. I know from stories told that about half of my paternal cousins, maybe more, had lived a difficult life of poverty and abuse as children. We did not grow up together as aunts and uncles were scattered throughout Florida, Alabama and Tennessee. My birth family lived in several places near the military bases dad was stationed at. We rarely saw some of our relatives over the years and some we had never met as was the case that day.
Seeing that shirt was a bit jarring to me. I know where I come from but this symbol of what I had come to now view as “hate speech” left me feeling sad and just a bit fearful. The wearer of the shirt, Jesse was one of the cousins whose father, Jim, was very abusive and I had had my own hurt feelings in my dealings with Uncle Jim, as a child. If family stories were true, Jesse’s experiences were much much worse.
Jesse himself was a quiet young man of less than thirty yrs. He introduced his wife who was six months pregnant with her third child. Jesse got a plate of food from the potluck we had all assembled and sat next to Jon at the table. Immediately they bonded over work since both were employed by manufacturers of automotive parts though in different towns. I was sitting not far from Jesse at the table. While other conversations flowed around me, I watched him and his interactions with those present.
It was then I felt him wearing his shirt as if it was armor. He did not appear aggressive in any way speaking to Jon in soft measured tones, in fact, he seemed quite meek. I knew his father to be bombastic with harsh words and colorful speech. Jesse was quite different, almost beat down. I felt the armor he wore was to protect him from any hurt he might encounter at this gathering, not protect him from any violence he might induce as his father had many times in the past. I witnessed a number of these emotional displays of my uncle where property damage and people roughly pushed aside were part of the show.
Jesse’s demeanor made me step back in my mind. After Jon and I returned home, I ran the film of the day over and over in my head. In the wee hours of morning is when many things coalesce for me. I awoke with a revelation. I knew that Uncle Jim had been abused as a child from his dad, my grandfather. His brash way of dealing with all that emotional and physical hurt was to lash out before others could do the same to him. It seemed Jesse chose an inward path of protection with only the outward showing of the Confederate flag shirt to indicate a certain manly toughness. Even though he was meek and quiet, he belonged to a loose community of sorts. He may have found that sporting this attire gave him instant access to something he did not experience growing up. Jesse had family when he wore their colors.
I have observed that people show each other who they belong to or with in all manner of ways. It could be tattoos, hand signs, sport jerseys, pink knitted hats or blue collar shirts with a company name on the chest that lets you know what gang, group of sports fans, social justice cause or socioeconomic class you declare is your community. There was a good chance that Jesse did not have a complete understanding of how the Confederate flag was viewed by others and only acknowledged the result that mattered most to him- a show of strength that belied his powerlessness.
I have belonged to many communities over my lifetime. I was among other things, a Brownie in elementary school, a school band member, an actress in school & community theaters, a nurse, a military service member and also a church member. Each of these groups had a way of showing off their members whether it be uniform, instrument or covenant. Within each of these affiliations I felt a certain empowerment. I belonged. I had connections. I had people who would watch my back if there was danger, pick me up if I had fallen or protect me if I were threatened.
Even though I do not robe myself in a Confederate flag, I felt a certain kinship with this newly revealed cousin. We were born in the same family and shared much in the way of ancestry, cultural experiences and it seems, the need for community. Our ideologies may be vastly different but because we are kin we might be able to connect with each other and learn each others hopes and dreams while exorcising the demons of our collective family experience.