By Patrice Gopo 9-04-2018

In the spring prior to the Charleston church massacre, during my daily commute to my older daughter’s school, I noticed a wad of faded red fabric drooping from a flagpole outside of a stranger’s house.

It couldn’t be.

I pulled right to slow down in my lane and looked once and then again to verify. There, tucked beneath the folds of the familiar stars and stripes, two blue lines crossed over the red fabric with the telltale white stars.

Was this new? How had I never noticed?

Like many other transplants to Charlotte, I like to think the Confederate flag exists in other parts of the South but not in this modern city that boasts tall buildings and black mayors. The New South. A city that embraces diversity and has rid itself of its racist past.

Yet there it was. Tattered, weathered. Just like the American flag that hung above it. First country and then the South, I thought as I glanced at the rest of the yard.

What if, rather than driving by, I were walking on the sidewalk in front of this house, pushing my toddler in her stroller? What if the owners were sitting on their front porch as I passed? Would they stare at my brown skin and scowl? Would their faces express scorn at my presence on the sidewalk, hoping I would leave because they believed my blackness could dirty their property? Or maybe they would offer me a smile, a wave, a sign of welcome even as their flag signaled other sentiments.

Later that evening, at my Wednesday night Bible study, I decided to mention the flag to the women in my group. A thin wall divided our small room from the sanctuary, where musicians practiced for the Sunday service. The sounds of a keyboard, guitars, and drums provided background music as we talked. Muffled voices sang of strivings that ceased and a hope not rooted in earthly things. I looked around at the white faces of my group and wanted to retreat from my questions, to hum along with songs I had sung many times before, to forget the Confederate flag I had seen that day.

“What are people trying to say with the flag?” I asked. “What do they want to communicate?” Two women with long histories living in the South glanced at each other. One opened her mouth with the beginning of a response.

At that moment a visitor walked through the door, and conversation shifted to greetings for the newcomer. Introductions and personal stories were accompanied by a murmur of lyrics pleading for an end to troubles. I spoke words of welcome and asked the new woman appropriate questions about herself, her family, her background. Beyond the wall one song transitioned to the next while we settled into our seats for the evening. The Confederate flag remained in my thoughts, but I couldn’t find a way to return to the topic. Later that night I drove past the flag hanging in the soft spring twilight and returned to my home without answers.

***

Just weeks after the massacre, while visiting my mother’s home in Anchorage, I sorted through piles of stuff from my college and graduate school years. I tossed an old copy of Black Enterprise to Nyasha.

“This is how we got to Charlotte,” I said.

He caught the magazine and looked at the glossy cover, which featured a smiling black family with a sparkling city skyline in the backdrop. A bold headline read, “Top 10 Cities for African Americans.” He looked up at me and laughed.

When we were leaving Cape Town and choosing somewhere to live, I’d remembered that article from years ago. Charlotte seemed like a place filled with possibility for our black family, a city exploding with a bounty of opportunities.

“Who could’ve guessed this would define our future?” he said, handing the magazine back to me. I held it for a moment, wondering if I should save this memento along with the other scraps I had collected of my life in Anchorage. I stared at the image of the happy family for another minute before putting the magazine in the pile of papers to recycle.

***

Back in early spring, when we booked our July tickets to Anchorage, all I could envision was how desperately hot and unbearable Charlotte becomes each summer. But then in mid-June a white man walked into a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson.

The near hundred-degree days in the South began to boil with words and tension and accusation. And, in my case, fear. I tried to forget that the shooter had stopped at a gas station in Charlotte after he fled Charleston. And as the country debated the use and place of the Confederate flag, I kept hoping the flag I had first spotted that spring day, sagging against a stranger’s flagpole, might disappear.

 

Taken from All the Colors We Will See by Patrice Gopo Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.thomasnelson.com.

 

Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow. She is the author of All the Colors We Will See, an essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging.

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