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Behind the Visceral Reaction [to the Confederate Flag]

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Brown/My Turn: Behind the Visceral Reaction [to the Confederate Flag incident]
Op/Ed - Greenfield Recorder

By Daniel A. Brown

Wednesday, December 9, 2015 
(Published in print: Thursday, December 10, 2015)

The controversy surrounding the Confederate flag began while I was in Greenfield over Thanksgiving and I have been following its progress ever since. Chris Collins's recent well-written column rightly warns us not to rush so easily to judgment in these hyper-charged times. As a friend of the McCarthy family, Collins knows the man behind the issue and his opinions should be respected.

But I was struck by Collins's sentence that he couldn't understand the "visceral reaction" behind the Confederate flag. Unknowingly, he hit the nail on the head. I believe that this specific phrase is the key to understanding why some are responding as they are.

I have some personal experiences with visceral reactions. Collins's remark reminded me of when Greenfield's own Temple Israel was desecrated with swastikas and "White Power" graffiti back in November 1994. I was one of the first to discover them as I arrived at the synagogue for a Bar Mitzvah. Despite the shocking display, the ceremony went on as the congregants tried to be as joyful as possible. I couldn't.

I have never worn my Judaism on my sleeve and have probably spent more time in churches than synagogues. Growing up, I was raised by a father who was obsessed with the Holocaust to the degree that I thought he was deranged on the topic. I never could sympathize with his visceral reactions to anti-Semitism.

But in Temple Israel that day, I found myself sitting in an isolated corner, shaking with fear and panic. These were physical sensations. I also felt hunted, as if the Inquisition, the Nazis or the Cossacks were about to storm the synagogue and slaughter its occupants. When I recovered enough to join the ceremony, whenever I looked at the rabbi, the Bar Mitzvah boy, the members of the Wholesale Klezmer Band or others, all I could see was them lying on a stack of bodies at Buchenwald.

I realize that this might sound irrational to some readers. However, despite the overwhelming show of support from the Franklin County community (the principal of my school graciously apologized to me in front of my fifth-grade class), I would not expect a non-Jew to understand my visceral reaction. It went deep into my ethnic DNA and triggered centuries of horror. I had no control over its arrival. This visceral reaction became unlocked and hit me with the force of a high-balling freight train.

I experienced a re-occurrence at the end of that month as I prepared for a week-long trip to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. I had been invited to attend the Convocation at Auschwitz, arranged by local hero Paula Green and the Peace Pagoda folks. Two hundred Jews, Christians and Buddhists congregated to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.

In the weeks leading up to my departure, I did strange things. I wrote a will for the first time in my life. I packed little snacks and juice boxes in my luggage so I wouldn't starve during my visit. Part of me thought I was acting crazy but a deeper understanding knew better. For millions of my Jewish peers, traveling to Auschwitz was a one-way destination to death. I obeyed my visceral reactions which continued until I arrived at the camp.

In regards to the Confederate flag, I have found that most white Americans, no matter how sympathetic, are incapable of understanding the visceral reactions of their African-American neighbors. To the former, the flag might represent history, heritage or something innocuous like the "General Lee" bouncing over the countryside in the television show, "The Dukes of Hazzard."

For African-Americans, however, the Confederate flag rightly represents slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, mutilations, segregation and the denial of basic American rights. For those who grew up during the Civil Rights era, it calls to mind racist rallies in the South where the flag flew alongside signs whose slogans are now unprintable.

As far as its claim to "heritage," it's noteworthy that the Confederate flag was never hoisted during the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. It never hung behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivered his immortal "I have a dream" speech in Washington, D.C. It was never carried by any black American during the long bitter struggle for the right to vote, a right slowly being abrogated today by the Republican Party and their allies.

I agree with Chris Collins that tagging officer McCarthy as a racist might be an unfair, knee-jerk response. I am still curious to hear his words and listen to any explanation he would care to offer. However, I would never blame a black family for reacting the way they have. The heavy weight of American history hangs over this issue and explains why a flag in a garage can be seen as more than an innocent gesture. For some, it unlocks the visceral reactions of grief and terror.

Daniel A. Brown lived in Franklin County from 1970 to 2014 as an artist, writer, amateur historian and photographer before moving to Taos, N.M. He remains a contributor to The Recorder and welcomes feedback at [email protected]