A few thoughts on race and gender and childhood….


Someone from my high school class posted a video of 50s rock and roll, kids like ourselves dancing to Danny and the Juniors “At The Hop”, and the first thing that struck me was that, just as I remembered, a number of the couples dancing in the video, just as we did at the time (knowing nothing about Lindbergh or the “Lindy Hop”), were girls. None of the couples ever were boys. That was unthought and unthinkable, never occurred to any of us that I was aware of. But it was perfectly common and acceptable, and not even to be noticed or remarked, that two girls would form a dance couple if a boy was not available to dance. For me this experience was from around 1958, when I turned 12 years old.

I recall the term “queer” from perhaps as early as the 6th grade but I don’t recall ever having a clear understanding of what it meant. If you wore yellow on Thursdays you were “queer” and that is all I knew. I understand that my experience is just a tiny fragment of it all, but that is what I remember.   I also do not remember ever being aware until well into adulthood that my best friend, Bobby B___, was African American. The term “African American” was some 20 years from coming into use. We were both “Bobby” and we lived just down the street from each other and for a few summers we played together and were friends. Although I had bunked with and been friends with Negros (I use the respectful term that I was taught and that was used at that time) at summer camp when I was 9, 10 and 11, I never made the connection to Bobby B___. His father was Italian, a shoemaker who had a tiny shop in downtown Holliston. His mother was African American, but I never thought of her in any racial way. She was Bobby’s mother, that was really all. I recall her making us peanut butter sandwiches on occasion. I can picture her in the kitchen of their house but I don’t remember what she looked like. Bobby is dead now and I never really knew his siblings, and his house is gone too, across from the grade school we attended, razed and replaced with someone else’s home, I can’t really picture it, though I have driven by it numerous times in the last thirty years.

I am struck and torn by the ways in which politics and advertising have, over my lifetime, forced their way into my consciousness and warped the way that I see the world. I once saw my friend, Bobby B___, as simply my friend. I once saw my bunkmates at summer camp as just who they were, not as Negros, or African Americans, or Blacks, though I was not unaware of their skin color, but just as the kids they were. Perhaps this change, this racialization and gender orientation awareness has been inevitable.  Perhaps it is moving somehow toward, or back to, the child’s world I remember, one not divided by race and gender orientation, just as we were not then. As more and more people proudly claim and express their heritage and their selves, the multiracial and multicultural diversity of our all of our backgrounds becomes better known and understood. The narrowness of making judgement on the basis of a shade of skin color or gender orientation is seen more and more absurd and senseless.

But these are just a few late night thoughts.  I can’t pretend to understand or resolve any of this.  I am going to bed.  See you in the morning….

“The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.” – Gen. Ulysses S. Grant


Today the Confederate battle flag was finally lowered from its flagpole in front of the state capitol in Columbia, SC.  The ceremony was brief and carried out with precision and decorum by a color guard of the South Carolina Highway Patrol.  About the circumstances I have a couple of observations, but first some background.

This was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee’s army, never the national flag.  The fact that it is a battle flag and not a state or national flag has some significance.  True, it was incorporated into two subsequent versions of the Confederate States national flag, but for most of the war, until 1863, the national Confederate flag looked very much like the Union flag, a circle of thirteen stars representing the seceding states and three broad red and white stripes.  Early in the war, troops in the smoke and fury of battle would easily confuse the Confederate national flag with the Stars and Stripes with disastrous results. To prevent this confusion, Lee’s army designed a flag to carry into battle which used the same colors of red white and blue and thirteen stars, incorporating them into a design similar to the British Union Jack.

It was this battle flag that was surrendered 150 years ago at Appomattox, Virginia.  Battle flags are not flown from flagpoles.  Their purpose is a narrow one, to locate and identify troops on the field of battle.  That is what is significant about this flag. Soldiers who carried it in battle left their weapon behind and knew full well they were very likely to die.  One can only imagine the feelings of these soldiers when they had to pile these flags with their weapons, never to be used again.  Rather than being taken prisoners of war, they were allowed to return to their homes on nothing more than their word of honor, their parole, to never take up arms against the Union again.

Fast forward to April 11, 1961, the eve of the centennial of the battle of Fort Sumter which opened the Civil War.   The battle flag that Lee furled and surrendered is raised again, this time over the capitol dome in Columbia, South Carolina, to commemorate the historic battle. But less than a year later the legislature made its display permanent.   It is generally acknowledged by historians that the reason for continuing to fly it long after the commemoration lay in the state’s opposition to court ordered desegregation.

Fast forward 39 years to April 12, 2000, same anniversary.  The South Carolina Senate votes 36 to 7 to remove the flag from the capitol dome.  But the compromise simply moved it to a prominent spot directly in front of the capitol, over a soldiers memorial.

Which brings us to today, when it was finally lowered, folded and removed to be displayed in a nearby museum.

I would make two observations about this event.

The first is that the soldiers who fought and who saw their fellow soldiers die while carrying this flag gave their word of honor never to take up arms against the Union again.  It very much surprises me that their descendants a hundred years later never considered this fact when they chose to raise that flag once more.  I would call it dishonorable.  I think that General Lee would agree.

The second observation is this. I share the feelings of the many people who have been pushing to have the flag taken down, particularly in light of the recent tragic shootings in Charleston, SC.  There is no doubt in my mind that the flag, especially in the last sixty years, has become more a symbol of hate than the symbol of home and soldierly valor that Lee and his army held it to be.  I too was happy to see it finally taken down.  Yet at that same moment, I could not help but remember what General Grant said after the surrender had been signed at Appomattox.  When he heard his troops begin firing their guns and whooping in celebration he issued orders to his staff that it cease.  The following day, as the Confederate troops marched by and threw their weapons and their flags onto two piles, the Union troops stood silently at his orders and saluted their former enemies.  We should remember what he said to them.  “The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.

There was something unseemly and unhappy about the cheering, and particularly the jeering and the singing of a rude song often sung at sporting events, that suggested that for some the war is still not over, and that they consider those with whom they disagree to be still not their “countrymen“.

Lee and his soldiers furled that flag, put aside the terrible feelings that only veterans of war can know, and gave their word. Grant and his soldiers also put down their arms and set aside their urge to gloat in victory. Perhaps today, 150 years later, we can learn from their example. Perhaps we too can put aside such feelings and acknowledge that we are all equally part of these United States.  The final lowering of this flag is a symbolic start, but the change must happen in our hearts if the war is ever to be truly over.