I’m sipping coffee on the back porch, listening to the crickets and the frogs. Their pitch is slurred, slowed by a drop in temperature and punctuated with crow calls. Our crepe myrtles shed golden droplets, like lazy shooting stars, always just outside my field of vision. I stare at one leaf, twirling madly on its tether, daring it to drop while I watch. I want them to stop before it gets too messy.
After breakfast, I open my laptop and read the headlines. The Democrats have finally initiated impeachment hearings. There’s been another shooting. A sixteen-year-old girl has sailed from Sweden to address the United Nations in New York. “How dare you!” she says, eyes blazing. Revolution, fires, famine, and floods — the world is spinning out of control.
Later, on my way home from town, I notice two trucks on the lawn across the street from Horton Middle School. A long, shiny pole lies in the brittle grass, and a Confederate Battle Flag spills carelessly over a tailgate. Inside the school, black, white, and brown kids tap their knees against their desks, waiting for the bell to ring. We know some of those kids. Their parents are not happy about the message being sent by the flag across the street.
The school is named after George Moses Horton, a slave owned by William Horton. Back then, people named their slaves after themselves. George Moses taught himself to read. He became a free man after the Confederates lost the Civil War and was the first black poet published in the southern United States.
My mother traces her heritage to an Englishman named Barnabas Horton, who arrived on the shores of Long Island in 1640. I wonder if William was also related to Barnabas.
I learn that there is a second flag, and, a couple of days later, I drive beneath it. It flicks a shadow across the hood of my car. In August, my next door neighbor witnessed a Ku Klux Klan rally in Hillsborough, thirty-five miles away. Turns out they were armed, too. Here it comes, I think.
A bronze confederate soldier still stands twenty-seven feet high atop a granite pedestal in front of the Chatham County Courthouse in the middle of town. But not for long. The County Commissioners voted last spring to remove it by November. Since then, the monument has become a focal point for conflict. It stands stiff-boned, surrounded by crowd control barriers. The inscription reads: “To the Confederate Soldiers of Chatham County — Our Confederate Heroes.”
Pittsboro, population 4,000, is small enough that we smile and hold the doors open for each other at the Post Office. We still take our feet off the accelerator to let side street traffic fold into line at rush hour while the courthouse tower clock chimes the time.
Turns out the flag erectors, the guys with the giant poles and crumpled flags aren’t from around here and that they plan on cementing in more flag poles around the county. They are with an outfit called Virginia Flaggers.
After the first two flags went up, there was a small protest/anti-protest demonstration at the courthouse. The police arrested three protesters. One video shows two officers leading a shambling, bearded man through the sparse crowd. I almost felt sorry for the guy.
History is not written by the losers, and the losers never forget. I understand how it might feel to grow up here on land my granddaddy farmed. To witness the onslaught, a wave of northerners, siphoning land, and sucking away my sense of dignity, in a world gone to shit. And how it might feel to watch a handful of liberal county commissioners remove a tribute to my ancestors that has been standing for over 100 years. I get it. I’d be upset, too.
Or, maybe I’d be ready to move on. Maybe, even if I was born and raised Southern, I might not align myself with rebel forces, six generations back, fighting to secede just as I don’t align myself with my German ancestors, three generations back, who wiped out six million Jews.
I go to dinner with a friend who is not sure what’s going to happen next. Yes, she is an American citizen, but she doesn’t look like the white people putting up these flags, and she knows that makes her a target. A few tables over, we hear the high notes of outrage coming from a similar conversation. Two men I know reasonably well, both have been to our house, are trying to decide what to do. They don’t want to stir things up any further but feel they can’t take this latest assault lying down.
Zoom out. The tweeter in residence is not handling impeachment proceedings gracefully. As part of one weekend twitter binge, he tweeted, “a warning from a pastor about ‘a Civil War like fracture in this Nation’ should he be removed from office.” Those of us who aren’t looking for another Civil War were not amused.
At this point, I don’t care if the statue stays or goes. I drive past the flags on my way to and fro without glancing up. I long for harmony. I’m sick of polarization. How do we give the old guard a sense of dignity without making the rest of us feel unwelcome, or worse, threatened?
I want to think this tension is new, but it isn’t — it’s just come to our town where I can’t ignore it. We had trouble like this in the ’60s and ’70s: assassinations, cops shooting kids, hippies against rednecks, peaceniks against patriots. Things were quiet for a time, and then the school shooting at Columbine sparked a dribble, and then a flood of gun violence.
I want to blame the high chair king and his incendiary tweets. I find it ridiculously sad that we aren’t even fighting over food. It seems a meaningless tussle when the victims appear well-nourished. But their discontent is palpable, an undercurrent of hopelessness strong enough to pull shooters into the abyss.
I think of the one-legged woman begging for cash the other day, stopping me as I made my way across the grocery store parking lot. How her partner leaned forward, nodding as she told her story, and how both of them relaxed after I sighed and reached for my wallet. I think of the millions of ruined soldiers and mental health refugees sleeping in doorway nests and culvert boxes and wonder how many of them sleep in our town.
I don’t think we are beyond fixing, nor do I believe we need an outside war to bring us together. I want what I’ve always wanted, what everyone ultimately wants: a sense of belonging, peace, and unity.
Leaves continue falling, green fading to yellow, and all turning brown over time. It’s been hot. Torpid. Frisky mornings slowing to long, motionless afternoons. The voices in the woods pulse, “We . . we . . we . . we . . we . .”