Confederate monument in Lexington, NC

Confederate monument in Lexington, NC

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The Belt Buckle

On a Thursday morning in May at just past 9:00, we pull into the parking lot of the Margraten American Cemetery in the Netherlands. My brother Edwin, my sister Ellen, her husband David, and my husband Bill, and I are midway through a tour of Europe, following our father’s World War II route based on his memorabilia—maps, scrapbooks, journals, and photographs—as well as people with a story to tell in the small towns along the way.

Two young, Belgian men lean against the back bumper of a Saab sedan. I’ve never met Vince, the local historian, who will be our guide today, but after a series of chatty emails, which he often closes with “Hugs, Vince,” I feel as though we are old friends. His stylish, dark hair and eager smile look just as I expected. He’s wearing a royal blue hoodie. The fellow beside him has flung a jacket over his shoulder. If I weren’t deep in the European countryside, I’d think Vince’s companion was a Southern good ole boy—decked out in Levi jeans, plaid shirt, cowboy boots, aviator sunglasses, and a camouflage-colored ball cap with an American eagle above the bill.

Then I do a double take. Edwin nudges my elbow, whispers. “See what he’s wearing?”

I see it. Around his waist is a belt with a Confederate flag buckle. It’s the first time I have seen a Confederate flag in Europe.

“God Bless America” is piping softly through the cemetery’s sound system. “This oughta be fun,” Edwin whispers, then sticks out his hand to the men in greeting. I welcome Vince with that hug his emails have been asking for.

“My friend, Marcel,” Vince says in introduction. “He loves the U.S. like me. He also knows a lot about the war.”

Unlike most Europeans we’ve met, Marcel struggles with English, but his smile is huge, and his face tells us he is delighted to be spending this day with children of an American soldier. We too share hugs, and, after a few minutes of small talk, we Americans follow our Belgian guides into the cemetery.

The World War II Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, Netherlands

The World War II Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, Netherlands

The Margraten Cemetery is the stunningly beautiful resting place for almost 8,000 American soldiers who died on battlefields in Belgium and the Netherlands in late 1944 and early 1945. We walk quietly through the gravesites, noting names of young men, looking for those from my father’s unit and those from North Carolina. We snap photographs of Vince and Marcel and of the monuments and memorials for the dead and missing. We pose for photos, the lush cemetery as backdrop.

Each of our guides has a story to tell. Vince’s grandfather sheltered American soldiers in his barn, and his father, then a young boy, became friends with many. Marcel, in his rough English and with the help of Vince, tells us the story of his mother who was a child when her Belgian village was under German occupation. She had long pigtails, Marcel tells us, and one day, for spite, a German soldier cut them off with his bayonet. His mother never forgot the incident and never forgave the soldier. Marcel tells it now with tears forming in his eyes. “That is why we love America,” he says. “You gave us back our lives.”

We spend the day and evening with Vince and Marcel, visiting battle sites and old forts, sharing pizza with Vince’s family, and joy riding after dinner in Marcel’s Willys jeep. It’s a full, generous day.

Back home, months later, in picture after picture from that day, it’s the belt buckle my eyes see first, and I realize I must consider my Southern-ness in a new way, through the lens of someone not from the South and not even from this country.

***

I’m Southern and proud of it. These days that feels almost like a confession. It’s one thing to be born in the most backward region of our country, in the Bible Belt where so many are still fighting the Civil War. It’s another thing to claim I love it.

But I do. I love biscuits and sweet iced tea. I love barbecue no matter how it’s prepared. I love the weather, even in summers when the humidity is thick as cornmeal. I love the fact that my family, on both sides, has roots planted deep in this red clay earth. I boast that my ancestors were large landowners who helped populate the area with many children and grandchildren. They were Quakers and farmers, millworkers and carpenters. The men fought in wars and the women put up garden vegetables. Hell, yeah. I claim all that as mine.

Yet, my South is also a complex terrain of problems and complexities we can’t seem to get beyond. We love our families and our traditions so much that we cling to them no matter how much the world changes around them. Schools often lag behind their national counterparts. Racial inequities that plagued the region in decades past still linger, especially in small towns and rural communities, and now they include the new wave of Latinos settling here.

A look into many Southern families reveals multiple shades in the color palette. The story on my father’s side is that my grandfather, Josiah, a young blacksmith working in the small community of East Bend, North Carolina, took a fancy to a woman he saw behind the plow on a farm he passed to and from his shop. One afternoon, he paused his horse at the edge of the field and called over.

“You really Injun like they say?”

Thus began an almost fifty-year relationship and just as many years of teasing by Josiah. In 1908, she and other family members applied for membership in the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, hoping to claim their share of retribution to be paid to families of victims of Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal program, more commonly known as the Trail of Tears. All were rejected because the family couldn’t verify the Cherokee connection. Although denied her official status as Native American, she did not deny her ancestors or her heritage for all of her ninety-four years. Throughout their long marriage, Josiah poked fun at her “Injun money” that never came; at her dark-skinned “cousins,” knocking on the back door looking for work.

If you trace our family tree back to Cherokee Chief Donahoo, you can calculate that my grandmother was 1/32 Cherokee at best, but she wore the look all her life—olive-dark skin, jet-black hair, which she fixed with combs on the back of her head, high cheekbones, height that set her above most female counterparts of the early twentieth century, a sturdiness she earned through hard work and ten children over the course of twenty years.

My father was the youngest of those children. He grew up in the Jim Crow South of the 1920s and 1930s, where “separate” didn’t mean “equal” but instead meant inferior schools, libraries, restaurants, public facilities, transportation, and pretty much everything else in the lives of African Americans in the small town of Asheboro, North Carolina. With ten children in his family, money was scarce. As a little boy, he told us, his friends were the children in his neighborhood, no matter the shade of their skin. His 1935 high school graduation picture shows two dozen white faces. He’s standing on the end of the second row, looking off somewhere, perhaps at his own future, perhaps across town where his dark-skinned friends were graduating from their own high school, if they were graduating at all.

I find among my father’s war memorabilia a photograph of him with his arm around a black soldier. Both are in dress uniform, both smiling at the camera. There is no caption, no identifying information. Who is the handsome, dark-skinned man? Is he a friend from back home in North Carolina? A new army buddy? And where are the two when the picture is snapped? At a dance or dinner? Living it up on a furlough weekend? All scenarios I can imagine seem improbable for the mid-1940s in a segregated army. Yet, however different the shades of their skin and their life experiences, the men’s uniforms are the same army green.

***

I love Marcel. He’s a hugger like Vince. He is so excited by our visit, his face glows. That evening when he rounds the corner of Vince’s house decked out in the uniform of a 30th Infantry Division soldier, he is as happy as a child. When he sits behind the wheel of his restored 1943 Willys jeep and rides us around the Belgian countryside, he has shifted back in time. He is a soldier. We are his allies.

When we visit his house to see his collection—his “museum,” he calls it—he serves us Coca-Cola in frosted glasses. “America,” he says. “I love everything from your country.”

Back home, I send him a photo from our father’s album of a Willys jeep just like his. He sends me photos of his jeep in snow, just as it would have been in the winter of 1944. We become Facebook friends, and he “likes” everything I post, even though in many cases, he would not be able to read it. He sends me Happy Birthday greetings, a Christmas card. He stays in my life. When I think of Marcel, I see his smile.

“He doesn’t have a clue what the flag means,” Edwin says of the belt buckle. “It’s something with red, white, and blue on it. That’s all that matters.”

I think Edwin is probably right, because I recall that in every place we stopped in Europe, especially Germany—for gas, snacks, a restroom—there were racks of “American” clothing, and far more Confederate flag apparel than we’ve seen in the American South.

I read that the Confederate flag is rising in popularity across Europe. In Southern Italy and Brazil, where many Confederate soldiers fled after the American Civil War 150 years ago, today their descendants claim the flag as part of their heritage. In Sweden and other countries like Belgium, American kitsch is celebrated, and the Confederate flag represents just one more piece of Americana. In Germany, skinheads and neo-Nazis have adopted the flag because of its association with white supremacy and racial segregation.

I send Marcel an email. “The belt buckle you were wearing that day is of interest to me. Do you remember where you got it? Why do you wear it?”

His response comes in awkward English but the message is clear:

The buckle with US south flag, I bought it in a western store from usa (but in Belgium this flag have no importent) (rebel) as you know I love all that is usa but especially the memory of ww2 soldiers, that’s why I wear this kind of thing.

Bye Friendenly. Marcel

Included in the email is the link to the webpage where I can buy one for myself.

In my hometown on Saturday afternoons, ever since the controversy over the flying of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capital building, a convoy of pickup trucks circles the square. Most have large Confederate flags flying from truck beds. Some have one American, one Confederate. People on the street wave. Horns honk.

It makes my stomach double over. Take them down, I want to say. This is not my South, I tell others. However, unfortunately, in 2016, it is the South.

But, I realize, the South, even as I want it to be, is changing. Latest demographic reports from Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city, show that more than 60 percent of its residents are non-native North Carolinians. Even to me, it feels as though something is eroding. Our younger generation is global not local: settling in the town of one’s birth, living down the street from cousins, or graduating with the same students from one’s kindergarten class are ways of a past that is disappearing more every day. Tradition offers comfort, familiarity, a sense of tangible values. The flag, argue its proponents, simply honors the fading traditions of a proud region.

***

I recall an early evening, I must have been eight or nine, when my family was driving home from an all-day shopping trip to Greensboro. My father was at the wheel. The window was down, he was smoking. Traffic on U.S. Highway 220 slowed to a crawl. On the hill to our left, a cross burned, its flames reaching skyward. Gathered around were Klansmen in their white hoods. I’d never seen them before, and I was terrified.

A hand slapped our car’s bumper. A white sheeted figure stood by the driver-side window, the man behind it spoke to my father as though he knew him. My father recognized the voice, he told us later, as belonging to a man he had hired at the mill.

“Go home,” I remember my father saying. “Get out of here.”

It would be years before I’d understand how much this incident would contribute to my understanding of a South I couldn’t call my own or how much my parents’ choices would shape the kind of Southerner I’d become. But something shifted for me that day. The frightening world of the 1960s had penetrated my safe world, and my father, even though he tried, could not protect me.

My sister Ellen recalls another story, another defining moment: a few years later, we drove to the nearby town of Siler City to shop for carpet or light fixtures for our new house. “On the way home,” she tells me, “we stopped to eat at a drive-in diner, the kind where the food came out on a tray and you eat in the car. When we drove up, we saw the bathroom sign that said ‘whites only.’ Daddy didn’t say much, but he pulled out and said we weren’t eating there. I’m certain that was why.”

There’s more: in the mid-1960s, our small town of Asheboro joined others in holding freedom marches downtown, organized by the African American community. The oldest son of the woman who cleaned our house was one of the organizers. He was an energetic young man, and even his mother would talk with my mother about the “trouble” he kept finding himself in. She was concerned that he spoke publicly about injustices and inequities right here in our town, afraid he’d be hurt because of his involvement in the protests.

My brother Edwin recalls one of those marches that occurred when he was in high school. “Daddy told me to stay away,” he says now. “ ‘There’s gonna be trouble,’ he said. ‘Just stay out of it.’ ” Like many Americans, including my father, whose heart, I believe, was on the side of the protesters, staying out of it was the safest thing to do. Even then, it did not seem to be enough.

***

We are all, to a degree, the products of our time and place.

My father grew up in the early to mid-twentieth century in the American South. He raised his children during a time when racial conflict hung in the air like August humidity, even in his little town. His mother was dark-skinned, his friends were multicolored.

Today, in the early twenty-first century, I live in a predominantly white neighborhood beside a multiracial city park in a small, Southern town. I don’t know where the middle-class black families live. Students in the urban university where I teach hail from all corners of the globe. Tensions fueled by racial and economic inequality are on the rise in both my small town and the city.

“I love everything American,” Marcel says. No, Marcel. Don’t love our racism, our insensitivity, our misplaced feelings of superiority, our status quo. Take off the belt buckle.

Flag display at the Confederate soldier memorial service in Asheboro, NC

Flag display at the Confederate soldier memorial service in Asheboro, NC

On the Sunday before Memorial Day of this year, the Sons of the Confederacy of my hometown held a service to honor Confederate dead. Out of curiosity, I walked up the hill from my house to the cemetery to witness a handful of reenactors and others reciting pledges of allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Confederate flag and singing “Dixie,” which my high school band quit playing back in 1972.

Down the hill in the very same cemetery, a funeral service for a Mexican child killed in an automobile accident was underway. A brass band played. At least a hundred mourners gathered around the gravesite, singing and praying.

I stood away from both and fought back tears.

 

*All photographs taken by the author