When You Don’t Know Who You Are, Others Will Tell You


The story of 19-year-old University of South Carolina – Beaufort student Byron Thomas has gone viral in the last few days.  The reason why he’s garnered so much attention (in print media, broadcast news and the internet) is because he is determined to hang a Confederate flag from his dorm room window.  The kicker?  He’s African-American.

Read about it here.

So, how does an African-American man justify hanging a flag almost universally seen by people of his community (including his own parents) as a blatant symbol of racial oppression?  To wit:

When I look at this flag, I don’t see racism. I see respect, Southern pride.  This flag was seen as a communication symbol….

Mr. Thomas is certainly correct in that the flag was a communication symbol.  For Confederate soldiers, it symbolized the original idea prevalent during the formation of the United States: that each state was sovereign, in essence its own country, and that we were “united” only so far as we would provide protection against common enemies.  How dare some “federal” government dictate who they could or could not own?  Their flag communicated the idea of states’ rights, under whose umbrella the racism that justified owning slaves (including the rape, torture and murder that kept them in line) flourished.

After all, without the idea of racial superiority, how could they truly justify their treatment of Black slaves?  And without states’ rights, how could they justify their ability to exist among states whose popular morals would not allow for such behavior?

Most of the media outlets place the First Amendment at the center of the controversy.  I disagree.  Mr. Thomas absolutely has the right to hang the Confederate flag in his dorm room.  This is, after all, America.

The real issue is Mr. Thomas’ self-awareness.  When I read that he saw the flag as a symbol of Southern pride, I thought about where I’d heard that before.  It struck me as ironic when I remembered.  I’d heard that while watching film clips of KKK rallies.  And while watching interviews of modern-day White Supremacists.

See…if you don’t know who you are, others will tell you.  Given that Mr. Thomas is just 19, I wonder how much he knows about himself.  If he is like 9 out of 10 people I’ve encountered, I’d wager that if I asked him “who are you?”, he would state his name and have little else to say.  Without knowing what else to say in response to that question, it would be no wonder that he would incorporate what others have to say about who he is and what the confederate flag should mean to him.

The only equivalent to Mr. Thomas’ view I could draw is a scenario in which a German Jewish student hung a Nazi flag in his dorm room window and claimed that he saw in the flag a symbol of German ingenuity and defiance in the face of the economic chaos brought on by the victors in WWI.  Anyone who knows history would point out to that student the torture and suffering of his people under that flag.  The only way one could focus simply on the logistical merits of raising up the Third Reich under such circumstances would be to totally ignore what happened as a result of its existence.

That’s why I believe the Jewish community has rallied so fervently behind the cry: “Never forget!”  It’s not so much to hang onto the pain of the past as it is to follow the advice of Shakespeare as voiced by Polonius in Hamlet:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!  

You cannot be true to yourself, Mr. Thomas, unless you know who you are.  You have every right to hang that flag.  The question is: who do you see when you look in the mirror?

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5 Responses to "When You Don’t Know Who You Are, Others Will Tell You"

  • nedra says:

    Well said. Hopefully all of us will discover who we are while we are attending college. It is a great place to explore all the things that make us who we are. As we age we grow and change shouting this is who I am.

    I am a southerner. Born here, raised here and have lived here all of my life. Does that make me proud of all my southern heritage, no. We have made terrible mistakes. Wounds so deep that they still bleed. The sad part is we keep making them along with the rest of the country.

    I was taught as a child that as a southerner I had a debt to pay. As an individual, as a member of my family and my community. In my small way I work on paying that debt each and every day.

    As a southerner, I feel no need to wave a flag to let anyone know who I am. I just quietly be me.

  • steveberlack says:

    Thanks for sharing that Nedra. I greatly appreciate your story. We all have much healing to do. May that healing branch out from here and touch many others.


  • Michelle Sutherland says:

    He’s 18! And looking for attention and he doesn’t look like much of a ladies man or playa.Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame.. He talked about how much his parents hated this..So that’s what it’s really about! REBELLION. I truly believe it’s about parental rebellion..I bet any amount of money his parents are hard working probably AFRICANS working 2 & 3 jobs to pay for his schooling and send money to relatives and he IS resentful..If you work that much? You’re NOT at home alot AND Africans tend to be strict with their children.. He probably had a certain racial rhetoric instilled in him since he was little. And he’s trying to prove the opposite of what his parent’s told him is true..He’s in for a very rude awakening..He’s just acting out and he’s getting what he wants.. attention..

  • Hi Steve,

    I am not sure I agree with this being a negative thing. I understand we need to hang onto who we are, I understand there was a struggle. But I also understand that we need to evolve. I do not say this disrespectfully. I too am African American. I have 3 children two, who are adults, and one in my home. They are all very respectful but I realize they have their opinions. If I was ridiculed for everything I did as a child there would be a laundry list of articles for you to write. LOL I just believe that things work out for the good. This young man, may be sending a message that says. I lived in the South, I loved it, I did not experience what you did and that is MY (his) history.

    This is just trying to see it from another point of view. His point of view. He will look back and either learn something or Not. I certainly did. We all have a perception, and that is our truth. His reality, his truth.

  • I worked in Selma, Alabama, as a consultant to a paper mill for nearly eight years. I visited 4-6 days a month. As you could imagine, I made friends; black and white, and visited many homes. I was raised in Baltimore and had never spent any time in the Deep South. To my amazement I discovered a closeness between blacks and whites that I never experienced in the North East. They ate, talked, and worshiped the same. Several were blood kin. I also learned how forgiving black people can be. Even in my own family the old folks did not want to talk about slavery {my family migrated from South Carolina in the 30’s}.

    I am not trying to speak to what was going on Mr. Thomas’ head. I am saying one has to be careful when assuming all black people still carry hate for what happened in the South. In many cases, they do not. Their faith has enabled many to put what happened someplace, and extract all the positives out of a nightmarish history. Quite Biblical, I must say.

    Who knows how this young man is dealing with the history of slavery. I say thank goodness he is not drowning in ‘Black Rage’. We know that is a one way street. He may very well be on a good path to maturity. He is only 19. Both the North and the South were engaged in the Slave Enterprise. Check the History of Brown University. What are their symbols today?

    We all may have symbols in our homes having their roots in the ugly enterprise of slavery. I will stop. Take a look at the Constitution; which I love dearly. Blacks were counted as 3/5 of a person. I have several copies, including a marked up pocket copy. I will not throw any of them away. The constitution is a hell of a symbol. I can make the case all the symbols in an around slavery, good, bad, and indifferent, helped to make the case it should end. Yes, I know Southerners for whom that flag paid honor to their ancestors. Many 19 yr olds died in that war. Most Americans did not own slaves and everyone benefited from the free labor. Mr. Thomas is becoming. I bet he wants to become on his own terms. He probably has few deeply entrenched convictions about anything significant, at this point in his life. He’s our son.

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