It was two years after I was pulled out of the private school that my family went on a road trip to Disneyland. I have written in the past about my Disney experience and how much I savoured my time in that park, feeling so safe and having so much fun with my Dad and my Mom. The recent events in Charlottesville reminded me of that initial trip to Disneyland…. Let me explain.
I was only a child and was growing up in the North, in a small town. Disneyland was an incredible experience unlike anything I have ever experienced before. In fact, it has spoiled my amusement park expectations everywhere. I find myself looking forward to every pilgrimage I can make there. Upon that first visit, I remember visiting Frontierland, and like most park guests, had to look for treasures in the gift shop inside the fort. I picked out a toy musket and a hat. This was no ordinary hat. I had never seen that kind of hat before. I thought it looked really cool. I knew I had to have it. It had crossed swords on the front, with a short black visor. It slouched down in the front and was taller in the back. It had a screen printed fabric sticker on top of a red and white flag in a cross formation – just like the flag on the car in one of my favourite TV series, The Dukes of Hazard. It was grey. I didn’t know anything about the civil war, or the meaning of the confederacy. I was innocent and ignorant to those events at that time.
My parents acquiesced and allowed me to purchase these items. It was no big deal, or so I thought. I sported my grey cap throughout the park. I thought it looked cool. Heck, I thought I looked cool walking around with my musket and my grey kepi. I received compliments from the cast members and had no idea of what kind of message I was broadcasting.
My family had lunch at the Blue Bayou in Disneyland that afternoon. We were sitting and enjoying our meals. My hat drew the attention of a middle-aged man at the table next to us. He kept looking over at me. I thought he must have been admiring my ultra cool look. After a while he leaned over to make pleasant conversation with us. The first thing he asked us was where we were from. We told him we were from Canada. He turned back and said something to the others at his table. He then spoke to me. “That’s a mighty fine hat you are wearing.” I thanked him. “Do you know about the history of that hat?” he asked. I told him that it was a soldier’s hat but that’s as far as my knowledge on the subject went. “Do you know anything about that flag on the top of your hat?” I told him it was the same flag the Dukes of Hazard had on their car. He then said, “You know, that hat would look a lot better with out that flag. They didn’t used to have those flags on them.” I looked at my hat, and thought he may be right. Perhaps my hat would look better without that flag. “Do you like grey?” I told him I thought it was okay. “I prefer blue”, he said. We finished our meals and said goodbye to the people we were sitting next to. They wished us a safe and fun stay. Before leaving he told me that blue would be a really nice color for that kind of hat.
As we roamed around the park that afternoon I began to take notice of the looks I was getting. They were mostly pleasant. But I did notice that the people who were like the man at the restaurant gave me more studied looks. Perhaps the man was right, and the flag on top of my hat did not look as cool as I thought. We sat down later that day for a snack and a break and I took my hat off and looked at it. I started to pick at the sticker. It pulled off rather easily. I discarded it in the trash and believed the hat did look better without it.
It is now decades after that event in my life. Watching the events at Charlottesville this week, like I mentioned earlier, reminded me of that time and that man. Upon reflection of that memory, I can understand his initial hesitation when asking us where we were from and his relief to hear we were from the North. His short conversation with us that day was bold. He planted the seeds for me to look into the deeper meaning of the colors of the hat, and why he had subtly told me a couple times that blue was a good color. It was a few years later that I began to learn about the Civil War and really began to understand what the man at that table, the African American man, was telling me. My grey hat eventually found its way to the trash, and I came to agree that blue was a much better color for me.
I wish I could find that man and thank him for his lesson all those years ago. It was not a lecture, and it was not provoked by anger. I was ignorant to the facts and he offered me an opportunity to educate myself on a matter I had known nothing about. I can’t assume anything about that man’s history, but I can imagine how the image of a confederate flag might feel to some people. I had thought it looked cool. I was ignorantly innocent. I can only imagine how blind acceptance of hate symbols in our society can humiliate and intimidate some of us within our multi-faceted society.
There are some symbols of the past that are best left in history books or on display in museums where they can be put in context. Removing images and symbols from public displays that provide a phenomenological reaction do not erase the history or significance of those objects or their cultural and historical significance. Proper context is required to understand the meaning beyond the “it looks cool” factor. Iconic symbols of history have the effect of being cultural time machines. I don’t remember seeing swastika keychains or souvenir SS hats when I was in Germany. Why are confederate symbols any different? I know I am leaving myself open to many arguments of iconography, semiotics and phenomenological debates, but the essence of what I am attempting to get across is that education is important if we really want to stop the ignorance of “hateography”. If you are going to display it, know what it really means, rather than seeing it through fifty shades of grey.