When it Took on a Different Meaning: The Confederate Flag

Apr 6, 2016

BB King, 1977
Credit Creative Commons

Brian Phelps grew up outside of Richmond in the 1990s, and he says the Confederate flag was a big part of people’s lives in his community.

“Being from the Richmond area, we have a strong southern heritage—a lot of people like to call it—and I was like any kid that grew up in my area and kind of always had this ‘it's heritage not hate kind of concept.’”

Brian Phelps and his daughter.

But when Brian was in middle school, something changed. He says it happened when he was alone in his room, listening to a BB King CD he had bought from the cheap bin at Circuit City.

“So I got that CD, I used to listen to it like religiously, because at that time I had like three CDs, and that's all I have, so you know, you listen to the same ones over and over again—Eric Clapton Unplugged, Brian Adams So Far So Good, and this BB King CD. And I'm sure I had a couple others here and there.”

“And I remember having this thought, I love BB King so much, but I have shirts with the Confederate flag on it, and I'm saying these things like ‘it's heritage not hate’?

And my little middle school brain, I started kinda thinking like this makes no sense at all. So right then and there was a major turning point for me where I was like, I cannot have like a duplicitous relationship with the world. I'm not a racist person. I love the blues, and I love, you know, everything to do with all kinds of music—that you can't separate different kinds of people.”

Brian later went on to study minority politics at VCU. He says he sees more acceptance of difference in Richmond than he used to. But that on the outskirts of the city, he sometimes has sightings of that old symbol he once embraced as a child.

“It really burns me up to see the Confederate flag, as I think it should burn up most people, but especially white southerners, we should be embarrassed of this. And I know people are cringing when they hear that sometimes, but I really truly believe that, and I think it's a bit misguided to think it's heritage not hate, well what heritage are you celebrating here? Because the heritage I like to celebrate is: our music, our food, our art, not a war we fought over trying to own people.”