You learn a lot about America on its country roads.
My education came under the tutelage of my father, a man who taught me his love for driving through the South. There’s a beauty in the neat tobacco rows on Highway 64 and the tall, quiet sentinel trees on 87. With mouths full of sunflower seeds, my daddy would quiz me on each plant, animal, and landmark we passed, and I picked up both his habits of driving and cataloguing the things that made us Southern, black, and whole.
But things ain’t always beautiful, and I learned those too. One hot summer afternoon, taking the 74 east from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Elizabethtown in my daddy’s black Toyota truck, a man ran us off the road. We skidded on the dirt shoulder as the man sped on past, his Confederate battle flag license plate a final insult to our situation. The bile rose in my throat, and the hot anger and shame at the symbol made my skin prickle. Here was a man who could just be a jerk having a bad day, but whose choice of a single symbol suddenly made that bad day personal. My dad just cussed a little bit, put another handful of sunflower seeds in his mouth, and continued on our way down that road.
At a gas station just outside of Rockingham, serendipity found us. As we pulled up to the pump, just there in front of our car was Mr. Confederate Plate, leaning like all villains do against the side of his car. I’m not sure who recognized whom first, but I remember the shouting match, and Mr. Confederate Flag calling my father the one name he would never answer to, looking at me and saying the same, and then pantomiming that he had a gun in the car. I remember looking around at similar flags on another truck and inside the gas station, and knowing instinctively that we were not in friendly territory. I also remember my father shaking with rage and that same hot shame as my own when he climbed back in the truck.