If you were to visit my dad’s modest apartment, one of the first things you would notice is the curio in his living room. This curio is not filled with nice china or collector’s items. It includes every honor or award presented to me during high school. The shelves are filled with plaques representing every athletic, musical, and academic award earned over the course of four years. My father is proud. I am his oldest, and when I was a little girl, he loved telling everyone about his daughter. To him, this curio represents fond memories, a treasured history, and proof that all of his stories are true. I understand.
My mother had her own commemorations as well. After her death, I finally mustered up the energy to go through her things. Somewhere along her organized files, I found a red folder. The cover is labeled, “Natasha: awards, articles, pictures, shot records, and social security info.” In addition to all those things, this folder contained several scholarship essays I had written. She, too, was proud.
I keep the red folder in a safe at my home now. When I look at the wrinkled edges and the torn pages that have now turned yellow, I remember how long ago that time was. I remember that girl and the things she cared about. I remember that she cared deeply and wanted to change the world. I was hopeful about my future. That’s what artifacts do. They raise our consciousness by reminding us of who we are and where we are going. This type of reflection is important on a personal level, and it is also an important practice for leaders.
Artifacts also say a lot about the culture and environment in which we live. A visitor of my father’s home understands that he values achievement, at least for his little girl. They know he is hopeful about her future because of what they observe in that curio. That would be a conscious observation about the home in which I was raised.
When I attended seminary, I was required to read the book entitled, Organizational Culture and Leadership. In it, the author Edgar H. Schein writes:
“The bottom line for leaders is that if they do not become conscious of the culture in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them. Cultural understanding is desirable for all of us, but it essential for leaders if they are to lead.”
The expediency of our culture now demands for the removable of the Confederate flag from the statehouse in South Carolina. This is not at all a new discussion. In the red folder with the wrinkled edges, I found a scholarship essay that I wrote on this topic. Listen to the words of my 18 year old self growing up in South Carolina:
I respect the fact that the flag represents bravery of the confederate soldiers…This is only one sign of representation, however. The flag also represents slavery…the idea that blacks are still inferior to whites…That may be your personal belief, and if so, wear the flag on your t-shirt; hang it on your front lawn; or put it on your license plate. This is no reason to make our African American citizens feel disrespected every time they pass the Statehouse, a historical and respected place by all of our citizens. Flying the flag at the Statehouse means, to me, that the state is not supportive of the fact that all men are created equal. We are still setting a boundary for ourselves; we are still barred in chains; we will not be lifted. We have come this far by faith, but our journey is not over. We still have to work on completing that dream that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave himself to freely to speak of. Racism is a rooted problem that needs to be taken care of immediately. Any small thing we can do to resolve this problem, we should do. If that means removing the flag from the state capital, then so be it!…I respect the Confederate flag for the simple reasons, it is part of our history and we cannot change the past. We can, however, change the future. People need to come together and dissolve the issue. We should not let this issue paralyze us. Resolve this issue so we can concentrate on more important issues.
I wrote those words in 1997, and I was hopeful for a solution then. Over the years, I have watched leaders in South Carolina take a stubborn stand to keep that flag flying, even when powerful organizations threaten to take tourism money from the state. Even the loss of money was no motivation for change then. The leaders of South Carolina continued to stand behind this artifact. Schein writes that artifacts are the surface level of any organization. Artifacts include, “all the phenomena that you would see, hear, and feel when you encounter a new group with an unfamiliar culture. Artifacts include the visible products of a group.” These visible products represent something that is observed but is sometimes “difficult to decipher.” Artifacts describe a culture. Schein continues, “The question that elicits artifacts is ‘What is going on here?’”
The Confederate flag in all its glory represents an American culture that some people want. Looking at the Confederate flag brings a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s the same reason I don’t patron a restaurant with the word “plantation” in the name—I don’t care how good the food, how sweet the charm, or great the hospitality. I have deciphered that I don’t want to live in a culture that celebrates slavery as a good thing or a treasured part of American history.
There are various leaders calling for the removal of this flag now. There are several businesses that are now pulling away from the sale of this artifact. The motivations for making these choices at this time are varied for sure, but that does not change the fact that this is a necessary action. When I received a text from a young woman informing me of Amazon’s decision to stop sales of the flag, I responded with the text, “Better late than never.”
But if I were to write a letter to my 18 year old self today, I would like to say to her:
You were right. That flag has got to go. We finally made it happen this year, and now we can concentrate on more important issues.
Still standing in 2015, Your Thirty-Something Self
Today’s post is not for legislators. It is for all of you with friends who will defend the flying of that flag at the state capital. You have the relationships to address the issue in conversation. Take the risk! We don’t simply need to pull flags and stop sales. God is in the business of changing hearts, and true friends must we able to call on the consciousness of their peers to ask questions like:
How does this flag represent our current American culture?
Does the flag reflect who we were, or who we want to be as a people?
How do Americans of different racial and ethnic backgrounds decipher this artifact?
Then break bread together and reflect on the following passages:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others (Phil 2:3-4 NIV).”