Growing up in Shreveport, La., the mere sight of the "Stars and Bars," whether on a car bumper, on a barroom door, on a front lawn or above the county courthouse -- where it still flies -- was always more than a symbol of southern heritage. It was a warning.
It said the Civil War may be over, but black people had better be prepared for pitched battles against racial inequality at any time. It said that black people may be run off the road, that they weren't welcome in particular homes and, in the case of the courthouse, that they had better quake in their boots upon being brought to trial.
Then I came to Washington and began to pay more attention to the way things were done up north. I heard how those white boys in Boston had used an American flag and pole to beat up a black youth on a beach. I started seeing how corporate executives, wearing American flags on their lapels, practiced forms of racial discrimination with consequences as devastating as the crimes committed by the Ku Klux Klan.
So when I hear about the renewed controversy surrounding the Confederate flag, the efforts by the NAACP in places such as Alabama, Virginia and Louisiana to force state and county governments to take it down, I have to take exception and say let it be.
What black people need to do is fly a flag of their own.
With all due respect to my esteemed colleague, Carl Rowan, whose historical perspective no doubt fuels the outrage that demands Confederate flags be lowered immediately, I feel that blacks need something positive to rally round before they can begin to wage battles against anybody else.
And let's face it: Fighting against the Confederate flag is a tricky proposition. I remember interviewing Al DeShazo, a Republican nominee for Congress from Alabama's 4th District as he waved a Confederate flag as a big as a beach blanket while protesting the arrival of black demonstrators in Forsyth County, Ga., a while back.
"It stands for the rights of white people," DeShazo told me. "Call it a symbol of white supremacy if you like. It's a carryover from the Civil War."
"It means no race mixing," his son Mark, 15, chimed in. "It means white is beautiful and that's the way we want to keep it."
After the march, I went into a restaurant on the outskirts of Atlanta. The motif was "Johnny Rebel," with Confederate flags hanging from the ceiling and Confederate license plates tacked to the bar.
My reaction as a black man was tempered by the arrival of a smiling blond, blue-eyed "Dixie peach" who guided me to a table, asked how I felt and what I'd like to drink. The bartender, dressed in overalls and sporting a full red beard, took the order and smiled my way. It's rare to be treated that well right here in Washington.
The point is, the Confederate flag may mean the same thing to black people, but it does not mean the exact same thing to all whites. So why bother with any of them?
Black people have enough problems that they can do something about without running around picking fights with the worst of the caucasians. And a flag for blacks just may be one of the things to help us get mobilized.
I say keep it as simple as the stars and bars. Red, for the blood of people not shed in vain; black, for the color of our skin; green, for our youth and new ideas. Now throw in a silhouette of Africa. Is this familiar? It ought to be. We used to have a nationalist flag that symbolized liberation from illiteracy, drugs, apathy and self-hate.
It didn't even have to be captured. We let it fall. If the NAACP wants to do something, it can help us raise it again, make sure it flies in every black household in America.
When black people have become comfortable enough with their own identity and proud of their own heritage, then you can bet that they will have the power to vote Confederate flags out of any government building where they exist. But by then, I don't think it will matter.