What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? As an African American, it's frightening to think about the possible legacy of that great conflict's having had a different outcome.
Before entering college, I attended a boarding school in New Jersey, where I lived in a dorm with two girls from Texas. Both hung large Confederate flags in their rooms. They seemed to think nothing of it, but when I saw those images I was repulsed and frightened. For me, they represented hatred, slavery and a legacy of racism.
Some folks in Richmond don't see it that way. As part of a "rotating gallery" of images at Richmond's new Canal Walk, a large picture of Gen. Robert E. Lee was hung from a downtown flood wall, triggering protests from members of the African American community.
The history park was established in an attempt to spur the downtown's renewal. The question raised by Confederate representations in such a place is this: Can a city be renewed by celebrating and giving life to images that serve as nightmares from the past to many of its citizens?
Confederate Web sites say that Lee's image will declare that the Confederacy lives forever. They're wrong. The Confederacy died 134 years ago -- and with it chattel slavery. The country is one, and democracy has been preserved.
Strangely enough, though, while the men who took up arms against their country in the rebellion were given suffrage and their society was restored, black people, many thousands of whom had fought for the Union, found themselves not so easily incorporated into the national fabric. The shackles had been removed. Some gains were made during Reconstruction but then lost to Jim Crow. Southern whites fought desperately to create and maintain a new kind of slavery -- one that lasted well into this century.
All of this has to come to mind for African Americans when they see people cling to the past in the name of "Southern pride" or "heritage," especially when this pride and heritage are expressed in Confederate flags, license plates with Confederate symbols, large banners of Confederate war heroes. African Americans can't help remembering that was a time defined by total white control and supremacy.
Today our nation is different. Richmond has had a black mayor. The notion of white superiority has been shattered. Is that what causes people to glorify the Confederacy -- some warped idea of restoring lost glory and power?
They raise their flags and hang banners. They say there's no racism in that kind of expression. They're just images. Images don't speak.
But of course they do. They resonate with the pain of the past and conflict that still exists today. At age 21, I would like to enter a new era beside people who have escaped the ignorance of the past.
The writer is entering her junior year at New York University.