By Shawn Paik
Duke was mad. He came into class storming and stomping like he had just stepped in mud. To a group of teenagers at a Tennessee boys school, this meant that today would be a fun day to play Russian Roulette with good ole’ Dr. Duke Richey. I was the one who shot myself.
His hair was usually a little frazzled, but today he looked like he spent an extra fifteen minutes looking for his keys. As soon as he walked in, all the kids looked at each other and grinned. By this point in the year, we knew exactly how to get him off topic and rambling for half a class.
“Dr. Richey, y’ have a good mornin?” asked Toby in an innocent tone. Toby was the kid who always got it started.
“Don’t even get me started,” Doc scoffs.
“Oh, did something happen?” asked Kendall, another class goon.
“So I park my car down and pass through the senior lot and see that one of your upperclassmen thought today would be a good day to fly a big red Confederate Flag on his truck,” Doc says.
Without thinking, I interject. I gave, might I say, the finest Southern, “yeah!” I have heard to date. The class starts to laugh. Dr. Richey looks down and even gives a slight smirk. After a pause, he looks right at me, and I swear he musta been tryin’ on some crosshair contacts or something ’cause he was honing in on me.
He continued, “I was so mad when I saw it, that I climbed up the truck and took it down. See, and you laugh. You realize it represents years of slavery, racism and war, right? I don’t want to teach with that in the air.”
Dr. Richey went on to talk about the flag as a reminder of our nation’s dark history and smacked me up side the head with a good history lesson. Up until that moment, my education of the Confederate flag had always been linked to the South. Not to slavery, racism or war. Up until that moment, I was genuinely proud of that flag.
The difference between pride and shame might just be one minute of a high school history teacher changing every perception you have on an iconic symbol. One minute I am the guy whose joke got everyone’s laughs, the next I am slouching in my seat and twiddling my fingers. Ask anyone who knows me; I love the South. But that don’t mean there ain’t parts I don’t like.
In the one month I was at home this past summer, I saw confederate flags and heard white folk say “nigger.” I also drove by murals of Martin Luther King Jr. and 1960’s sit ins by Howard students. The latter is on the side of my favorite restaurant, Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken, where I once found in the bathroom a sharpie-written “sand nigger” on an album cover with an image of man wearing a turban.
This is the same city that prides itself on its progressiveness. In the past decade Chattanooga has become more internationally populated, environmentally friendly and technologically advanced. This is the same city that takes pride in its local farms and businesses. Every Sunday in the summer, the city congregates at “The Market” to buy the freshest crop, enjoy the local art and see familiar faces. This is a city that is proud of its ability to make the best donuts. A city proud to be the greatest American outdoor hotspot. A city proud of its ability to come together during a tragedy.
I am proud of being a Southerner, but ashamed of our past. I am proud of the scenic city and the beautiful Appalachian mountains, yet ashamed of the Trail of Tears. I am proud of southern food, but ashamed of its origins in slave labor. I am proud of my Asian heritage, but grew up suppressing it. I am proud of the progress made, but ashamed of the progress left to make.