My ten-year high school reunion happened this past Saturday in Florence, KY. That's in Northern Kentucky — near Cincinnati, Ohio — close to what many consider the physical border between the North and the South. I didn't even understand how racist the school was until I was on the plane and I suddenly remembered that our school mascot is a Confederate general. The trip brought back a lot of tough memories and forgotten anxieties from growing up in an area bubbling with racial tension.
When I was in high school, I was one of maybe 80 black kids (and that's being generous), out of a total student population of around 2,000. Seeing other black students was rare, and having class with more than one was bordering on impossible. When you're the only black kid, you are the diversity, and in high school, nothing is more important than camouflaging and assimilating — which was patently impossible given the nature of melanin.
I've never publicly put into words the debates we had in class (regardless of subject or teacher) about the Confederate Flag. In my "History of American Pop Culture" class, upon the request of the teacher, a kid refused to remove the rebel flag from his BCHS lanyard, citing it as less of a statement of racism, but rather, a proud emblem for his "heritage." (Which more than likely included slave ownership, but I digress.)
In AP Psychology, a student wearing a "The South Will Rise Again" T-shirt spoke loudly and confidently — with the support of almost everyone in the room — about how racism didn't exist anymore and how anyone opposed to the Confederate flag was a "pussy." In addition, he spewed a lot of racist vitriol about welfare queens and "the ghetto."
I'll never forget the time in Western Civ when the teacher — who taught at the school in the 1980s — recalled the "overreaction" to the flag's use by the "real racists" who "make everything about race." The class agreed, and took notes as if her problematic opinions were fact.
But most striking to me now? All of the pep rallies and football games I attended, at which black students and athletes had to cheer for Mr. Rebel while wearing shirts that read "Rebel Pride," (but being banned from wearing "Kiss Me, I'm Black!" shirts). The irony. The cruelty. It's almost too much to think about.
On my flight to Kentucky over the weekend, I couldn't sleep. I was on-edge for most of the day. On my mind were last week's racist attacks in South Carolina, and the shooter's manifesto, which resembled so many conversations I'd experienced at my school. I began to wonder why I was even going back. Aside from the obviously rampant racism, my high school experience wasn't completely terrible. I was that kid who excelled in a lot of extra curricular activities (speech and drama), and mostly stayed in my own lane. I got teased for a while — kids used to shout "Kriss Kross will make ya jump jump" at me when I had braids — but once I stopped wearing my hair in braids and stopped participating in class discussions for my own sanity, people moved on to other easy targets. So what did I stand to gain by attending the reunion?
Remembering Mr. Rebel led me down a rabbit-hole of research about my high school. As I mentioned, Kentucky's right on that North/South border and was officially neutral at the start of the Civil War slash has a black friend. Still: For decades, Boone County High School's mascot has been Mr. Rebel, a Confederate general who stands tall in a feathered cap. (On the marching band banner, he's on horseback, wielding a sword. Fun fact: Rebel Brigade is not just the school's marching band name, but the name of a KKK chapter.) I started as a sophomore at the school in 2002, but before my time, Mr. Rebel was usually pictured in front of a Confederate Flag. The photograph at left is from one of the school's pep rallies in 1975 — check out the flag right on the basketball court:
The school decided to remove the flag from the logo in the 1980s, a move that brought the underlying racial tensions within the community to the forefront. There were fights, protests, debates, etc., because the school caved to pressure from the families of black athletes who felt uncomfortable playing on fields and courts emblazoned with Antebellum imagery.
While the school made progress by ditching the flag, many of the students and families in the community did not. Here's a photo from a Boone County High School football game against Trinity High School in 1993:
and here's a football game in 1978 — 15 years earlier:
After Boone County High I attended Berea College, the first Southern higher education institution to graduate black students with white students before the end of the Civil War. The small Kentucky liberal arts college was very diverse; the school's insistence on broadening horizons meant that more than 15% of the population were international students. I met so many black students who understood where I was coming from: Southern black people who validated the fears and apprehensions I had about the community in which I was steeped. West African black people who cried during Roots in class and began to understand the insidious history of the African diaspora. I felt hope for a future that involved calling injustices out. I had found my people.
Years passed, and after living back in my hometown for a few years I decided to move to New York City. I've been here 3 years, and it's obviously just so different. Being black is not something you try to mask in New York. Being morally opposed to flying a flag under which your ancestors were slaughtered is not seen as unreasonable. No one here has ever tried to gaslight my life or the history of my people. Are there racists here? Sure. But the spirit of NYC doesn't allow voices of hate to dictate the conversation.
The Boone County High School reunion was held at the Florence Freedom minor league baseball stadium. I noticed that I was one of maybe five black people in the entire ballpark. When you're used to being outnumbered significantly — in ideology and race — you learn to approximate your allies in unsafe spaces upon entry. An intimidatingly large police officer resting his hand near his gun holster was the bouncer for the evening, giving out drink wristbands after reviewing IDs.
There were no Confederate flags in the ballpark. Mr. Rebel was nowhere to be found.
After a little liquid courage, I walked to the BBQ buffet and said hi to the 30-40 or so alumni who had decided to attend — most of whom I know from Facebook more than from high school friendships. None of whom were people of color.
What I found was that everyone was friendly and genuine. We have all grown up, we're doing our own things. The conversation was light; there were a few babies in attendance. I talked and laughed with some of the people who were likely to have worn Confederate flags to football games or to have used racial slurs with their families at home.
Why did I go? I went because it's what you're supposed to do. I went because I wanted to know how I'd feel all these years later after leaving and having met and befriended tons of people of color. I went because I wondered if the people were still the same.
The former classmates I spoke to didn't seem outwardly racist — maybe they'd grown out of it, or maybe just interacting with me, a black person, was enough to temporarily silence the deep-seated hatred they'd grown up with.
But: We did not discuss the fact that nine people had just been murdered in South Carolina, a Southern state that flies the Confederate flag. Despite being the biggest news event of the week, it never came up, and I didn't want to be the one to start that conversation.
And some of the people I talked to were friends with the racist kids from high school. I got updates on a few former students who didn't attend the reunion — students who, when we were in class together, had seriously problematic views — who have gone on to teach at BCHS.
I wonder about the students of color attending the school now, who have to isolate themselves from their peers to find peace and acceptance. Like I did.
While I may have left Mr. Rebel and those Confederate flag-wavers behind, the reunion, coinciding with the events in South Carolina, was a startling reminder that these issues are actually not so ten years ago. There are many people who still believe the Confederate flag is a symbol of heritage, not hate, and I went to school with those people. There are people of color still living in the oppressive environment I was in 10 years ago. I moved out, I moved on, but for others, it's still a daily reality.
Akilah Hughes is a comedian, YouTuber, and staff writer and producer for Fusion's culture section. You can almost always find her waxing poetic about memes and using too many emojis. 🍕