Mary Beth Meehan

Kristina

Kristina

Once a thriving cotton-mill town, Grantville sits about ten miles south of Newnan at the southern edge of Coweta County. No industry replaced the cotton mill when it closed down, in 1980, leaving the center of Grantville so faded and forlorn that it became a post-apocalyptic backdrop for scenes in “The Walking Dead.”

As I drove into this town one day I passed a white house with two flags hanging from its porch: one for Georgia football and one for the Confederate States of America. This was in 2017, and the fury over the Confederate flag – the ways in which it had become a symbol of racism, violence, and hate – was roaring across the country. I stopped the car.

As I approached the house I saw a young woman. She told me her name was Kristina, and that she’d just gotten home from church. She was arranging items on the porch for a yard sale: clothes and shoes, bottles of nail polish, rows of face cream and eye shadow. I asked Kristina about the Confederate flag, and she told me how much she loved it. We talked for a bit, and then I asked if I could make a portrait of her with the flag. She agreed.

When I returned several days later with a print of her portrait, Kristina and I sat again on her porch to talk. I noticed that she was wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “Hate Slavery, Love Freedom.” She said they were the slogan of a social-justice program in Ethiopia, which she admired. When I showed her the photograph I had made of her, she said, “I love it!” I asked her what it was about the portrait that she loved.

“I’m very into, just, our country’s heritage,” she said, “and how it all began. The Confederate flag stands for our Constitution – it was everything we fought for, our land – it was everything we fought for to become now . . . the free.

“For me,” she continued, “we went from hate and slavery, and confined by this hate that all of our ancestors made up – the slavery and the blacks and whites and segregation – to co-habitating. You know, we now have schools with blacks and white and Latino, and to me everybody should get along – gays, blacks. It shouldn’t matter who you are, what color your skin is. We all fight for the same thing; we’re all here for the same thing, and I just don’t understand all the hatred.”

I can’t explain how confusing this was to me. I’d seen quite a few Confederate flags in my time working in Newnan, usually while driving on country roads. When I passed them I’d visualize something dark and damning going on inside: people peering through their blinds while loading shotguns, or spewing vicious words on the internet. In Newnan, the symbol is not restricted to the countryside: the city’s grand cemetery includes a special section for Confederate soldiers. Downtown there are two monuments to the Confederacy.

I mentioned to Kristina that all over the country people were hurting: that the hatred symbolized by the Confederate symbol had become akin to the Nazi swastika. “I don’t view it as a sign of hatred,” she said. “I look at it as a sign of hope. It ended segregation and it ended slavery and it ended what everybody thought was right but in all reality was cruel to humanity. That’s how I view it. I don’t see it as a bad thing; I see we evolved from that, just like we’re evolving now.”

Just then, a teenaged boy came onto the porch. This was her nephew Cameron, she said, whom she had adopted. His mother is her stepsister, a white woman, and his father is black. Kristina said that Cameron had been having trouble in school in Newnan, with kids making fun of his mixed-race ancestry, so he had come to live with her. Cameron spoke about his struggle: to forgive his parents, he said, for making him both black and white, and to love himself just as he was. Kristina stood smiling at him, with tears of pride in her eyes.

Seeing Kristina’s love for her nephew, I was even more eager to get back to her devotion to the Confederate flag. What about the fact that the Confederacy had fought for the enslavement of young men like Cameron? I asked. I told her that, despite her views, there were people who would look at her portrait and right off the bat assume she was a racist, full of hate.

“I would hope that they wouldn’t say that,” Kristina said. “I would hope that they see patriotism and honor and courage.“

She smiled, and I could tell that she wanted to be polite to me as she corrected my wrong views. “I would say,” she said, “to brush up on history.”