In Columbia, South Carolina, it flies over the capitol building. In Georgia, you can find a replica of it on the state flag. All over the South, it appears on license plate replicas. Today, more than 130 years after the Civil War, the Confederate flag remains as much a part of southern life as biscuits, gravy, and grits.
For many southerners, the ubiquitous Stars and Bars are a painful reminder of the region’s tortured past, a relic of antebellum culture that’s best erased from the collective memory. For others, the flag represents a proud era of southern solidarity, a way of life that’s worth preserving. This debate has long polarized people who love the South but have very different ways of showing it.
In recent years, two young southern entrepreneurs have added a whole new twist to the flag debate. Sherman Evans and Angel Quintero, owners of a store called NuSouth in Charleston, South Carolina, five years ago launched a line of clothing that reconfigures the Confederate flag to make a point: The background is still red, but the bars are black and the stars are green–the colors of African liberation.
As Jack Hitt writes in GQ (Nov. 1997), the impact was immediate and incendiary–on both sides of the fence. Shellmira Green, a local African American student, was suspended from her high school in 1994 for wearing a T-shirt featuring an early version of the design; principal George McCrackin claimed the shirt was “disruptive,” an inappropriate in-your-face reminder of a discredited tradition. Evans and Quintero, meanwhile, claim they have been the target of death threats from southern-fried extremists demanding that the pair stop desecrating a historic treasure.
“I like to say that if you don’t get it, then you’re either still a slave or a slave owner,” Evans told The Oxford American (Jan./ Feb. 1999). “NuSouth offers an opportunity for dialogue. That’s the real solution to race relations: dialogue.”
The flag was created as CD cover art for Da Phlayva, a local rap group. The T-shirts were an afterthought. Later, when Green’s suspension earned the design some notoriety, the NuSouth clothing line was born. In recent years, it has expanded to include men’s dress shirts, vests, and windbreakers, as well as a limited selection of women’s clothing.
But lest it sound like NuSouth is simply an attempt to cash in on the uneasy state of southern race relations, Evans and Quintero are quick to note that the point of their flag design goes much deeper than its commercial appeal. By using the design to turn a potent symbol of white supremacy and black oppression on its ear, and then reproducing it on clothing worn by everyone from tourists to television actors to members of the hillbilly-rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, they have reclaimed the flag for themselves–and for all southerners.
“What’s interesting,” says Evans, “is that some of the liberals come in here and tell me they are uncomfortable with this. And I say, ‘Why, because you realize how uncomfortable we’ve been, because you recognize the future will be a little different?’ We are all uncomfortable with crossing borders. When you see a world that’s no longer black and white but the melting pot in motion, you get nervous about whether you should represent that.”
A few years ago, the pair marched on the state capitol in an unsuccessful attempt to raise their flag in place of the old-style Confederate flag that still flies there. They have since fine-tuned their vision to focus on fostering a new kind of southern pride that acknowledges and then builds on the past. Besides, the demand isn’t limited to southern blacks. According to Rock and Rap Confidential (Jan./Feb. 1999), the NuSouth line is advertised heavily in national hip-hop magazines, earning itself a customer base now some 70 percent white.
“I’m through marching,” says Quintero. “We’ve taken a different tack with NuSouth. We’ve grown with it, matured with it. We don’t take all the credit. The people themselves are moving it forward. People come in here and open up. What we’re selling may make them uncomfortable at first. But they want to talk. That’s the cure.”
Quintero and Evans are banking on the assumption that it’s all part of a larger trend, a movement of black–and white–southerners toward a new multicultural vision for the region. It’s not an easy process, but they believe they’re making progress–one T-shirt at a time.