Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Of Confederate Flags and Mud Flaps

When I open the booker’s email, the first thing I see is a short paragraph, written all in capital letters. All caps is never a good sign. It says: “This venue has a Confederate flag prominently hanging above the stage. It is not reflective of the management’s mentality. I have booked many diverse shows there. Have fun.”

Usually gigs don't come with a disclaimer, and certainly not a warning about potential race issues.

When I get there, the first thing I do is look up. The Confederate flag is there, but so is a lot more. Hanging in the rafters is a huge American flag. Bellow that is a regular-sized Confederate flag. On the left and right of the Confederate flag are two smaller, black flags, with those ‘naked women silhouettes’ everyone has seen on truckers’ mud flaps. Beneath all that is a disco ball.

Yeah, I said disco ball.

I see a few people looking at me as I stare at this hanging mobile of mixed messages. What strikes me first is the fact that the Confederate flag is new. Unless you're a Civil War reenactment planner, what use do you have for a new one of those? Besides being a symbol of intolerance to a lot of people, it’s also the flag of the losing side, right? I mean, they did lose. The Confederate flag isn't on any of our stamps; black people aren't slaves. The demographic who likes the Confederate flag seems to be the same group that enjoys chanting “We're number one!” at sporting events and political rallies. That’s funny to me because this flag represents number two. It's the flag of the losing side. There are no big displays of silver medals that I know of. We don't usually hold onto, and proudly display, lottery tickets that were one digit off from making us rich.

I guess I can even understand that it’s there more as a prop for a good old boy bar vibe - but the disco ball?

I never would have put those two together.

You have the women on mud flaps flags that are insulting to women; a Confederate flag that is offensive to African-Americans; and then - a disco ball. I guess they have no problem with gay people?

After the show, I got talking to a woman, and asked if she thought the flag was offensive to black people.

"They don't come in here."

Yeah, because there is a symbol of hatred hanging from the ceiling!

When the show does start, I am standing in the loft area looking at the crowd. The opener happens to be a black guy. He goes on stage, the crowd claps, and everything seems OK. The other comic and I notice something is wrong with the lights. It’s a music venue, so they have a bank of lights hanging above the stage with different colored gels in them. Someone set them up to slowly cycle through the various colors to create a mood on stage when a band is playing. This is weird. All you need for comedy is just a spotlight or plain lighting. Instead, we have this odd effect with who’s ever on stage morphing through all the colors of the rainbow. Whoever set the light board up can't change it. We don't know any of this yet, so my first thought is, “Maybe someone keeps playing with the lights because they've never had a black guy on stage before.” Remember, they never come in there.

Being a San Francisco liberal with an over-developed sense of what is, and is not politically correct, I went into the gig prejudging everything about it. Each comic on the show was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the crowd. They were great in fact! But it all got me thinking about the rise of racism in America right now. Like a lot of people, I assumed with the election of Obama the country had turned the corner on many of those issues. Just the opposite happened. Anything that was bubbling beneath the surface boiled up in rage and misspelled protest signs. But then how much have we dealt with those issues, if the Confederate flag can be seen as “just something to help create the atmosphere of a good old boy bar”? I am grateful they didn't pay me in Confederate money. Those bills are too large for the ATM machine.