I realize that I haven’t posted anything in a long time, so readers should know it would take something pressing for me to come out of my proverbial hole after so long. That is the case. I feel there are some things about this whole Confederate flag controversy that need to be said; I may as well be the one to say them.
I was born and raised in the Deep South, which means I also grew up seeing Confederate flags on a fairly regular basis. In fact, in giving me directions one day, my father casually mentioned the destination was near “where we had driven past a KKK rally about 15 years ago.” As I would have been a very young child, I did not recall the occasion, but was nonetheless horrified by the thought. Several years ago, I moved to the North, mainly because I felt I needed breathing room to expand my horizons. As such, I’ve been thinking about the Confederate flag issue for awhile—especially since all the “furor” (to borrow MSNBC’s word) over it has arisen. I feel like by having the background that I do, I’m able to see both sides of the coin, and there is some degree of misunderstanding on both sides.
For the Northerners who are baffled as to why Southerners would hold on to a symbol of racism, I’ll try to illuminate the matter. I would estimate that for at least half of those who fly/wear/etc. the Confederate flag, they do so without seeing it as a proclamation of racism. For that percentage, it is done as a symbol of remembrance—remembrance of the Southern heritage, remembrance of ancestors who fought and died in the Civil War, and remembrance of the South at the peak of its prominence (which I’ll come back to).
With that being said, there is a strong undercurrent of racism in the South—and unfortunately, whether or not someone flies a flag does not change that. It is the proverbial iceberg, where only a fraction of the behemoth can be seen from the surface. Years upon years of prejudice permeate generation after generation, to the point that many don’t even recognize it within themselves. I have heard racist things flow easily from the mouths of white people who don’t fly the Confederate flag and would not at all consider themselves racist. It is sad to say, but due to the racial history of the South, whites and blacks seem quick to assume the worst about each other, and that assumption plays out over and over—in how we interact, and in how we talk about each other. If trust exists, it seems very thin and fragile. Somehow that racist undercurrent will have to change for race relations in the South to truly change.
But, back to the Confederate flag and remembrance. One consideration that is easily overlooked is that just prior to the Civil War, the South was at the height of its prominence. Cotton was big business, and plantation owners were raking in plenty of money from it. In the Civil War, Southerners fought to maintain their standard of living by whatever means they felt necessary; it was the last time they were in a position of significant economic power. Reconstruction knocked the formerly-booming Southern economy flat on its back compared to before, and financially, I don’t think the South has ever fully recovered.
To put it another way, how do you choose your profile picture? Do you choose the most recent picture, where you’ve gained 30 pounds and are wearing mismatched, stained sweats? Or, do you choose the picture from 10 years ago, where you’re slimmer and better dressed? While some may argue for honesty over flattery, I think most people would be inclined to choose the older picture. Here’s my point: the Confederate flag is that old snapshot of the South, where on the surface, it looked most powerful, genteel, and well-to-do. The ugly side was always there, but not discussed.
Compare that to today’s image of Southern culture. The South as a region is regularly poked fun of by pros and amateurs alike. I would imagine Southerners are the most regularly stereotyped and mocked geographical group in the US. These jokes are so constant they have become part of the common national vernacular. Accurate or not, it is “common knowledge”—we marry our relatives, we’re missing some teeth, we’re uneducated, we don’t own shoes, etc. In short, we have no culture, no class, no education, and the rest of the country would be better off without us. Considering this, is it any wonder that some Southern people would cling to a symbol of that time when we weren’t the national running joke? (Hence, the whole “the South will rise again” mantra.) I am not saying that the South should be this untouchable thing that nobody ever jokes about; after all, the beauty of humour is that it is the great equalizer. Still, when the same predictable jokes keep churning constantly from generation to generation, it’s not fostering productive change. It’s reducing an entire culture to a generalized caricature. These generalizations have worn thin, and this is a great opportunity for all Americans to really stop and think about whether these generalizations are really accurate, or at least, worth perpetuating. In my view, the longer we tread these well-worn ruts, the more divided America will become as a country.
For the Southerners who have been saying, “Exactly! The problem is those ‘damn Yankees,’” it’s your turn. For those who would cling to the Confederate flag against all else, you are missing the huge factor in this: the Confederate flag symbolizes a time when the South prospered by directly stepping on other people. Historically, and I would hope individually, we have moved on. We aren’t those people anymore, and as such, the Confederate flag needs to be put away for good.
If the flag represents Southern heritage to you, that’s great. It will always mean that to you. But to an entire racial group who are still very much part of this country, it will always represent the time when treating people like property was considered okay. When the flag flies, it’s like a message: “It doesn’t matter what’s happened since the Civil War–we still feel the same way now as we did then.”
And here’s the thing: you can honor Southern heritage in so many ways apart from that flag. Southern culture is too vast to be contained in one dusty image from the past. Since then, the South has become known for so much more. It’s the birthplace of icons like Elvis and B.B. King. Tennessee is known for a vibrant music scene. Georgia is being utilized for movies and TV more and more. Though we still have a long way to go, we are moving in the right direction. If we keep holding a symbol of the past as a representation of our present, we will become stuck in a backwards cycle. We will be known as those who live in the past, and we will never be taken seriously.
The Civil War is part of Southern history. We had some excellent generals, and many brave soldiers. But they should be memorialized in a museum, just like those who served in other wars. Would it really be so bad for the stories and flag of the Confederacy to be preserved within a museum, like other significant wars such as the American Revolution, World War I, and World War II? Putting our past in the past doesn’t mean forgetting about it—on the contrary, we can learn a lot from it. At the same time, though, we need a healthy distance from it to gain that learning perspective. We can’t close a chapter we refuse to stop re-reading.
No matter what the Confederate flag means to you personally or culturally, it also had a historical meaning, too: it represented people at war. Owners subjugating slaves. Rebellion and disunity. And, certain people and groups are still using the flag in that context; Dylann Roof did. I think former skeptics of flag removal are advocating it now because they realize the facts of the Charleston shooting are indisputable. In the cases of recent violence between the police and the black community, people were divided over who triggered the events. Who really started it? There had to be an instigator, whether it was the arrester or the arrestee. In this case, though, there is nothing to even debate; the lines are clear. A Bible study group was meeting in their church. Dylann Roof came in. They welcomed him. He waited, and then he started shooting them. Afterwards, he explicitly stated that he was hoping to start a race war. There is no debate to be had; this is the clearest case yet of innocent people being gunned down solely for their skin color. This act was carried out by someone still clinging to the notion that the racism represented in the Confederate flag needed to live on. With such a clear connection between this crime and the flag, what excuse could flag-bearing states really have for perpetuating the symbol? If we know that the Confederate flag’s continued presence is causing continued pain to the black community, why would we knowingly continue to twist that knife?
The fact is, removing the Confederate flag is the right thing to do; that era has passed. It’s time to move beyond the Mason-Dixon Line; it’s time to be one nation again.