A white Southerner’s struggle to come to terms with the Confederate flag

How ironic that Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist who murdered nine black people in Charleston, South Carolina, trying to ignite a race war, might end up being remembered as the man who finally folded up the Confederate battle flag across Dixie.

Flag_of_the_Confederate_States_of_America_1861-1863.svg_The battle flag — which, as every Southern pedant is required to remind you, is not the actual flag of the Confederacy (shown at right), but rather the battle standard of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, has a long, complicated history in the South. And I suppose as a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner, I should offer some comment.

Let’s start with a bit of personal history, which may help some of y’all to understand where many (white) Southerners are coming from. I’m 40 years old, but I honestly had no clue that the flag was considered offensive by anybody until some time in college.

Pictured: Good ol' boys (and a girl), never meanin' no harm. Not pictured: Racist lynch mob.
Pictured: Good ol’ boys (and a girl), never meanin’ no harm. Not pictured: Racist lynch mob.
Non-Southerners I’ve spoken to sometimes have a hard time believing this, but for the first two decades of my life, most of it lived in the South, the flag was universally seen — at least among whites — as a completely benign symbol of regional pride. I knew, of course, from seeing old movies and newsreels that the flag had been adopted as a symbol by segregationists, but it never clicked with me that it might therefore be plausibly seen as a symbol of hate. For crying out loud, the flag was on the roof of the Dukes of Hazzard car. It was waved at country music concerts and NASCAR races. You saw it at barbecues and on license plates, and made into bikinis and T-shirts. None of the people I knew who waved the flag hated blacks or wanted to see a return to slavery or even segregation. The flag was just part of the background of the culture, like Yankees gear in New York City. Nobody thought anything of it.

The warm feelings associated with the flag are so pervasive in my memory that to this day, I have to stop and do a little mental adjustment every time I see the flag displayed:

Wes’s prehistoric lizard brain: “Look! It’s the Confederate battle flag! YEEEE-HAAA—”

Wes’s more informed adult brain: “No, please stop. That’s offensive. Remember?”

Wait, what...?
I’m not the only Southerner with a mixed past on this issue.
I strongly suspect that I am not the only white Southerner of my generation who has to perform this little two-step in my head every time I see the colors of Dixie.

Of course, black intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates would probably be quick to remind me that my experience probably doesn’t resonate with the black folks I grew up around. And that is a fair point. I had black friends growing up, and I wonder sometimes how they might have felt around me when I was wearing, say, a Confederate Railroad T-shirt.

Coates would further remind me that warm personal memories are not, by themselves, a justification for the status quo. To jump right to the reductio ad Hitlerum argument, Germans who grew up in Nazi Germany doubtless had many warm, innocent memories of a joyous Fatherland, benevolently watched over by a kind and loving Führer. Many of these decent folks probably bore no hatred in their hearts toward Jews or others designated by the Nazis as “racially impure.” Even so, we do not regard it as acceptable to indulge a sentimental treatment of Nazi Germany. The blameless hearts of individual Germans are outweighed by the monstrous crimes that were committed in their name.

So having said all that, how do I feel about the Confederate flag, and the current push to remove it from government property and phase it out as a symbol of the South?

I support it…mostly. Allow me to elaborate.

Though my own experiences make it nigh-impossible for me to see the flag as an emblem of hate, I think that the Apostle Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians, chapter 8, had the most sensible advice for this situation. Paul was evidently asked to settle a point of controversy among the Corinthian congregation: Whether or not it was permissible for Christians to eat meat from animals that had been sacrificed to pagan idols. (It was common at the time for pagan temples to offer the meat from sacrifices for public consumption.)

Paul patiently explained that there was no inherent theological objection to the practice, because the idols were false gods and anyway, it was just meat. He went on, however, to counsel believers to, as he put it, “take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock.” (1 Cor. 8:9) Believers had a responsibility to lift up their brethren, not confuse them or bring them down: “If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” (1 Cor. 8:13)

The point, to me, is clear: Don’t insist upon fine points of disagreement if there are larger issues at stake. Racial brotherhood is something I value far more than a piece of cloth, so even if the Confederate flag gives me no offense, I am happy to put it away if doing so will help me reconcile with my black brothers and sisters.

Having said that, some perspective is in order.

First: Understand that this isn’t going to make the Confederate flag go away. It has already acquired too much cultural baggage that is unrelated to slavery — many folks simply see it as a generic symbol for “rebellion” in the abstract. This creates an especially puzzling dilemma for “top-down” efforts to discourage its display — people who already pride themselves on being “rebels” are not likely to react kindly to bossy lectures from perceived authority figures.

I suspect a Venn diagram of "people who would attend a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert" and "people who would attend this rally" would look like two unconnected circles.
I suspect a Venn diagram of “people who would attend a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert” and “people who would attend this rally” would look like two unconnected circles.
Heavy-handed efforts to squelch the flag are thus almost mathematically certain to enhance its allure. Any successful effort to push the flag out of polite society will have to develop organically, from the bottom up. (This is not as much of a problem with symbols such as the Nazi swastika, which celebrate mindless conformity and obedience to one’s superiors.)

Also, it’s probably a stretch to analogize the Confederacy with Nazi Germany. Things in the real world are rarely as cut-and-dried as they are in the case of the Nazis. There’s been much to-do about retailers such as Amazon deciding to ban Confederate-flag-themed merchandise, but as of this writing, you could still buy a Soviet hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, a poster of Chairman Mao, a coffee mug featuring Lenin, and a keychain featuring Joseph Stalin.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Low-end estimates about the number of people who were murdered during the 20th century by various Communist movements — these are people whose deaths were directly traceable to Communist policies, not “collateral damage” like the millions of Soviet citizens who perished in World War II — start at around 60 million. That’s roughly twice the entire population of the United States — white and black, slave and free combined — at the dawn of the Civil War. Other estimates of the death toll of Communism in the 20th century put the number closer to 90 million. This far exceeds the crimes of American slavery, yet many retailers happily sell merchandise emblazoned with the figures and symbols of the most blood-drenched political movement in all of human history.

To be fair, he was roughly about as enlightened as the guy America put on the $20 bill.
To be fair, he was roughly about as enlightened as the guy America put on the $20 bill.
Then, of course, there’s the ubiquitous images of Che Guevara that are popular on the Left. Che was a lot of things, but a hero of freedom was not among them.

Oh, Amazon is also a great place to pick up a Japanese Rising Sun Flag, popularly associated with Japanese military aggression in World War II. Interestingly, displays of the Rising Sun Flag rarely spark the outrage you’d get from flashing the Nazi swastika — or the Confederate battle flag, for that matter.

The point here is not to defend the Confederate flag, or to score cheap rhetorical points over the continuing popularity of Commie kitsch — it’s to illustrate that how one handles defeated, discredited ideas of the past is rarely a very simple question. The Nazis were thought to be so uniquely evil that the victorious Allied powers felt obliged to adopt a salting the earth approach, but this is not the only possible response, or even an advisable one in many circumstances.

The reason we often stop short of the drastic approach we adopted with the Nazis is simple: Honoring the heroism and martial valor of one’s forebears — even if one disagrees with their cause — is a very, very deep human impulse. Denouncing one’s ancestors as monsters and one’s culture as a cancerous plague is probably one of the most unnatural things human beings can do — even in the case of Germany, we only expect them to condemn the Nazis; we stop short of demanding that Germans disavow their entire cultural inheritance. Every culture that we have detailed records of has taken pains to memorialize its fallen warriors, even when the actual casus belli is so far removed as to be barely comprehensible to the living. (Modern Greeks still revere King Leonidas of Sparta, but I challenge you to find a single living Greek person willing to give a full-throated endorsement to ancient Sparta’s government and social structure.)

This is why I’m a little more troubled by rising suggestions that we should go even further, and scrub the South clean of any sign of its Confederate heritage. This sort of demand is simply contrary to ordinary human nature, and as with most attempts to re-engineer basic human nature, it’s almost certainly a disaster in the making.

At this point, it’s customary for a white Southerner writing about their Confederate heritage to wax lyrical about their poor, benighted ancestors, who never had nuthin’ to do with no slavery and were simple farmers fighting to protect their land from heathen invaders. Well, not in my case. Research into my family history leaves no doubt that I am descended from slaveowners. (And unlike Ben Affleck, I don’t see any reason to pretend otherwise.)

Now lest you get the wrong impression, my ancestors could scarcely be described as rich — this was not “Gone With The Wind,” with white Southern gentlemen and ladies flouncing around the big house overseeing huge armies of servants and field hands. In reality, this romantic image represented only a tiny slice of Antebellum slavery — the “1 percent” of slaveowning royalty, as Occupy Wall Street might put it. Most slaveowners probably resembled my forebears — prosperous small farmers who owned two or three slaves, at most. And as best I can tell, only a handful of my ancestors actually reached that level of prosperity; it’s not like I’m the product of a long line of slaveowning gentility. My ancestors who fought for the Confederacy don’t seem to have owned slaves, for example.

But it gets worse! After the war, at least one of my ancestors was in the Ku Klux Klan — though the stories I’ve heard passed down make the Klan, or at least my ancestor’s particular branch of it, sound more bumbling and ludicrous than fearsome.

Because of this history, you’ll get no syrupy, orotund hymns of Confederate valor or the lost glory of the South from this Southern boy. It’s not that I’m ashamed of my heritage or my ancestors — I just view them realistically, as flawed human beings. I am proud of their bravery and their struggles, but I prefer to let the ghosts of the past rest in peace while I look to the future.

Instead of declaring a purge of all politically incorrect aspects of the South’s heritage, I’ve long felt a better approach is to expand the pantheon of Southern history to better reflect the region’s entire population. A crucial turning point in my own understanding on this issue came from reading Eugene Genovese’s book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. One point that Genovese drove home — whether intentionally or not, I don’t know — was how black history was an inseparable part of Southern history. After reading Genovese’s work, it seemed preposterous to me to talk of a “Southern heritage” which excluded blacks. They had an entire noble, edifying legacy of their own which had largely been censored from the tales of Southern history I’d grown up with.

With this perspective, the Confederate flag didn’t seem so much hateful as it did narrow. How could an honestly non-bigoted Southerner talk seriously about his region’s grand history while pretending half the people who shared that history didn’t exist? I’d heard snickering jokes all my life about “Black History Month,” but shouldn’t an authentic Southern history embrace black history as its long-lost twin sibling?

Yes, somebody went there.
Yes, somebody went there.
Several years ago, there was a black clothing company — based in Charleston, S.C., oddly enough — called NuSouth which put out clothes featuring Confederate battle flags with a Pan-African color scheme. Granted, it’s a goofy idea, but you’ve got to give them credit for thinking outside the box. It’s actually kind of similar to the thinking that led to the adoption of the Union Jack. This strikes me as exactly the kind of thinking Southerners ought to embrace. We ought to search out symbols and stories which emphasize our common heritage. We should ask for a telling of our history which builds bridges and lifts up all of us — not just a fortunate few.

One of the most moving moments of my life was when I first visited Grant’s tomb in New York City. If you ever find yourself in Manhattan, I strongly urge you go there. I revere Robert E. Lee, but Lee was a man with his face turned toward the past. Grant was the man of the future, the man who was fighting to bring about a truly United States of America.

The inscription at the entrance to his tomb is a simple one, which all Americans of goodwill should take to heart: “Let Us Have Peace.”

That’s the lesson Americans should take from the history of the Union, and the Confederacy, and the South and the North and the Civil War and the civil rights movement. There’s a reminder right there on our currency: E Pluribus Unum — “out of many, one.”

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2 thoughts on “A white Southerner’s struggle to come to terms with the Confederate flag

  1. Excellent piece that really describes quite well the same struggle I have had (maybe it’s the fact we were in school together) about the issue. And now I live in Charleston and have marveled at the unity that has emanated from the broad community here after the shootings. I think the Pauline reference is very apt in this scenario – don’t cause another to stumble in his path by your actions. It doesn’t matter if I don’t see the hate in the flag that others clearly see, it is not so important to me to keep the flag over the more noble goal of racial harmony. Great writing as well!

    Like

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