Friday, July 3, 2015

The Confederate Flag: Heritage (of Slavery and Segregation) Not Hate

So, with Greece settled into watchful waiting, I can now post on other topic.  The question is, how much can fit in before the referendum.

I will start with the easiest -- the Confederate flag. Maybe I am the wrong person to be posting on the subject because I am not a Southerner and have no real exposure to the South, so I have no idea what the Confederate flag means to a lot of Southerners.  But I can at least say what it means to this Yankee.

This Yankee, growing up in the 1970's, never once saw a Confederate flag outside of a history book.  I learned that the Civil War was about slavery.
Abe Lincoln was tall and he was long
His heart was high and his faith was strong
But he hated oppression and he hated wrong
So he went down to his grave
To free the slave.
So we sang when celebrating the bicentennial when I was in sixth grade.  About that age I was starting to learn that things were not quite that simple.  Lincoln did not run on a promise to end slavery but only to restrict it from growing.  The Civil War started, not with an attempt to end slavery, but with secession.  Lincoln maintained that his purpose was not to end slavery but to preserve the union.  ("If I could preserve the Union without freeing a single slave I would do it.  If I could preserve the Union by freeing all slaves I would do it.  If I could preserve the Union by freeing some slaves and letting others alone, I would do it.")  The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery only in the states in rebellion, not in the ones that stayed in the union, and was undertaken in large part to keep Britain and France from intervening because they were unwilling to go to war for slavery.

But these were mere caveats, mere nuances.  Never once was it questioned that slavery was the underlying cause of the war, even if the immediate causes were more complex.  And to me the Confederate flag stood for slavery, plain, pure and simple.

I took for granted that Southerners saw things in the same light.  When we read To Kill a Mockingbird, one character was named Braxton Bragg Underwood, but called himself B.B. Underwood.  Scout's father said that naming one's sons after Confederate generals made for slow and steady drinkers.  I assumed that B.B. Underwood concealed his true name and drank out of shame at being named after a man who fought for slavery.*  And when we saw films about the Civil Rights movement that showed white Southerners who opposed the movement waving the Confederate flag, I was shocked to my core.  They were waving the flag of slavery, which to me could only mean a desire to restore it.

This is not to say that all my classmates were so naive.  It is to say that if my experience is typical, by the 1970's outside of the South, if children were learning romanticism about the Confederacy, they weren't learning it at school.  Most likely, it was coming from various sources in popular culture.  My parents somewhat sheltered me from popular culture.  They strictly limited our TV viewing  and didn't go to all that many movies.

Probably my first exposure to Confederate romanticism came somewhat later (don't remember exact age) when we were wrote some sort of short story in school and read each other's.  The one I read involved a Southern belle during the Civil War who heard that the Yankees were at the plantation house and considered going in to offer what protection she could, but then self-preservation took over and she ran, tearing her skirt off to go faster.  When her brother caught up with her, he was shocked at her immodest state and seemed more concerned about it than the danger.  Going to the house, they discovered that the other family members and their faithful house servant had been killed defending the family silver.  Our heroine said what fools they were, but her brother said they were defending the family honor.  After some other exchanges, it becomes clear that she is prepared to adjust to changing times but he is not, and she can only shake her head over his rigidity.

My next exposure was in seeing Gone with the Wind, which was quite an eye-opener.  Nonetheless, it never disputed that the war was about slavery; it simply romanticized slavery.  And the car in Dukes of Hazard had the Confederate flag on it.  And I got a glimpse of the Southern perspective reading something about the infamous Birth of a Nation.

But it was not until college that I learned something of the Southern perspective on the war.  I was talking to a friend who was not a Southerner herself, but has spent a lot of time in the South and knew their outlook.  And I asked if there were still hard feeling over the war.  She said yes, and romantic views about the Confederacy.  I said something to the effect of romantic yearnings for the Confederacy not being exactly a desire to revive slavery and she said, "The Civil War had nothing to do with slavery."  This absurd statement so shocked me that I had no words to answer.

Since then I have learned some things about the Confederacy and its flag.  One is that a lot of Southerners probably share that viewpoint.  Another is that the Confederate flag did not really become a symbol of the South until the 1950's and the Civil Rights movement.  Maybe that should not be so surprising.  It does not get emphasized much in Gone with the Wind, which was made in the 1930's.  Nor do you hear much about it in To Kill a Mockingbird, written in 1960, but based on the author's memories of her childhood in the 1930's.

So the Confederate flag was the flag of an army fighting a war over slavery, even if to your average foot soldier it was no doubt mostly a war in defense of their own.  And it became popular a symbol of the South specifically in the context of fighting for segregation, though no doubt many saw it as a symbol of resistance to an overweening federal government.  And Southerners say it means "heritage not hate."  I don't doubt that this is true.  I certainly don't think that slave holders hated their slaves, or that segregationists hated black people, so long as they knew "their place."  But the "heritage" that flag refers to is a heritage of slavery and racism, as proved by the fact that the flag was first flown on the pro-slavery side of a war over slavery, and became a symbol of the South only in the struggle over segregation.

Is there a less offensive symbol of Southern "heritage"?  In all honesty, I don't know and I don't care. Other parts of the country manage to get by without so flagrant a symbol of "heritage."

What is interesting, though, is how sudden the reaction has been since Dylan Roof did his shooting. Presumably, as is often the case, the elements were all there primed to go anyhow.  But somehow this incident seems to have driven home for the first time to a lot of people that for some people the Confederate flag really is a symbol of hate.

*Today I cannot say I understand why Underwood hid his true name and drank.

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