Saturday, June 20, 2015

Tear Them Down

In the wake of the terrorist attack in Charleston, there is a lot of talk about removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol property.  This was one of the first ways that people reacted, which I felt was interesting and signaled some sort of cultural shift:  the first step was not just a blanket "Get rid of guns in America," but a call to remove an emblem of racism with which the terrorist came in contact every day.  Instead of targeting the result of 150 years of institutionalized racism, we're seeking to eradicate the symbol of the official original purveyor of it--and finally having a real conversation about what the flag means, thanks to Dylann Roof's use of it on the car he drove away from the massacre he enacted upon Mother Emmanuel.

Folks down here get pretty riled up in defense of the St. Andrew's Cross that was modified into what has come to be known as the "Rebel flag" or the "Confederate Battle flag."  "It's only a symbol," say the folks who want to make the flag haters feel like overreactive sillies.  "It represents our Southern heritage," say those who want to appeal to a love of history.  "It represents the South," say others, lumping the entire region into one huge homogenous wad of awesomeness.  If you argue with them, they'll wind up tossing around words like "freedom!" and "respect" and, eventually, "if you don't like it, get out!"

No.  I mean, I don't like it, but I'm not going to get out unless a pot of money lands in my lap and I get to move to Scotland where the REAL St. Andrew's Cross comes from.   What I will do, however, is once again wearily but firmly argue against the arguments.
  1. Symbols, by their very definition, are not "just symbols."  They represent words, places, ideologies, and concepts in a universal way that all people can understand.  The weird globe-headed people that tell us where to go to the bathroom, the lightning bolt that warns us that we might get shocked, the train tracks that tell us that we're going to get hit by a train if we aren't careful...these have weight and meaning in our culture.  They are unambiguous, and they are universal.

    Sometimes, if a symbol is associated with a powerful culture shift, it loses any ambiguity it might have and the association becomes entrenched in the mind of those who view it.  The most obvious example is this:  
    I feel fairly confident that nobody looked at that symbol and thought, "Oh, it's the Century Gothic lowercase t."  No, you recognized it as a cross, and more than likely, you recognized it as the Christian cross and could, if asked, tell precisely how Jesus Christ was arranged on said cross.  The cross symbolizes for the world not only Christ, but also his followers, and people use it (and the lesser-known but still popular fish) to identify their faith to the outside world.  Another, more sinister example is the swaztika.  From an anthropological standpoint, the swaztika is basically where people in varying cultures across the world got their mess together and figured out how to arrange lines in a purposeful fashion. For the Nazis, it was a way to acknowledge the creation and superiority of the Aryan tribe.  Nobody today sees a swaztika and says, "Oh, look, it's the Finnish Air Force!"  Or, "Hey, I bet the person wearing that patch worships the Sami thunder god."  Or, "Ooooh, that guy must have 10,000 seed pearls in his satchel!"   No.  You see somebody wearing a swaztika and you think ethnic and cultural cleansing.  You know that person feels superior to people who don't share his skin color or religious background.

    The Confederate Battle Flag LEGALLY symbolizes two things in our country:  a nation founded on the principal that black people were inferior and naturally well-suited for slavery and--less than a century later--states that feel that federal intervention used to integrate public schools, businesses, and other public arenas was a huge overstep.

    It is CULTURALLY used by racist organizations such as the KKK--which I find vastly ironic given that the flag's design comes in a large part by its creator trying to placate Southern Jews who sympathized with the Confederacy's aims--to show that they agree with the legal foundations of the Confederacy.  (That Southern Jews felt the need to side with slave owners is another piece of irony I have a hard time wrapping my head around). To be sure, there are other people who wear or display the CBF as a way of thumbing their noses at people who don't like it.   Because, you know, freedom of expression!  In any case, the CBF is a symbol, yes, but saying it's "just" a symbol is completely wrong, as you'll see below.
  2. The one thing that people get absolutely right is when they say that the CBF represents Southern heritage.  The CBF is a symbol of the fact that 150 years ago, thirteen states elected to break from the United States and form a new nation.  According to the vice president of the new nation, Alexander Stephens, in a speech many call the Cornerstone Speech, the Confederacy was founded "upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."  He goes on and on from there, about how God made black people inferior and it was the curse against Canaan, and how, in order to bring Africans to Jesus, it was necessary that they learn to get their bread by the sweat of their brow, like Adam and then there's some stuff about how much money the Confederacy had and how big it was and intelligent and morally superior.  (No, I'm not kidding.  Reading it is like experiencing a fever dream.) Four of the states that seceded mentioned slavery as a chief cause for seceding.   In response to the Emancipation Proclamation, Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, said, among other awful things, "...conscientiously believing that the proper condition of the negro is slavery or a complete subjection to the white man,--and entertaining the belief that the day is not distant when the old Union will be restored with slavery nationally declared to be the proper condition of all of African descent,--and in view of the future harmony and progress of all the States of America, I have been induced to issue this address, so that there may be no misunderstanding in the future."   Seriously, the Civil War was fought because white Southerners thought black Africans were inferior to them and meant to do their labor for them.  I am sure, in the 1860s, there were plenty of people in all regions of the United States who felt like people of African descent were inferior, but unless they lived in the South, they did not live in a region which made itself a country based on that feeling.  The CBF symbolizes the men who fought for that country, a country created to ensure that people with black skin were always subject to people with white skin.

    It is a hard pill to swallow, I know.  I am drawing breath today in part because of some Confederate ancestors.  No kidding.  I've heard that if I go to Wilkerson County and tell them I'm related to William Hatcher, I'll, like, get the key to the county.  Or a really nice tour of some planted pine.  (I'm sorry Wilkerson County.  All I know about you is that you like William Hatcher and there are a lot of pine trees there.)  And Southern children are certainly not taught that the flag that they see every day in their state capitol or in the back of their cousin's truck represents a country founded on the idea that black people are inferior.  They are not told that the CBF made a comeback in the South during desegregation.  Why?  Because knowledge is power, people, and integration meant black kids finally had access to that power in the South and the truth of the shameful origins of the Confederacy might change the structure that white men had profited from since Reconstruction.  It also might mean that the granddaughters and grandsons of the Great Cause would finally understand that thousands were killed and killed for the idea that God thought white skin was inherently more valuable than black skin and that would have been culturally devastating for millions of white folks in the South--and liberating and enervating to millions of black folks.
  3. When people in the South are asked about the South, they don't say, "We had slaves!"  Or  "My ancestors were slaves."  People of all colors will tell you that the South is about the beautiful landscape or the pleasant manners or the wonderful food or the awesome music.  So to say that the CBF represents the South in general is just...well, it's just dumb.  There is no way to represent one region with a flag.    How are you going to encapsulate Georgia's mountains and Kentucky's bluegrass and Louisiana's bayous on one flag?  If you revel in Southern food, what do the stars on the CBF mean to you?  The Delta's tamales?  North Alabama's white barbecue sauce?  A Texas brisket or shrimp fresh out of the Gulf?  Do the blue bars represent the "ma'am" that we tack onto every "yes" or "no?"  The way we hug strangers in Walmart after we bump shopping carts taking a corner too fast?  And how does that red field in any way tell us about jazz or the blues or bluegrass?  Flags don't represent regions.  There is no Flag of New England or Midwestern States flag.  They represent COUNTRIES.  The Confederacy was a country in which--if it had won the Civil War--women would not make a cent off of the tamales they made in the manner their former-slave grandmother taught them.  It was a country in which--if it had won the Civil War--you would have been justified as a white person in striking the black person who bumped shopping carts with you.  It was a country which lead to a culture in which the black artists who sang our songs entered auditoriums through the back door because it was the law.

    It was a country that lost a war.  Dylann Roof grew up in a state where, when he was born, the flag of a country that lost a war based on the idea that black people were inferior flew over the state capitol.  The flag is a reminder of that country and the ideals it held dear.

    It's time that we hold true to the ideals of the winner (that all men are created equal) and  that the symbols of the loser finally get torn down.  

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