I suppose there’s no point in being clever about this, I own a confederate flag. You see, if you happen to be a white man in any of the southern states, you’re at some point either going to own one, see one, know someone that owns one, or you’re going to paste it on the back of your truck or your girlfriend’s ass (her pants I mean). Now I don’t fly the flag, because there’s no way I could. The flag is really more of a bandanna, about a foot long and half a foot wide. I’ve owned it since I was about thirteen. For a while I had it tacked, yes, I said tacked, onto my bedroom wall for about three or four years, and then it found its way into my underwear drawer where it’s stayed until this day. Until I took it out after I heard about Charleston.
Now as soon as I heard the news I was shocked, but really just angry that this same shit keeps happening over and over again. This anger was quickly followed by anger directed at Fox News for their attempt to gloss over the tragedy and try to make it an attack against Christianity. I was frustrated after I watched President Obama address the nation, because it’s clear the man is defeated and feels that he can’t do or say anything to change it. This was followed by actual weeping after Watching Jon Stewart’s five minute riff when he abandoned all pretense of comedy and just spoke honestly. And finally an intellectual conundrum today as I read that the Confederate flag was being taken down from the state house in South Carolina.
I’m sure I’m not alone in having friends that are debating this issue voraciously on Facebook; the pattern of this debate could be predicted before the last shell casing fell in Charleston. Just about every white person online, if they’re from the south is arguing that the flag is a representation of our nation’s history, or else just a symbol for white pride and states’ rights. Though I note with pride that several of my white friends aren’t taking this position. The opposite side is that many people of color are calling the flag a symbol of racism and hate.
As for myself, I’m torn.
There’s a scene in the television series South Park where Stan says to the character Token, “I get it now. I don’t get. I’ll never know what it’s like to be called that word, and I never will.” At this moment this is my position, and for the purpose of this intellectual exercise I’m going to try to understand the flag from both sides, with the understanding that I’ll still never get it.
We’ll start with the position with which I have the least footing.
Many African American organizations are protesting the flag, because they argue that the flag represents nothing but racism and white hate. This position is understandable, once we remember the history of that flag as it’s been actively employed. What many white people arguing for the flag seem to be either ignoring, or just trying to forget, is that the confederate flag is actively employed and revered by numerous white hate organizations. The Klu Klux Klan, a White Christian terrorist group, is always seen saluting it, even going so far to have their own unit, known as the color guard, responsible for the protecting it. The Klan is the most obvious symbol for everything that is fucked up about the South, and white people to boot, and they have embraced the flag as a symbol of their own power and agency. It becomes understandable then why many would be uncomfortable when that flag is waved around in public. The physical offenses against black people performed by the Klan include lynching, mutilation, genital mutilation, torture, gang rape, arson, and outright physical assault. Black men, as I’ve addressed in a recent post, could expect one of the worst punishments as many white racists were intimidated by Black sexuality and made an effort to neuter black men lest their steal their women. All of these actions have been taken place under the shadow of the Confederate flag.
Is it any wonder then that black people want it taken down? When your grandfather was lynched because he gave a car ride to a white woman, your pain is rather validated. But it’s not just the physical pressure that that flag reminds in many. It is the consistent political, economic, and psychological inequality that comes with it. African Americans have, in the last two centuries, struggled tremendously to try and catch up to the position that whites have blossomed under. It’s only within the last decades that we’ve seen the rise of African American millionaires, and while some would suggest that African Americans are equal, remember that the concentration of wealth in this nation is dominated by white people. If you don’t believe me Google Bill Gates, The Koch Brothers, & Warren Buffet and see if you still disagree with me.
As for the flag flying over Charleston, what was possibly the greatest offense of the whole affair was that, while the American and state flag was hung at half mast, the confederate flag was secured in its position by chains. I’m a literature major, and a writer, and I can’t even come up with a better metaphor.
The position of many African Americans it seems is that their voices have for too long been ignored, and that whenever they try to address their own dissenting view, they’re told to remember they’re place. The flag is more than just a tool used by white hate groups; it’s a reminder that they’re a second class party.
I’ve done my best there to understand one party’s side, let me now try to understand white people’s side.
One of my favorite stories about Heavy Metal Guitar player “Dimebag” Darrel is that he had longhorns on the front of his Cadillac, and beneath that, on his license plate was an image of the Confederate flag. He also owned, and regularly played, a guitar that had the confederate flag printed on the body. The man would always say, “I’m proud to be from the South.” Now there’s no way anybody could call “Dimebag” Darrel a racist; out of the mass of humanity you’re wont to find a kinder or more generous soul. But the idea that the flag represents the south and its culture has always been a dubious position at best.
For starters, the confederate flag wasn’t the ONLY confederate flag. The Confederate States actually went through three different versions of the flag, and the “Stars and Bars” that many people immediately flock to, isn’t the Confederate flag, for the image we associate with it, was actually a square. Now there is a rectangular version of this flag that was “The Second Confederate Navy Jack.” This flag was for the Confederate Navy.
Most southern people probably wouldn’t be able to tell you this, and I myself wouldn’t be able to tell you this if it weren’t for Wikipedia.
This leads me to the conflict of the position many white people take about the Confederate flag. They have flocked to the symbol the flag offers about enjoying being a southerner, but almost none of them have taken the time to actually open a book or do at the very least some minimal internet research about their actual “history.” For many whites, being from the south is about being a hick, shouting Yee-Haw, dancing to Hank William’s Jr. and George Strait, getting drunk, pasting confederate flags on women’s breasts, and falling on their ass.
I’m not trying to sound condemnatory when I say this; it’s my people after all. I’m from Texas and I’m damn proud of it. But still, there is the conflict about taking pride in a history I know very little about.
As for the argument that the flag is a representation of “culture,” I’m not sure I buy that either. The conflict with white people is that they have no real “culture” to speak of. If you observe the Upper Class of Whites in the south it’s a feudal enterprise coupled with the pomp of 18th century France. Europe has a culture, several in fact, and each of those cultures has their own set of foibles and mannerisms that have been developed literally over centuries of their existence. The problem with Americans is that we only have about 200 years of experience under our belt, and so our identity is still in the process of development. As such, we seem to cling to whatever heritage we have, and envy in our heart of hearts, those that have more than us, if you don’t believe me read about The Cult of Churchill and see what I’m talking about.
But to be honest my strongest argument about the confederate flag is not rooted in its racist history (I’m white, take that into account) but in its political statement. The Confederate flag is being created into a pseudo-patriotic symbol equal to the American flag. If you’re white and from the south, you have to worship the Confederate flag, and lord forbid you criticize, but what exactly are white southerners celebrating? The formation of the Confederacy marks a period of our nations past where our ability to communicate with one another became so splintered and racked with malice, that we broke our nation in two. That’s what bothers me: the celebration of treason. Now every nation, historically speaking, has to have a civil war at some point, it’s just part of the natural order, but that separation and bloodshed isn’t really something we should be celebrating. Like racism or pissing your pants in Gym Class (I was in the first grade, and it was only that one time), a civil war isn’t something we should be remembering with fondness, we should be remembering it with embarrassment and some shame.
The people that are attempting to defend the Confederate flag seem more concerned with their southern Confederate paradigm than they are with the real symbols that are supposed to support the American consciousness. If you want to be a red blooded American, wave the American flag. That’s the symbol that’s supposed to mean something, because it’s the symbol that has endured. Despite our disagreements, despite attacks against us, despite two centuries of internal conflict, the Stars and Stripes is the symbol that should inspire pride.
I guess this hasn’t been a fair argument for both sides, and I apologize, but this was only ever supposed to be thinking out loud.
My final point: If a nation is going to survive healthily, its people need to differentiate about the symbols that create our sense of identity. I’ll keep my confederate flag in my underwear drawer and keep the American Flag on my wall, because one symbol reminds me that I’m participating in a democracy, where people can be and speak and worship and think and write and act freely, and the other reminds me that there are nine dead people in Charleston and that I won’t be able to get on facebook for another week unless I want to unfriend a few people.
Though it also reminds me that I need to do laundry since the flag’s the only damn thing in there at the moment.