Symbol Slam

From top to bottom: the Stars and Stripes, the South Carolina state flag, and the Confederate battle flag. The picture was taken in 2000, just before the battle flag was removed from the state capitol's flag pole.

I struggle with flags.

I learned flag reverence as a Boy Scout: how to present it, salute it, retire it, fold it and, when use had rendered it too tattered to respectfully display, how to burn it. The only proper way to wear the stars and stripes, I learned, was as a shoulder patch. To this day, seeing flags worn as articles of clothing troubles me. I'm aware that other cultures have different customs regarding their flags--the British, in particular, seem find with Union Jack underwear, hot pants, bikinis, etc.--but even so, seeing any flag displayed for purposes of ridicule, amusement, titillation, or symbolic disrespect gives me pause. I'm the same way with any symbol that has meaning to a group of people: seeing it desecrated troubles me.

And yet, at the same time, I completely understand how these nationalist symbols can intimidate, offend, anger people whose experience or creed leads them to respond differently to a symbolically patterned swatch. I respect the right of anyone not to sing "The Star Spangled Banner," recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or simply to remain seated during either of those acts of reverence. And I respect the right of protesters to display the flag upside down or even to burn it in public as an act of political speech.

Symbols are powerful things, conveying far more meaning to the initiated than any outsider can begin to imagine. To me, the American flag represents both the unity and diversity of our republic, the ideals to which we aspire, and the commitment to remain united even when our disagreements over those ideals seem irreconcilable.

Last week, another American flag rose to national prominence: the Confederate battle flag. This was the flag carried into combat by the army of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. During the war, it represented the will of the South to secede from the United States in order to preserve its practice of human slavery. In the aftermath of the war, it became the symbol of white resistance to the progress forced on the South by its defeat: the abolition of slavery and the extension of full citizenship to former slaves, including the right to vote and to participate in government. Particularly during the Jim Crow era, the Confederate battle flag became a symbol of white supremacy, inextricably linked to segregation, cross-burning, lynching, and every other form of terrorism practiced against persons of color. It was to the Ku Klux Klan what the swastika was to Nazis. As demonstrated by its presence on the car driven by the South Carolina shooter, it continues to hold that significance for white supremacists.

Conversely, for the many who've been subjected to the hundred-and-fifty year campaign of southern white supremacist terrorism, the Confederate flag means one thing: genocide. Its ubiquity throughout the South may dilute its impact, but there's no getting away from its historic significance as, first, the banner carried by soldiers sacrificing their lives to keep millions of human beings enslaved and, once they had lost, by terrorists doing everything they could to keep those millions subservient, meek, and separate.

Between these poles are the many Southerners for whom the Confederate flag is a symbol of patriotism, pride, and heritage. They've poured all these emotions into this rectangle of cloth, and in so doing, they've lost track of what it really represents for them: denial.

Denial that the secession movement was about one thing, and one thing only: preserving the institution of slavery.

Denial that hundreds of thousands threw their lives away for this obscene cause.

Denial that, in the aftermath of the war, "patriots" engaged in a campaign of terrorism against former slaves.

Denial that the privilege enjoyed by white Southerners is the product of centuries of exploiting persons of African descent.

Denial that white terrorists have been, and still are being, sheltered, protected, and encouraged by upstanding Southern citizens and the politicians they elect to office.

Denial that the culture, the heritage, the very identity of the South is grounded in deceit, bigotry, exploitation, and genocide.

Confronted by these truths, as incarnated by the person of Dylann Roof, Southern politicians are finally waking up to the travesty that has been on display over statehouses and on capitol grounds throughout the South. Here's what South Carolina state senator Paul Thurmond, son of infamous racist Senator and Dixiecrat Presidential candidate Strom Thurmond, said yesterday:
Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves, and to continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will...I am not proud of this heritage...We must take down the Confederate flag and we must take it down now. But if we stop there, we have cheated ourselves out of an opportunity to start a different conversation about healing in our state. I am ready. (Full story in Slate)
For many people, this will be a hard thing. When South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham reversed himself earlier this week, calling on the state legislature to remove the flag from its prominent position over a Civil War memorial, his Facebook feed was deluged with angry posts by South Carolinians announcing they would never vote for him again. I can't say whether any of these people is a racist, but clearly none of them want to believe the flag symbolizes anything other than honor.

Except that it does. None of us can control what a symbol means to anyone else. To Dylann Roof, the flag represents white pride. To his victims, it represents genocide. Faced with a symbol that has come to represent--or, in the case of this flag, has always represented--the violent power of one class of people over another, the right place to stand is with the oppressed. In the words of Paul Thurmond, "We must take down the Confederate flag and we must take it down now."

And if that hurts some Southern feelings, too bad. You've had a hundred and fifty years to trample on the feelings, dignity, basic human rights, and broken bodies of African-Americans. Giving up this piece of cloth is the least you can do to start making things right.


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