As the Confederate flag is being taken down from places of honor in public places around the country, there are still many people who protest that such actions are unwarranted and hurtful. They insist that the flag they love is not an emblem of hatred, but of Southern heritage, and they feel that the enforced lowering of the Confederate battle flag from publicly owned spaces manifests disrespect for that heritage.
But whose heritage should be respected when it comes to how the Confederate flag is viewed? For example, I was born and raised in the South. Should my heritage be taken into account in determining what the Confederate flag represents?
I recently commented on an article about the flag by a Southerner who is in agreement with it coming down from public grounds, but who wondered why it couldn’t represent all that’s good in Southern history rather than the oppression, racism, and violence that many others, including most African Americans, see in it. Here is what I said:
I understand your desire to honor your Southern heritage. I too was born and raised in the South (Tennessee).
The heritage the Confederate flag represents to me is the childhood memory I have of cowering in the back seat of my mother’s car as we drove past a public square in my city where men dressed in white sheets and hoods had made a big fire out of something (I’m not sure whether it was a cross). It’s of not being allowed to go to the biggest and best amusement park in the area, and being consigned to a few see-saws and swings in Lincoln Park. It’s of never attending a non-segregated school until I went off to the University of Tennessee.
You think of the good things you remember about the South and ask, “Why can’t the flag represent that?” The answer is, it simply doesn’t. The Confederate battle flag has more than 150 years of very public history behind it, from the men who marched under it with Robert E. Lee in defense of a system every one of them knew was founded on human slavery, through becoming an official symbol in several Southern states of their unyielding resistance to equal rights for African Americans during the civil rights era, right up to its adoption by white supremacist hate groups today.
The “heritage” that flag represents is obviously very different for us two Southerners. But actually that fact is not relevant to the issue. What is relevant is that in the century and a half of its existence, the Confederate flag has been invested with a meaning that cannot be changed by what you or I think of it. It is what it is. And “what it is” is not something we need to take into the future with us.
Nobody is trying to take the Confederate flag away from those who identify with it. Because this is a free country, they have the right to keep it and display it on their property. But to fly it over publicly owned land, where all of us should be represented, is a kick in the face to those of us who have experienced the kind of “heritage” the history of that flag invests it with.
The next time you hear someone say the Confederate flag represents “heritage, not hate,” you might ask them whose heritage they’re talking about.
More on the Confederate flag:
Photo credit: Bryan Maleszyk via flickr