Over the last two weeks, the most important discussion has been the monstrous attack against the congregation of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17th in Charleston, South Carolina. It shows just how deeply rooted and pervasive racism is, even today, and how far we still have yet to go as a country and as a society. We are not post racial, we are not healed. Racism is just as present and just as insidious as it has ever been and we can see its evil tendrils insinuating its influence in politics and media. Talking heads on Fox and in Congress time and time again spew forth assurances that ‘racism is over’, yet every action taken by these people further reinforces racial stereotypes and drives ever deeper the racial divides in this country.
One of the most successful of civil protests has centered around the continued presence and veneration of the ‘Stainless Banner’, more commonly referred to as the Confederate flag (although it is in fact the second official Confederate flag). A Confederate flag has flown over the capital of South Carolina since 1961 and in 2000 a bill was passed that required a two-thirds majority before it can even be lowered from full-mast. Always controversial, the debate over continued presence of the flag over the state capital reached a critical point following the church shootings when it remained at full mast, in blind or purposeful ignorance of the tragedy, while the United States flag and the South Carolina State flag were lowered to half-mast in mourning and respect.
Despite protestations to the contrary, the Confederate flag is more than just a symbol for ‘Southern Pride’. It is a symbol of oppression and domination, a mindset that non-Caucasian races were inferior, that certain races -in particular Africans and African-Americans- are born to be enslaved, that they are nothing more than chattel. That is an indelible aspect of the flag, unimpeachable and impossible to separate from its history or purpose.
“As a national emblem, it [Confederate flag] is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism.”
– William T. Thomason (May , 1963), Daily Morning News
Denying that the blood of slaves and of those that tried to protect freedom forever stains the Confederate flag is to remain ignorant of the crimes of our forefathers and of the continued sins of our contemporaries. Racism is not gone, it is just more artfully disguised or obscured. The Confederate flag is a potent reminder of the prevalence of that racism and just how far that particular brand of hatred can drive us. Proudly displaying the flag is to proudly display your support for racism, either explicitly or tacitly.
A sudden and violent backlash has begun to occur surrounding the Confederate flag. A number of politicians have suddenly realized how deep on the wrong side of history they’ve actually been standing and are scrambling to beat each other across that line. Retailers across the country are ripping any merchandise with the Confederate flag on it from their shelves because they’ve determined bigotry and hatred is no longer profitable. While this is only a scintilla of the effort necessary to begin healing what many recognize as a treacherous racial issue, it is nonetheless an improvement.
However, I feel that in our rush to right past (and current) iniquity, we have begun to swing the pendulum too far. In particular, we are beginning to see moves to remove the flag from ostensibly neutral, historical contexts. For instance, Apple recently began
removing all content from their App Store that contained the Confederate flag, including historical simulations. While these apps do allow the player to command the forces of the Confederacy, including a number of its famous generals, this is not in itself a condemnable feature. The Civil War is both a historical fact and a subject of study. Part of that history and study is the banners that they flew, chief amongst those being the Stainless Banner (or
Blood-Stained Banner as it was rebranded during the Civil War).
While Apple’s effort to address objectionable content is applaudable, it is important as a society that we divorce the evil of an object from the value of its existence in a historical context. As a fledgling writer, I am especially concerned about this move towards banning the usage of a object because of its symbolism. We must not hide the symbols that frighten or sicken us any more than we must venerate them. They must be remembered, much like the Nazi flag or images of the German concentration camps or the Killing Fields of Cambodia. These things have an inherent value, both to us as part of history and as a reminder of the evil that we as a species can (and still) perpetrate against others of our kind.
It is essential that these things still have a place in our society, not on altars to be worshiped but still in ways to be better understood and remembered. A thing can be evil yet nonetheless be necessary and important. The Confederate flag is just such an evil, a ragged and painful scar. It is a reminder of our past transgressions. It is a reminder of our current failings. We cannot remember that if we seek to completely remove the scar from our nation. Perhaps the most compelling argument for its continued public presence in a controlled and limited environment is this: if you went out today and destroyed every Confederate flag, it would still exist. It’s in the heart of every bigot and racist. It’s also in the heart of man, woman or child whose parents or their parents remember the 1960’s and the Civil Rights Movement. It’s in the heart of every family who can trace their lineage to someone who was sold and treated as a possession.
Nothing we can do will destroy it from their lives. However, those of us who did not have to fight for our freedoms, who were born free and whose (recent) ancestors were not sold or bought must remember this symbol. Because we either are descended from those that fought to perpetuate the evil it represents or fought against that evil. In either case, we need it as a reminder and a symbol of what we must always fight against, both in the hearts of others and in our own hearts. So, I am displaying the flag in this post, not in reverence or respect, nor in protest, but in memory of the horrors it represents and the lessons it should teach each of us.