These last three weeks have seen the return of the debate surrounding the Confederate flag.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the latest public discussions about the Stars and Bars stem from photos of
terrorist white supremacist Dylann Roof surfacing of him holding the flag in one hand and a pistol in another (because, ‘Murica).
The discovery of this and other photos, including one in which the Rhodesian flag is sewn onto a jacket he’s wearing, have led to whether the flag should be removed from the State Legislature in Columbia, South Carolina, and other places around the country.
As expected, Confederate flag enthusiasts are working overtime to strut their stuff and write think pieces about the importance of the flag to their way of life and their heritage. One man is even planning a large monument to the flag.
“It’s heritage not hate!” “There’s nothing racist about it!” And so on, and so on…
I was born and raised in the American South. It was routine for me to see the Confederate flag on T-shirts, pickup trucks, passenger cars and on merchandise in stores. While its presence is nothing new to me, the…sting of its meaning is always in the back of my mind.
My first exposure to the debate surrounding the flag came in 2000 when Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes decided to unilaterally remove the Confederate symbol from the state’s official flag, a move that contributed to his defeat in 2002 by then Gov. Sonny Perdue (the state’s first Republican leader since Reconstruction).
At school, I was surrounded by white kids, repeating what their Southern parents drilled into their skulls around the dinner table: “it’s not hate; it’s heritage.” These teenagers stormed the hallways, smiling ear to ear with their comrades, proud to push back against the attack on their heritage with new T-shirts displaying their
latent bigotry Southern pride.
A classmate, a newly minted racist who was never shy about using the word nigger to refer to black people or “nigger music,” donned the Confederate flag as part of his apparel and, in a brazen move, decided to show off his Southern pride and heritage by waving the emblem during a school pep rally. Looking back on this stunt bores me to tears, as it’s the predictable thing a racist teenager would do.
I’m amazed (okay, not really, but still…) at how often white Southern Americans lie to themselves about their history, particularly when it comes to the Civil War and their interactions with black people (yes, I know this is also common among white Americans as a whole, but for the purpose of THIS blog entry, we are talking about white Southerners). You can see this in their defense of the Confederate flag. White Southerners and others who adorn themselves in Confederate memorabilia and insignia will tell you all about Southern history…while leaving out the cold, hard truth about their precious heritage.
See, here’s the thing. You can’t talk about Southern heritage without talking about white Southern supremacy. So, let’s talk about that. Yes, it’s true that a minority of white Southerners owned and sold slaves. This is not something that’s lost on Confederate flag detractors. However, the genius thing about white supremacy, particularly in the South, is that it gave poor white folks and other white ethnic groups a stake in preserving slavery and, once slavery was abolished, Jim Crow. Anti-blackness and white supremacy worked hand-in-hand to drill into the mind of poor white folks that, “while we got it bad, at least we ain’t no niggers.”
An example of the enforcement of this race/class hierarchy would be how non-slave holding whites often worked as slave patrollers, effectively providing them with a stake in preserving a system in which they received only trickle-down benefits. We can also talk about how, after slavery, white folks who weren’t even sworn police officers didn’t shy away from acting as lawmen, rounding up, beating and lynching black folks they suspected of committing crimes.
The idea of “heritage, not hate” is false, as the agricultural economy in the Old South depended upon slave labor; it grew from and relied upon on the use of black bodies to produce their food, livestock and other products. This Southern heritage relied on mechanisms designed to keep slaves completely dependent on their white slave holders, such as prohibiting slaves from learning how to read, slave masters raping and abusing black women and girls, slave masters breaking up families, etc.
Southern states withdrew from the Union and embarked on the Civil War to maintain control of that heritage of hate. Once the war was lost, states belonging to the former Confederacy implemented laws designed to effectively keep blacks in a never-ending state of servitude and subjugation. Some of these laws rolled back voting rights for black men, implemented de jure segregation in all forms of life, banning interracial marriage, just to name a few. White southern heritage relied on denying black folks the dignity and humanity to live happily and peacefully in a country that prides itself on serving as a haven for those living in other, “more” oppressed parts of the world.
“Heritage, note hate” is laughable, as hundreds of white Southerners showed up to protest civil rights marches, integration of schools, etc. with Confederate flags tied to their cars and stuffed in their back pockets. These same folks, hellbent on protecting their heritage, took to their town squares, waved their Confederate flags and blasted the federal government for imposing on a state’s right to
oppress and kill black people determine how they should live their lives.
Let’s not even get into how these same white Southerners have remained quiet when members of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan march through town streets with the Confederate flag as part of their official display of white supremacy.
Of course, I expect Confederate flag defenders to name and post links to stories referencing the 10 black people they can find on the Internet who proudly endorse their belief that the flag means heritage, not hate. “If they can see the flag for what it truly means, then why can you, New Black Woman?,” I’m sure these bots will argue.
Well, there’s this thing called history that gets in the way. I can’t ignore the fact that, as I stated previously, those flying the Confederate flag were historically opposed true freedom for black folks. The creation of the Confederate flag and the country it came to represent relied upon the use of black bodies and their labor to maintain their way of life. The Confederate flag came to represent a country — and the people behind its cause — who viewed black people not as human beings, but as objects they can control, manipulate and kill without repercussions, if necessary.
The Confederacy wanted nothing more than oppression and white supremacist rule for black people, and the Confederate flag is tied up in that legacy.
White southerners like to view the history of the South through glasses that often blur or edit out the presence of black people. Black people only come into a fleeting focus by white Southerners when they are recounting those nameless, faceless people who served as The Help in their homes or businesses, the elusive school children they played with before they grew old enough to understand racial distinctions or simple-minded folks needing the guidance and protection of white Southern paternalists from Northerners communists seeking to corrupt our minds with talk of integration and civil rights.
This line of thinking is no different from what we’ve seen with the discussions surrounding the Confederate flag. White Southern Americans’ re-writing of their history to erase its destructive, vile, repugnant treatment of black folks allows them to ignore the pervasive evilness that went hand-in-hand with the Southern way of life.
This revisionist history also allows them to ignore and reject the humanity of black people by remaining in denial about the pain and suffering their heritage inflicted upon a group of people during slavery and well after its official shackles were disbanded.