Removing Confederate flags from public places in South Carolina and from Virginia's vanity license plates might be meaningful steps toward the fundamental goal of destroying what they represent: the myths of white supremacy and black inferiority that hobble our society. But such steps will be tiny and not very meaningful if we allow a politics of equivocation and deception, as promoted by people like the governor of South Carolina, to block a real examination of the Confederacy’s legacy, symbolic and actual.
Governor Nikki Haley speaks of “South Carolinians [who] view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity and duty. They also see it as a memorial. A way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during a time of conflict. That is not hate, nor is it racism.”
“At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past," Haley continues. "As a state, we can survive and indeed we can thrive as we have done whilst still being home to both of those viewpoints. We do not need to declare a winner and a loser here.” (In reality, the loser was declared at Appomattox, but no matter.) This is an absurd position, one that trivializes and effectively denies what she herself allows is the "brutally oppressive past."
That the different variants of the flag were the standards of a 19th-century regime and military built on the enslavement of African Americans, my forebears among them, is indisputable. This is fact, not fiction, supported by evidence, most prominently by the words of the secessionists themselves. Also incontestable is the fact that the battle flag was resurrected by segregationists in the 20th century and redeployed as the unifying symbol for the brutal backlash against people who fought for and supported full human and civil rights for African Americans.
Look across the South (and some places up North) and you’ll see numerous, more durable symbols of the Confederacy that have been planted in civic spaces and therefore in our public consciousness. Here in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, you can’t shake a stick without whacking a granite erection to the ordinary soldiers or the exalted men who led them. Courthouses feature this statuary, too. And cemeteries, private and public, are clogged with it. Chances are we won’t be tearing down these monuments Firdos Square–style anytime soon. There are just too damn many of them, and they're literally embedded in the landscape.
As historian David Blight and others have pointed out, these monuments were constructed by Confederate partisans years after the Civil War to solidify a revisionist narrative that minimized the role of slavery—and of black struggle and liberation—in the conflict and promoted the myth that the war was first and foremost about self-determination for the South. If one erases the systematic dehumanization and enslavement of black Americans effected through violence, then the heritage rises like cream above the hatefulness of the system. The Confederacy’s own founding documents belie this interpretation, of course, but it is still peddled by those who don’t know any better and by their enablers.
Africans participated in the slave trade, reenactors tell me. And some African Americans fought for the Confederacy. Slavery was nothing new in the world—Africans did that, too, along with Greeks, Romans, and Arabs. And so on. I respond to each one of these points, all of them true, usually by quoting respected historians and occasionally by linking to actual documents, to provide context.
Some Arabs and Africans profited from the business of capturing and selling fellow humans, but they did not create or control the transatlantic slave trade, out of which our unique American political, economic, and social systems grew. Chattel slavery, which built American wealth and prosperity, was unique to this country, I wrote to one of my Confederate correspondents. It is not interchangeable with Greek, Roman, or Arab slavery. "If we don’t see and understand our own institutions as both similar to others and unique," I wrote to him, "how are we to understand them? Is the French Revolution the same as the American Revolution? The Iranian Revolution?" Common sense, I thought. The vast majority of so-called Black Confederates were enslaved people dragged into the conflict by their owners to cook, dig ditches, and buff boots. Many of them escaped to join the Union army, as documents indicate my great-grandfather, who was owned by a Confederate officer, may have done.
And fundamentally, how does any of this excuse or minimize what happened on our soil? We must own what is ours, I wrote to this same defender of the Confederate cause—one who refused to contend with an irreducible fact of slavery that always stops me in my tracks: A black person’s body was never his or her own.
“Think about a system under which a ‘good’ and ‘benign’ owner of people, one who fed and clothed his chattel, could decide one morning—hell, every morning—that he had a taste for intimate relations with the women and girls he owned,” I wrote. “I think about this a lot. You can’t rationalize this away.” He had no reply.
The less polished lash out, as did one man who commented on a piece I wrote about trying to see the "heritage, not hate" position through the eyes of a daughter of the Confederacy.
I am more than a little miffed by the author’s preconceived ideas that ALL people that fly Confederate Flags are racist. That comes from your stupidity and ignorance. The cliché American by birth, SOUTHERN by the grace of GOD rings true with me. I am proud of my southern roots. Times have changed in this country many times over again. Yes, some of my ancestors did own slaves. Some of my WHITE ancestors were slaves or Indentured servants. If I were racist in my youth, my momma would have beat me many times over. As a Christian, I still am NOT racist. Moses a Jew had a black wife. I do fly every Confederate flag I own every chance I get. I also try my best to educate morons that believe “rebel flag = kill niggers”. Sorry, I have to use such grammar YOU understand. Those words are NOT my words nor my beliefs.
This from a man who voluntarily tends the graves of blacks and whites at an abandoned cemetery in Hampton, Virginia.
“How we see the flag is a matter of perception and perspective,” I wrote back to him. “I am trying to understand the tradition and heritage point of view…. But to disregard and disrespect the views of those who were on the receiving end of brutality and discrimination by men, women, and children waving that flag is, I think, to remain blind to their humanity and their history." And this is precisely the problem.
African Americans knew what was going on when they saw Confederate statues popping up in their midst at the end of the 19th century, as their citizenship, never fully realized, was being attacked, diminished, and dismantled. John Mitchell Jr., outspoken editor of the Richmond Planet, a man born into slavery, witnessed the 1890 dedication of the Robert E. Lee colossus that still stands on Monument Avenue. “This glorification of States Rights Doctrine—the right of secession, and the honoring of men who represented that cause, fosters in the Republic, the spirit of Rebellion and will ultimately result in the handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.”
Going toe to toe with hardcore Confederaphiles by hitting them with evidence that they will most likely ignore may exhaust us, but we need to do so when their noise fills a vacuum. Post-Charleston social media is blowing up with precisely such intelligent vacuum-filling by writers and historians who are giving no quarter. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, Paul Krugman, Stacey Patton, and many others have replied forcefully in bigger media.
On top of these sharp and reasoned reactions, we must know, understand, and teach that which the deniers seek to dismiss or erase. The Charleston Syllabus, spearheaded by Brandeis history professor Chad Williams, is a wonderful response to the need for essential information about black history in the wake of a massacre born of hate. Here in Richmond, venerable institutions such as the National Park Service, Library of Virginia, and Virginia Historical Society are doing good work, but monumental change is happening at the grassroots. Groups like the Defenders for Freedom, Justice, and Equality have fought the construction of a minor league baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom, a hub for the internal slave trade. The group has also proposed an alternative that would prevent the destruction of the few vestiges of that past and still allow for some commercial development. Volunteers gather on Saturdays at an abandoned African American cemetery, East End, to claw back the headstones from nature and record what they find.
Flags can be hidden and monuments toppled (eventually), but the ideology behind them stands—unless we confront and replace it. In other countries, this process has been called “truth and reconciliation." It seems that truth-telling finally has serious momentum. We have a lot of work to do to sustain it.