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History and Symbolism

by Black Issues

History and Symbolism

If you drive south on U.S. Route 95 from Washington, D.C., you’ll start to see the Confederate flag being used for all kinds of reasons. Some retailers use it to sell automobiles; others use it to sell hot dogs.  Ol’ Reb, the dirty dog of a Confederate soldier, starts turning up on billboards and placards, I suppose as a way of reassuring some people that this hole-in-the-wall store or that bitty distributorship is “down” with Confederate values.
The symbolism, which some find meaningless and harmless, is frightening to me. Confederate values were those values that not only allowed human beings of one race to enslave human beings of another race, but also impelled people to fight and lose life over the right of one group of people to own others. I’m not sure why fealty to those values would help sell potato chips, bottled water, or automotive parts, but the use of the Confederate flag in retail establishments suggests some kind of coded language.
Those Southerners who say they use the flag to honor their ancestors do not sway me. They really must not think much of their ancestors when the flag is being slapped on everything from museums and state legislatures to juke joints and corner stores! Where, actually, is the reverence in that? 
I am fascinated, though, by the way that some people have manipulated history to assert their right to shove “Confederate values” down the throats of those who have been offended by the Confederacy. And I am fascinated by the fact that, more than 140 years after the Confederacy lost the Civil War, the debate over the use of the Confederate flag and other Confederate symbolism continues to rage.
In Richmond, Va., the issue is whether a likeness of Confederate General Robert E. Lee ought to be displayed on a community floodwall. Klansman David Duke has jumped into the Kool-Aid, visiting the majority-Black state capital — which has only three monuments to African Americans, but dozens of Confederate monuments — sputtering nonsense about “European” and “Southern” heritage. Duke’s embrace of Robert E. Lee is reason enough for African Americans to oppose symbols of the Confederacy.
Virginia isn’t the only place where Confederate memorabilia has become a public issue. In Georgia and South Carolina, the issue has been whether the Confederate flag ought to continue to fly in states where the descendants of slaves may have legitimate objections to a concrete symbol of their oppression. In summer, thousands of tourists also throng to Civil War parks and museums, some participating in reenactments of pivotal Civil War battles.
Usually, winners of wars recount history.  In the Civil War case, though, the losers often have the ability to put their “spin” on the Civil War story. Villains are transformed into heroes, and losers turn into martyrs. It is easy to so faithfully commemorate the loss of life that we forget that people chose to lose their lives for an oppressive cause. One wonders how the world would look upon reenactments of genocide in Nazi German. Would the howls of horror be muted in the interest of “historical cause.” Few could make that stretch, but many are willing to deal with Civil War reenactments.
In Colonial Wiliamsburg, explorations and enactment’s of slave life are part of the nostalgic trip into the past (see cover story pg. 20). In some cases, slave auctions are replicated, as are beatings and near-lynchings, in an attempt to show the brutality of that which went before. Some of these enactments are done with good intentions, but I am not sure how much value one gets from watching a “slave” beating.  At the same time, it is clear that context is everything. As much discussion as mixed feeling is being generated by the Williamsburg exhibits.
Should the same be the case with the Confederate flag? What harm would there be, for example, in having plaques displayed along with the flag to remind people who the winners and the losers were, and to give flags some kind of context? For that matter, what harm would there be in simply burning the Confederate flag as a gesture of rejecting the principles and values of the confederacy.
This doesn’t have to be an issue, except for the fact that some of the symbolism is so strangling and plays into today’s race matters. Few want to tell the slave story from a slave perspective. Few want to hear about key roles African Americans played during the Civil War. In some ways, preserving Jefferson Davis’ mansion in all its sick elegance lifts up a man who, frankly, needs to be demonized. Has Hitler’s home been preserved for tourists to “enjoy?”
Soldiers of the Confederacy were the country cousins of Union soldiers, though. They rubbed shoulders at West Point, and served in the same military until civil war matters tore them apart. It is perhaps these contradictions that skew the way the Confederacy is viewed, after the fact — the way there is such tolerance for the display of the sick symbol of the flag. Those quite generous are inclined to ignore the Confederate flag, to say it means little or nothing, or to assert that its meaning is in the eyes of the beholder. For those who still grapple with the attitudes embodied in the flag, there is much less generosity, much more frustration that the losers can dictate the terms of the tale.
Am I suggesting that a key period of United States history be ignored as if it didn’t happen? Hardly. I do suggest that the Civil War period be placed into some kind of context, and that some of the symbols be retired out of simple respect to those who were victim of the Confederacy’s arrogant racism. I also suggest that raging debates about this period and its symbolism be used as learning tools about the ways symbols are used as shorthand to assert, or claim affiliation with, a time or an era.
Some may see these symbols as benign tributes to ancestors who lived life the best way they could. Others attribute something far more malevolent to these symbols.     



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