Here’s a little experiment, in two parts.
First, pick a white person, pretty much any white person; then go up to them and mention the subject of slavery, and its consequences for blacks in the United States. Then pull out a stopwatch and time how long it takes for them to say something to the effect of, “All that was a long time ago. Why can’t we leave the past in the past and move on?”
And here’s the second part: come and spend a little time in my neck of the woods — the American South — and watch how long it takes for you to spot someone waving, wearing, or otherwise displaying (perhaps on their car) a confederate flag.** Now, having seen several, go up to their respective owners and tell them, “All that was a long time ago. Why can’t you leave the past in the past and move on?”
And as they look at you blankly, or even angrily, and perhaps call you a Yankee or some such thing that they consider the vilest of slurs, ask them about slavery, and watch how quickly they turn to the very same “all that was in the past” line you just used on them–not realizing the irony, which was, after all, the point of this experiment in the first place.
You see, white Southerners (and, truth be told, whites generally in the U.S.) love to live in the past, so long as it’s a past that makes us feel good and venerates us as heroes. So whether its waxing emotional about the greatness of our founding fathers, or waving an American flag on Independence Day, or prattling on about some ancestor who died in battle at Gettysburg, the point is the same: to lift up the past and to remain stuck there, at least for a while. But let anyone suggest the less noble side of that same past and watch how quickly history gets relegated to the ashbin of the irrelevant.
Those who wave the Confederate flag, for example, insist they are merely trying to fondly remember part of their history. Yet if blacks (including, to be sure, more than a few Southerners) broach the subject of their ancestors’ enslavement and its lingering effects on black America today, they are viewed as wallowing in pity. But what, other than wallowing, and most certainly pitiable, can we call those who insist on waving the standard of a defeated government, some one hundred and forty one years after it fell? Really now, let us move on indeed!
Case in point: the recent flap in Burleson, Texas, involving two young women who were brought to their high school principal’s office for displaying Confederate flags on their purses: a symbol that has been deemed disruptive and potentially racist by school officials. When Ashley Thomas and Aubrie McAllum were chastised by their principal for carrying the co-called “Rebel Purses” to school — gifts they had received for Christmas (and who says there’s no Santa Claus?) — they decided to leave campus altogether, rather than submit to turning the purses over to school officials until the end of the day. Their respective parents, one of whom is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, have threatened to sue, claiming that the girls’ free speech is being violated. Aubrie’s dad — the SCV member — goes further, insisting that a “heritage violation” has been committed. Yes of course, because you know how hostile those liberal North Texas principals can be towards anything Southern.
The school, which is ninety percent white, is now having to contend with legions of white students who have taken up the girls’ cause: by plastering “censored” signs over their purses (be they rebel or not) and book bags, all the while caring quite little as to how the whole thing might feel for the statistical handful of blacks in the school.
Though the young women in question can be excused for their ignorance as to what the flag they chose to display means, the same cannot be said of their parents, who either should know, or do know the truth, but (especially in the case of Rick McAllum) choose to lie about it and push a sanitized, kinder and gentler version of the Confederacy than history itself affords us.
Oh sure, neo-Confederates yelp at such a suggestion, insisting that the Confederate Battle Flag — the St. Andrew’s Cross as it is technically known — has nothing to do with slavery or racism. In fact, they argue, since the flag was really only a battle standard, and not an official flag of the Confederate States of America, it can’t even be seen as representative of the government itself. So, even if one accepts that the Confederacy was founded on the basis of racism and for the purpose of maintaining slavery — and indeed this was the position of their leaders, to a person, as will be seen below — the modern day confederates insist that the battle flag only represents the noble and gallant efforts of their ancestors in warfare, and holds no deeper ideological or practical meaning than this. To hear the neo-confederates tell it, the brave boys who fell on the fields of battle were not interested in slavery, as very few of them owned any, but rather were fighting in defense of home and hearth, for regional pride and the heritage of their people, which they saw as threatened by an overzealous federal government.
But even as neo-confederates try valiantly to duck the meaning of their iconography, their efforts founder on the shoals of both common sense and history. After all, the idea that the motives of soldiers themselves — even if they do differ from the government for which they fight — somehow alter the underlying meaning of the battles in which they engage, is fanciful in this or any other war. Soldiers, after all, are not the ones who determine either when they fight, or for what purpose they do so. As such, the notion that the Confederate Army fought for such noble principles as defense of homeland, or regional pride, or other similarly abstract notions amounts to little more than wishful thinking at best, and a deceptive fraud at worst. Armies fight for their respective governments, and for whatever purposes the elected officials of those governments choose to send them.
If the Confederate leadership said (and it did, with disturbing clarity and a complete lack of misgiving) that its reasons for secession had to do with the desire to maintain and extend slavery, and that white supremacy was its “cornerstone” (in the words of CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephens), then that is the purpose for which the soldiers were fighting. They could have thought they were fighting for mommy, teddy bears and cornbread, but it wouldn’t have made it so. Likewise, in the present, soldiers may think (and apparently some still do) that they are in Iraq to avenge September 11, but if so, this speaks only to their own self-delusion, and that instilled by their Commander-in-Chief. It says nothing whatsoever about why they are actually there, and why they may ultimately die. That soldiers find themselves the victims of a monstrous con, whether in the 1860s, or nearly a century and a half later, is regrettable to be sure, but it does not allow us to reinterpret the purposes to which their sacrifices were put, merely so that we may feel better about them–about us.
This may be unsettling to those Southerners who feel compelled to honor “Ol’ great, great grandpappy Beauregard,” or some such wretch of a patriarch, but their discomfort in having to confront the truth of the matter hardly makes it any less true. Fact is, great, great grandpappy died for a lie: the lie of white supremacy, whether or not he believed in it (and of course, truth be told, he did, to the letter, so let us not kid ourselves). There is no honor in that, and nothing at all worth commemorating, except insofar as we may use the sacrificing of our kinfolk on the alter of such evil, as an opportunity to resolve that we will do whatever it takes to smash that alter entirely.
No matter, the neo-Confederate will insist, now changing gears: the Confederacy itself was established not because of slavery, but rather, for the purpose of defending “state’s rights.” And this is true, so far as it goes. But to claim that the war and secession were about state’s rights in the abstract is to ignore precisely which right the South believed was being violated by their Northern neighbors. It was not, to be sure, the right to decide the proper recipe for a mint julep, nor to make sour mash whiskey in a backyard shed. Rather (and not a single historian worthy of the title denies it) the right they saw as imperiled was the right to maintain and extend slavery.
Since the rebel purse controversy has erupted in Texas, perhaps we would do best to reflect on what the leaders of that fair state had to say about their own decision to depart the Union to which they had only recently been accepted. Doing so leaves very little room for speculation as to their motives.
When Texas announced its secession from the United States, its leaders issued a “Declaration of Causes.” Therein it was noted that Texas had been admitted to the Union, “as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.” The problem, or so the declaration claimed, was that the Federal Government had sought to exclude slavery from the newly expanding national territories to the West, in effect choking off the economic vitality of the region and “destroying the institutions of Texas and their sister slaveholding states.”
The declaration continued:
“In all the non-slave-holding states…the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party…based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern states and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color–a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of Negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and Negro races, and avow their determination to press their crusade against us…”
The Texas secession delegates went even further than those in most other Southern states, by declaring:
“We hold as undeniable truths that the government of the various states and of the (federal) confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”
As if this were not all quite putrid enough, they pressed on:
“…In this free government, all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil rights…the servitude of the African race, as existing in these states, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator; as recognized by all Christian nations…”
Of course, this was not merely the view of those in Texas who sought secession, but rather, was representative of the views of all the Southern states that broke from the United States. Each and every state made clear the motivations behind leaving the Union, and in each and every instance the reasons given — and indeed the only reasons given — concerned the South’s perception that the North was trying to undercut and eventually eliminate slavery. They specifically mentioned incitements to insurrection on the part of abolitionists, the refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and thereby return runaway slaves to their masters, and most prominently the concept that came to be known as “free soil,” which would prevent newly acquired territories and new states from practicing slavery. This, it was claimed, would encircle the slaveholding South and devastate the region’s economy by preventing slavery’s expansion.
In the case of Texas, their brief ordinance of secession specified that their decision to secede had been made necessary by the hostility of the federal government to the property interests of she and her fellow slaveholding states: in other words, hostility to those states maintenance of slaves as property–the only property in contention at the time.
To criticize the flag and the Confederacy in this way is simply a matter of historical accuracy, not, as the Sons of Confederate Veterans would have it, a “heritage violation.” In fact, to suggest that critiquing the confederacy amounts to a slur against Southern heritage is itself a slur against the Southland, in that it has the effect of linking the South and the Confederacy as if they were synonymous, when in fact they are not. After all, it is absurd to suggest that hundreds of years of the American South and its history can be represented by a symbol, representing an army, representing a government that lasted a mere four years of that history.
Neither the flag in question, nor the government for which its soldiers fought are representative of the South. To suggest otherwise is to write black people out of Southern history, since, to be sure, it is not their flag, even though blacks have been in the American South for at least as long, if not longer, than the vast majority of European sub-groups. It is also to write out of that history the many white Southerners who opposed secession, so mightily in many cases that the Georgia secession vote had to be rigged, and troops had to be sent to East Tennessee so as to force white folks there to go along with breaking from the Union. West Virginia, indeed, broke away from Virginia over the secession issue, led by men and women who saw the cause of a Southern slaveholding confederacy as illegitimate.
To choose the Confederate battle flag as one’s proxy for Southern heritage is to make a choice that is inherently ideological and fraught with baggage. After all, one could choose to celebrate any number of other things about the South. As a proud Southerner, I do, by celebrating the civil rights movement, which grew from the soil of the South and was led by brave black Southerners; or by celebrating the educational tradition of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which symbolize the striving for knowledge on the part of persons denied access to higher education by the white majority; or by honoring white abolitionists, who actually numbered more, per capita, in the South than in the North. Or for that matter by celebrating the gastronomic traditions of the region, though indeed such indulgences are probably best if limited, for the sake of oneself and one’s arteries.
In other words, Southern heritage means a good deal more than the Confederacy, and indeed, a good deal that is better that that: a tradition of struggle and triumph on the road to liberty; a tradition of music and literature, and artwork, and any number of things one could venerate without having to honor a government that openly proclaimed its belief in racial supremacy and sought to hold millions of other human beings in bondage. It says something, and not something flattering, that so many people would prefer to celebrate the machinations of those who desired black servitude, than the struggles of those blacks and their white allies, who struggled for freedom.
None of this is to deny that the young women in Burleson have the right to display a racist and offensive symbol, such as the Confederate battle flag. They probably do, under any fair reading of the First Amendment. But this truth is hardly the point. After all, just because one has a right to do something, doesn’t mean that it is right to actually then do it, nor that we must call the thing good, once it is actually done. I have the right, after all, to stand in the middle of Central Park and shout racial slurs, but if I do so, it makes me an asshole, plain and simple. And I would certainly hope that someone would tell me so, and not allow my rights — which, in this case would include the freedom to be an asshole — to somehow cow them into not exercising theirs, including, in this case, the right to tell me off.
So for the two young women in Burleson, the same is true: they most assuredly are free, one supposes, to don a rebel flag, be it on their purse, on a shirt, or on a bumper sticker located on their cars–right between the one that says “W: The President,” and the other one, which reads: “Back off or I’ll flick a booger on your windshield.” But that’s not the point. The point, or rather the question, is this: If you know that a symbol you intend to display is deeply hurtful to a group of people — is viewed, for understandable reasons, even if you disagree with them, as perhaps even terroristic — then what kind of insensitive slug must you be to decide to display that symbol anyway?
Liberty is not, in the final analysis, an argument for engaging in obnoxious or offensive behavior, just because one can. And the fact that one is free to be both obnoxious and offensive hardly suggests that when one chooses to do so, they should then be seen as martyrs to a noble cause, or that others should join them in the act for which they are being criticized, or that still others should refrain from shunning them as the ethical reprobates they are, simply because, after all, they have a right to be just that.
And as my friend and fellow educator, Paul Gallegos, of Evergreen State College puts it best: “Just because speech is free, doesn’t mean that it has to be worthless.”
* I originally penned an essay by this name in June of 2000, in reference to the decision by the Governor of South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol building in Columbia, and the backlash against his decision by neo-confederates.
** Sadly, one can now see confederate flags cropping up in all parts of the nation, either because of the migration of Southerners out of the South to other regions, or because of the ideological agreement of non-Southerners with the political and ideological views of the Confederacy.
TIM WISE is the author of two new books: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org