I’ve lived my entire life in the South, first Georgia and now North Carolina, but I’ve never paid much attention to the Confederate battle flag, the so-called stars and bars. Despite some ancestors who fought for the Confederacy and several childhood family vacations spent navigating cannons, split-rail fences, and museums filled with the tattered remnants of soldiering at Civil War battlefields, I didn’t associate the Confederate flag with my Southern heritage. However, I didn’t particularly associate it with present-day racism, which seemed more insidious and less blatant.
If I’m honest, I always thought Confederate imagery was more silly than anything: the province of drunks who listened to too much Lynyrd Skynyrd, people whose grand life ambition was to cruise the streets in imitation General Lee cars from “The Dukes of Hazzard,” and those crazy, foul-mouthed but somehow pitiful folks in the KKK. In other words, Confederate symbols were for aging, bitter people who couldn’t let go of the imagined glories of their forbearers to deal with the realities of their own lives. I thought the flag eventually would die out.
So when America suffered through yet another mass murder, this time in Charleston, S.C., the Confederate battle flag’s prominent role in the 21-year-old killer’s racist pathology shocked me. While I knew South Carolina flew the battle flag at public buildings and that Mississippi still used it in the state flag, I assumed they were, as usual, dragging their feet as the rest of us moved forward. I didn’t realize that, until this past week, Wal-Mart, Sears, Amazon and other mainstream retailers sold Confederate paraphernalia. I also didn’t realize that nine Southern states, including North Carolina and Georgia, allow drivers to use Confederate flag license plates, or that the flag is a common fixture at NASCAR races.
I can (kind of) understand the positive argument that Confederate flag-wavers make. All white Southerners are not, and were not, evil, people-owning racists—that’s what my 79-year-old father’s parents taught him, and it’s easy to see why they would want to shift the narrative and find whatever good they could. Looking at the history of the rest of the United States and the world at large, white Southerners aren’t exceptionally delusional in this regard. So I’ll agree that some whites supported the Confederacy for love of family and neighbor, for state rights, for reasons other than to keep African Americans enslaved. I also will accept that a few used the battle flag as a misguided symbol of Southern unity during the very real hardships of the post-war years, not as a tool to further oppress and segregate black people.
However, whether or not our personal histories include racism, our collective history does. African Americans didn’t enslave or lynch or dehumanize themselves. If my grandparents or great-whoevers didn’t do these things, their neighbors did—and my family stood by and let them. So any small points of Civil War-era historical pride that can possibly be laid claim to don’t negate or alleviate the indefensible, often murderous racism of slavery and the segregation that followed. Pride doesn’t change the fact that the battle flag symbolizes racism to most people.
“It’s free speech! I can do what I want, and anyone who doesn’t like the flag can look away!” Some white Southerners seem to feel like it’s too politically correct to worry about hurting the feelings of African Americans and other minorities, at the expense of their ability to promote their own heritage. However, as Charleston shows, the issue is about more than emotional pain. The battle flag is a flash point for a brand-new generation of racists, who have the ability and the means to murder people they don’t like in the modern equivalent of a mass lynching. This past February, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., issued a report identifying the lynchings of 3,959 African-Americans in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950.
My Southern heritage isn’t a flag. What I learned from that father I mentioned is to live life with as much kindness, grace, generosity, and personal honor as I can muster. No matter how noble our intent, using Confederate imagery has no honor. It makes us complicit in the actions of racists, whether they’re using the n-word, or unfairly denying mortgages, or murdering people in a church. The question is: Are we going to let the battle flag and other Confederate symbols be used as socially acceptable—even state-sanctioned—racist propaganda to inflame a new era of lynchings? Or, unlike our ancestors, are we going to stand up and create a better legacy? The flag hasn’t faded away, so let’s stamp it out.
Caralyn Davis lives in Asheville, N.C. She works as a freelance writer/editor and is a student in the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Superstition Review. Her fiction has appeared in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Monkeybicycle, Relief Journal, Deep South, The Drum, and other publications.