Evolving on the Confederate flag
Friends, I debated posting this, because a) I doubt people on the other side of this debate are really capable of having their minds changed. And b) I am not sure this is the biggest issue affecting race in America right now. However, my friend and fellow author Rebecca Weatherspoon shared an article the other day entitled “Show Up, White America: The Opposite Of Support Is Silence.” It was poignant and it spoke to me. If you read only one blog today, read that one. But if you continue to read this one, know that while my words might not change the world, this is one small way I am showing up.
I grew up in the South. Confederate flags hung over much of my childhood. Cars, backpacks, notebooks, T-shirts, they were everywhere. I was taught that the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression) was about states’ rights and that it dealt a blow to big government. We got a day off of school every year called “Fair Day” on the official school calendar, but all the older teachers still called it Robert E. Lee Day. Some of them would snicker and say, “Oh, but we can’t call it what it really is ‘cause the Yankees don’t get it.” We associated the rebel flag (that’s what we always called it) with the Dukes of Hazzard and Lynard Skynard, free wheeling country people who were real and down to earth. We weren’t racist. We were Southern. You could be one without the other. The flag didn’t mean hate. It meant being proud of where you came from. Other people, outsiders, they just didn’t understand. I get it. I understand all those arguments, all those attachments. I really do. I even believed them.
But I was lied to, or at the very least, not told the whole truth, the bigger truth.
It’s hard to admit that. No one likes to admit they’ve been duped. No one likes to admit they bought into the propaganda machine. No one wants to look around at people they once trusted, agreed with, defended vocally, only to see them for the bigots they are. But we have to. As a Christian, as a mindful human being, I am called to seek light out of darkness. If we are reasonable, educated, thoughtful people, people who want to learn and grow and make the world a better place, we have to be willing to admit we’ve made mistakes, and more importantly, we need to be strong enough, brave enough, loving enough to correct them.
Even if we’re willing to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they truly never saw the Confederate flag as tied to any racial issues, and I’ve admitted to falling into that group myself, we still can’t condone its continued use.
Things change, the world changes, symbols change and take on new meanings, or sometimes old meanings bubble up to reveal what had been there all along.
Either way, the Confederate flag is not the first symbol to go through this transformation. The swastika used to have another meaning, too. It was used 5,000 years before the rise of Hitler, giving it much more “heritage” than anything American can ever claim. It was a symbol used to represent good fortune or well being. You can still see it in ancient temples. By the early 1900’s, the symbol was as commonplace as yin-yangs or peace signs are today. Children doodled them on their books, Rudyard Kipling signed swastikas beside his autographs as a sign of respect and good will toward his readers. There is a long-standing, bright, and legitimately beautiful tradition behind the swastika. And yet no matter how German my heritage (and my last name is Spangler, so I’m pretty German), no matter how many wonderful meanings are attributed to the symbol, I would never under any circumstances wave a Nazi flag. I think we can all agree that no reasonable people draw them or decorate with them anymore since it became the official symbol of the Nazi party.
See how that works? Good people were faced with the horror of the atrocities committed under that flag, and they realized the old meaning could in no way balance or overcome the violence and hatred done under that symbol. No amount of warm feelings or past heritage could wash the blood out of the Nazi flag. So they were done with it. Good, thoughtful people do not look at the flag of Hitler and say, “You don’t understand the old meaning.” They simply distance themselves from the symbol and all its modern-day implications. The only people who willingly wear or carry a swastika now align themselves with violence, hatred, and everything the Nazi party stood for. It’s still their right to do so, but no reasonable person would argue that calling someone who brands themselves with a swastika an anti-Semite is an unfair assessment.
The Confederate flag is no different. Southerners, or rednecks, or country folks (however they identify) do not have a monopoly on symbolism. Nor do they control history. No matter what your daddy told you the stars and bars meant, it also meant some people were willing to die for the right to hold other people as slaves. No matter what your teacher said the Confederate flag symbolizes, it also symbolizes white supremacy. No matter what your favorite band told you about broadcasting that you’re a rebel, using that flag also broadcasts the fact that some people are willing to kill to protect the idea of a “racially pure” America. Go ahead and mix all that up, hate and heritage, pride and oppression, good vibes and violence. It still doesn’t come out anywhere near even. The bad by far outweighs the good.
Maybe this flag flew over the park you played in as kids. Maybe it flew in your grandparents’ yard. Maybe it hung in your dorm room. Maybe you associate it with your past or with a past version of yourself. If so, I’m sorry for that. I am sorry for you, and I am sorry for me. I am sorry for what we didn’t know then, and for what we thought we knew so well, but as Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better, then when you know better, do better.” Now you know better. Now you know the Confederate flag is the flag that flies over every gathering of the KKK. Now you know it’s the flag flown by white supremacists. Now you know that flag was a rallying point for slaveholders and segregationists. Now you know that flag is carried by men who go into churches and gun down African Americans.
That doesn’t mean everything you held dear is dead or even tainted. Pride and heritage and history and family ties all exist outside of the rebel flag context. I still love so much about the South. I love BBQ and fried chicken and corn bread. I love tea so thick with sugar you almost have to chew it. I love the smell of jasmine and the way magnolia petals blanket the ground in a fragrant sea of white. I love the special brand of hospitality that makes a new place feel at home and the way a slow Southern drawl immediately eases tension from my shoulders. I love SEC football. I love the way country music mixes with southern rock. I love baptisms in a river and sun showers at three o’clock every summer day. I love to call every soda a coke. I love to listen to Jimmy Carter talk about just about anything.
There’s a hundred different ways to love the South. There are a million ways to be proud of where you come from, and none of them have to involve the image used to subjugate an entire race of human beings. If you continue to cling to the one symbol of the South used to hurt and oppress, that says nothing new about the flag or the land it once covered, but it says a great deal about you.
If you hear black voices crying out in agony and still turn away in favor of a flag, that makes you racist. If you prioritize a symbol of a dead rebellion over real, living, suffering people, that makes you racist. If you cling to your pride in what used to be or what you used to believe, instead of learning and growing and striving toward healing, that makes you a racist. Maybe it doesn’t make you the kind of racist that shoots up a church, but it make you the kind of racist who values your own comfortable ideas over the hearts and lives of your black brothers and sisters, and that is racism, too. I am sorry if that hurts to hear, but it’s the reality of the choice you are making. You continue to cast your lot with racists organizations, white supremacists hate groups, and grand wizards of the Klan even after being told that’s what you’re doing. If that’s who you want to side with, that’s your American right, but as we used to say in the South, when you lie down with dogs, you come up with fleas.
As for me, when I was a child, I thought like a child, I talked like a child, I reasoned like a child, but now I’m an adult. I have learned better lessons. I know better than I did before. I value human life over the vestiges of my past, and I can be secure in who I am without hurting anyone else in the process. I no longer want any part in the Confederate flag, and perhaps more importantly, I’m done getting flea bitten by people who do.
P.S. I have to approve all comments on this blog, so don’t even bother sending in racist ones. I am all for free speech, but you have your own walls, your own facebook accounts, and your own blogs and I have said all I have to say on this subject. If you want to post some argument in favor of the Confederate flag just post them elsewhere. They will not be posted here.
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