Let me be absolutely clear: There is no way to justify waving the “Stars and Bars” or allowing confederate monuments to remain in place. It is indefensible to fly a flag that causes pain and evokes such horror, and it is pathetic that we maintain statues in public places celebrating the lives of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan and traitors who fought to retain their power to hold other humans as property.
Instead, I feel that I have to at least try to explain why many white southerners hold the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (commonly known as the Confederate battle flag) in such high-regard, and why they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that it is an inherently racist symbol.
The simple fact is the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia was an emblem of a government that seceded from the United States in order to slavery, a brutal system racialized forced labor. There is no debate about this. Moreover, the flag pretty much disappeared from flagpoles across the South (in fact, across the United States) Between 1865 and 1915. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation brought the “Stars and Bars” back into vogue, along with the re-founding of the KKK, until the Klan ebbed away in a sordid sex scandal a decade later. It again it fell out of public view until the 1960s when white southerners began to violently resist the Civil Rights movement. Since then, more and more white southerners and addlebrained northerners have waved the flag every year.
(NB.: Before I go any further, just let me say that, unless you’re actually from the South, please stop pretending like the “Confederate” flag has anything to do with your history. It doesn’t. The flag has nothing to do with Oregon, New Hampshire, Washington, Idaho, or Canada, etc. The Mason Dixon Line is irrelevant to you. If you don’t immediately smell honeysuckles when you hear the first two bars of Dixie, you are no southerner. Flying the “Stars and Bars” just makes you a moron.)
Yet, to a large number of white southerners, the flag does not represent slavery, or the KKK, or segregation and violent attacks on Civil Rights activists. To them, it represents a independent south threatened by centralized government and a northern cultural hegemony. If you ask many of the people I grew up with, they’d tell you that the “Confederate Flag” stands not for racism and rebellion, but for the south’s maverick ways and rebellious culture of the south that rejects coastal elitism and northern standards. It is, for them, an act of defiance against that part of America that ridicules our way of speaking, that expects conformity rather than individualism.
So, the question isn’t why so many white southerners are attached to the flag, but how they could have disconnected it from historical reality so thoroughly that they have lost its connections to treason, violent racism, and slavery. The question is how did an emblem of war against America acquire meanings of American (though admittedly southern) pride and patriotism? The answer is quite simple: Ken Burns and a piss-poor educational system.
The American educational system is a joke when it comes to American history. I didn’t learn about the intentional genocide of Indigenous people until college because high school history textbooks often omit the nastier aspects of white colonist brutality. These textbooks also neglect to mention pretty significant facts like a state would not be accepted into the confederacy unless it allowed slavery was written into the constitution of the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy was an explicitly, and proudly, racist slave society from the get-go.
Ken Burns has also played a significant role in creating this cloud of ignorance with his beautifully made and deeply flawed PBS documentary series The Civil War. The series celebrated the gallantry and honor of the South and rarely touched on the treatment of African slaves or the role that slavery played in the South’s secession from the Union. Worse yet, Burns spent a significant portion of the documentary focusing on the refusal of states like Georgia to implement conscription because “they did not want to be beholden to a central government.” All that does is reinforce the tired myth that the South seceded over a question of “states’ rights.”
Those myths can be much easier to swallow than the reality. The reality is that he “Confederate flag” is indeed a symbol of hate and oppression, and it only came into being because a group of states chose to commit treason in order to defend a brutal system of slavery. But southerners’ often justified distaste for what they see as northern elitism and cultural hegemony, documentary romanticism, and piss-poor education, the “Confederate Flag” has taken on a meaning of its own for many in the South.
I understand many of my fellow white southerners want to cling to something that they view as a symbol of southern pride. I also recognize the hypocrisy of some in the North who insist that the mere presence of the “Confederate Flag” is proof that the South is a unique hotbed of racism. This is America, racism is everywhere, from Minneapolis to New York City. But the fact remains that we need a new symbol in the south. Someone on Twitter made it clear that it’s pretty dumb to use the flag of a country that existed for less time than the band Nirvana. Let’s choose something that isn’t associated with the KKK and Slavery. Pick a new flag. Theas a symbol of “pride.” There are thousands of artists in the South, surely to God someone can come up with a new flag!
This is a complex issue for a southerner to write about. It is complex because non-southerners, southerners, and racists everywhere have attached their own deep-rooted meanings to the “Confederate Flag,” and the emotions of all three perspectives clash violently. And I confess that I feel torn after three decades of Southern inculturation. But if we want to get the South to accept the need for a new symbol of southern pride, then we must change what schools teach about south and reject Ken Burns’ gauzy romanticism.
At the end of the day, however, it doesn’t really matter what the flag means to white southerners; it must come down. It is a symbol of pain, subjugation, and hatred, and we can no longer intentionally injure and insult our fellow Americans.