A local musician, one of my colleagues, and some other people have been going on about how — if I understand them — it is unfortunate that Dylann Roof associated himself with the Confederate battle flag, because that flag has nothing to do with racial violence. It does have everything to do with their families’ apparently cozy and/or heroic pasts, which of course have nothing to do with racial violence.
It is an interesting contradiction … or is it just a cover-up? Of course that flag means what it means, and its wavers know that, but they say it just means “heritage” — ancestors that died — so they can keep waving it and feel well. OR: is it that the pain of defeat and occupation, which one can still feel in some little towns here, is great and one needs a symbol of defiance?
But I am being too kind, I think — people are nostalgic for the bad old days but will not say so as it is unfashionable, so they say contradictory things. I idly watched The Butler and there are problems with the film but it does do a good job of reminding one of how, quite recently, people got away with treating black people and of how difficult it was for them to navigate the situation. I thought, “These allegedly kind Confederates should watch what the butler has to go through, and then they will understand.” Then I realized, “No. Actually, they want to be the ones who put him through it.”
Southern culture means black culture and creolization, actually, and it is quite distinct from Northern culture. It also means living in the aftermath of slavery and apartheid. In this panorama that battle flag is the badge of a certain group, not of everyone. It seems that that group is the one whose identity is bound up in the maintenance of white supremacy, which is disallowed, so it is without content as it were, and it is writhing in pain therefore.
The expression of this writhing is baroque — so many conceits, so much surface talk, around a center that is either empty or that has to hide its contents. Talking to these people is like talking to people who are hiding something and I guess it is because they are. These are my fragmentary thoughts so far on this matter. Have you any?
11 thoughts on “On southern pride”
At a certain point, symbols don’t get to mean whatever their creators or users say they mean. I could say that a swastika is an ancient symbol that can represent the sun, energy, or creativity, and that is true; but since the 1930s, it has had one very powerful meaning that swamps all the others. People who want the Confederate flag to mean what they say it means (things like independence from the federal government, or tradition, whatever) need to acknowledge that it has other meanings that hurt people. Clearly they’re having a lot of trouble with this, and I think your analysis of their own pain is on the right track.
The thing is, though, that independence from the federal government and tradition are euphemisms for Jim Crow and slavery.
The best I can do is that they resent being accused of being THE racists in America — the northerners deny being that, and the planter class has risen above it at least nominally, so they are left holding the bag — and they are the ones whose cultural identity is associated with oppression, and they don’t have the luxury of having several cultural identities as I do.
At least to a northerner/westerner, “independence from the federal government” is a Libertarian viewpoint that has nothing to do with Jim Crow. I think I begin to see why these things are so hard to discuss. Too much coded language.
Very good. The strongest vibe I get off white Southerners is that they are hiding something. For a literary take, look at the character Basil Ransome in James’s The Bostonians.
Well, “white Southerners” is too broad a category, I would say, many are quite creolized and/or quite modern, but I know what you mean in some people and I must read The Bostonians.
This “southern pride” that tries to deracinate itself is a particularly painful symptom of a broader illness: the way many of us were taught to understand slavery as an unfortunate practice that somehow grafted itself on to US history in times gone by and then was excised, as if the American past can somehow be understood and make some logical sense independent of slavery. White Americans with no ancestral ties to the confederacy can heap scorn on the obtuse and selective nostalgia that tries to separate the symbol from its bloody past, but I think many of us are unwilling to look directly at (or think hard about) the way that our country’s shameful involvement in slavery is inseparable from the rest of its history.
“White Americans with no ancestral ties to the confederacy can heap scorn on the obtuse and selective nostalgia that tries to separate the symbol from its bloody past” … are you talking about me? I am directly descended from one of the largest plantations in Maryland, with over 1,000 slaves in its heyday. It is my great-great-grandparents Frederick Douglass is describing in his narrative. We also had land in Louisiana and Arkansas although we sold it as the war was coming; we kept our Mississippi property and made it profitable again through various forms of reenslavement. I don’t feel “guilt” over it — it was not something I was involved in personally — but I’m an American, it is part of what we and yes my family did, and I’m responsible for what I do in the aftermath just as I am responsible as an American for all kinds of things the US does. You have to act in the present as best you can.
It seems to me that you are suggesting a sort of liberal excuse for that selective nostalgia but look: this is the battle flag, and the battle flag is used now for a reason. If you read the SC articles of secession you will see that secession was about slavery and you can also see some roots of a lot of today’s right-wing language. Notice also that this flag was retired after the war and resurrected in the 50s and 60s as a specifically segregationist symbol, a badge meaning “I support and will defend Jim Crow and white supremacy.”
Slavery WAS as you say part of what the entire US was based upon, which is one reason I don’t think having Southern roots or being descended from actual planters makes me worse than, say, you.
“the way many of us were taught to understand slavery as an unfortunate practice that somehow grafted itself on to US history in times gone by and then was excised, as if the American past can somehow be understood and make some logical sense independent of slavery.”
A key problem although MLK used it as rhetorical strategy, too, to gain white support. Saying the place is actually rooted in white supremacy really offends and the issue seems to be wanting to believe they are good people and their ancestors were and the country is also good.
At the same time, though, there are plenty of people who are simply bitter about not being able to treat black people so overtly badly as before.
Oh geez, I think I came out sounding judgmental of you personally, which is not at all what I intended. There’s nothing you say that isn’t completely in line with what I was trying (apparently unsuccessfully) to say. I’m not making a liberal excuse for anything–I’m trying to point out (as I think you are, too) that we’re all implicated. It’s easy for a certain kind of non-Southerner to be keenly aware of the confederate-flag shaped mote (well, it’s more than a mote for those claiming its non-racist history) in the eye of the kinds of southerners you described in the OP, while not perceiving the beam that is the non-Southerner’s own certainty that he or she is somehow not implicated in the country’s deep and foundational history of racial violence.
And there’s a little corner of my own family history that’s so easy to forget, I don’t even bother to disavow it: a cherished cache of letters written from the battlefield by an ancestor who was too poor to own slaves but fought for the Confederacy anyway, a generation before the family decided to move to Indiana and become midwesterners. My aunt was crushed when she finally worked her way through the pencilled cross-hatching to realize that our ancestor was on the wrong side–she had just assumed he’d be Union.
He would have been conscripted and had to fight. Those letters must be fascinating! I think it was fine that he was on that side, lots of people were. But it is interesting how people will feel that their ancestors have to have been “good.”
They are irritating, these Yankee liberals, convinced that they were not implicated in foundational racial violence — especially when the next thing the USA did after the Civil War was go out West, kill Indians and take their land. And it is disingenuous to think the northern states were not benefiting from slavery or working with it; it is one of the reasons my family was against secession (not to mention war) — bad for business.
However, the idea that the Confederate battle flag means “heritage not hatred” is ludicrous. I am also trying to figure out exactly what heritage that would be. It is apparently a southern heritage that excises African-American culture and is not even creolized. It honors the Confederate dead. It appears also to have a political program that is fairly right wing — it even appears to be more of a political program than anything else, and that political program has racist aspects although it swears it no longer supports open bigotry / slavery / Jim Crow.
So mostly the flag says I have been shamed for being who I am, but I am from where I am from and I am claiming it — or something like that. But it also is like a Nazi flag. The Germans got a different flag. Can’t we?
DEH: At least to a northerner/westerner, “independence from the federal government” is a Libertarian viewpoint that has nothing to do with Jim Crow. I think I begin to see why these things are so hard to discuss. Too much coded language.
Me: I think it does, and I think they got it from the pre Civil War South. Remember the West didn’t exist yet, really, at that point and these anti Federal government ideas are much older, were discussed in 18th century.
And in the southern context, where the Confederate flag is flown, federal intervention has meant federal intervention against slavery / Jim Crow for a very long time — just look at a few Articles of Secession, particularly those of the state of SC.
The language isn’t necessarily that much more coded than any, you just have to know what words meant in their time. Context.
(It also occurs to me what a white discussion this is. No black person would be turning their brain into a pretzel trying to figure out how these flag wavers feel — they know what that flag means. We, on the other hand, are sitting here trying not to be mean about it, not to project the national guilt onto poor rural Southern white guys only. Although it is hard when those are the faces you see in lynching photos. Or are we trying to figure out how to exonerate those guys and also let them keep their flag because really we, in the end, want to join hands with them first?)