Perhaps it was a bad sign of things to come, a warning of sorts. It was Monday night and I was dancing, eating, and drinking the night away at a lavish (at least by American university standards) May Ball for my Cambridge college when my friends and I giggled our way to the photo booth. As we got ready to enter the photo booth, our friends in front of us were yelling about one of the background settings: a Confederate flag. I was so shocked by the presence of a symbol that had terrorised me in various ways throughout my life, that I grabbed the closest thing to a police officer’s hat, and tried to get one of my friends to wear it. I insisted that with me in the photo we could capture a good shot, but my attempts to reclaim the space were met with horror from her at the thought of staging a photo of police brutality in a cramped photo booth. While I have always responded with over the top, direct boldness to displays such as this, I have also found that others–who may be less impacted by the symbol or racist event– are made greatly uncomfortable in the situation. I’m not sure what the company thinks the Confederate flag stands for. Perhaps they think of it as a symbol of Southern life and America, in which case they would not be far from the truth. However, how it made its way into a photo booth and into the grounds of my college’s largest event of the year with approval is one question I have no answer to. Although I have stopped being surprised at purposeful or accidental reminders of not being welcome or ‘belonging.’
Then I heard about the shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston and real feelings of terror washed over me, as I retreated into myself, reeling from event. And there behind reporters and in the legislative building, and so many other places was the Confederate flag–boldly still at full staff. (I could not help but wonder in that moment how many people from my college–sadly including myself– had photos with it in their background just days before its contribution to a heinous crime.)
I grew up in a sleepy town in rural Indiana, where my family for a long time was the only black family in the school district. Indiana is one of those states, especially in its central and southern parts, that forgets it is not part of the South. Granted the accent starts to get very ‘twangy’ as you move south, we still have a history richly above the Mason-Dixon line, including fighting for the Union and the Underground Railroad. However, as years went by and people became threatened by what they saw as an influx of blacks moving North, somehow fighting to free those who were hundreds of miles away changed to fighting off those who dared to become neighbors. Indiana became the heart of the Ku Klux Klan, with almost 1 in 3 white males as ‘casual’ or active members at the height of its influence. It’s a legacy that is far from gone, as even a few years ago when a town found a long list of names of past members, families tried to hide it from going public. There are active Klan groups in neighboring towns from where I grew up, and one time when I went backroading with two friends (a joyful passtime of country kids) I had to use the restroom and when I came out one of my friends was waiting outside the door, apparently keeping guard in case the man who followed me inside with the large tattoo of Hitler on his back and swastikas meant harm towards me. Welcome to the deep backroads of America, where they spare no overt signs of racism.
I don’t remember the first time I encountered the Stars and Bars of the Confederate flag. I guess it’s just one of those images that has been so pervasive in my life, it feels like it was always there. But by the time I was 10, thanks to additional lessons from library books my mother used to supplement our schooling, could recognize the Confederate flag for what it was: a nostalgic racist symbol for a life that once was; a life that wanted to and still attempted to own me. There was a long stretch around those years when our neighbor directly across the road hung a large Confederate flag–almost the size of their garage door–on their garage. My family is an immigrant family that dared to dream a bit about an America that would include us, and we fly an American flag of average size on our red front porch all year round. But it was dwarfed in comparison to my neighbors Confederate flag. As a child I would walk out the door for school, and it would be the first thing I saw. I would get off the bus from school and it would be the first thing I saw. Sometimes they would be outside, staring at me, and I would run inside to find solace in my transgressive spaces of home. As the Confederate flag menacingly leered towards me, it tried to cast a shadow on our American flag. Only years later could I fully understand the metaphor within this flag ‘war’. By high school, when a group of boys beat up a black kid who had moved into the area and ran around screaming ‘White Power’ with their Confederate hats and clothing, I could only bring myself to close my locker and attend my next class. Some battles had to be fought on different battlefields.
It wasn’t just that one large flag, however. The Confederate flag was everywhere around me. On the backs of most trucks, on girls’ bikinis, on hats, selling boldly on shop racks, on other people’s home, and everywhere I turned it tried to rewrite history. Factual hstory. The one this nation has been running away from since the Civil War ended. People will say the Confederate flag is a symbol of the romance of the South, and a way of life that appeals to them and is about home and family and country, and even God.
There’s nothing romantic about millions of dead black slaves at the hands of a greedy region. They look out to a cotton field and see a sea of white beauty, and I look out and see the shame of a nation.
At university, I finally had the space to ask more nuanced questions about this deeply felt and frankly disturbing love and attachment to the Confederate flag. A love that runs so deep that several states have it incorporated into their state flag. When Jon Stewart eloquently spoke about black people in America every day driving on roads named for Confederate generals, and every day seeing that symbol on state flags and around them, how could one possibly think we are taking over the country, when at every turn the nation honours those who gave their life to keep myself and others in chains.
So I used my first substantial research paper to explore this romantic notion of the South, and I looked at the Lost Cause movement and the building of faithful slave monuments by Southerners who wanted to memorialize an idea that the South, including their slaves, were content in their way of life. My research into a complete reconstruction of the past led me to the story of the monuments that stand at Harpers Ferry. One honours John Brown, who led a failed slave revolt, and the other was put up by Lost Cause advocates who wanted to use Heyward Shepherd, a black man who was the unfortunte first man killed at Harper’s Ferry, as a way of bolstering their claim that movements against slavery were in fact the harmful ones to slaves.. Here is an excerpt from my research:
According to Paul Shackel in his book Memory in Black and White: Race, Commemoration, and the Post-Bellum Landscape, “Material culture, be it in the form of statues, monuments, museums, artifacts, or landscapes, has some ascribed meaning (past and present) associated with it, and these meanings vary among individuals and interest groups”. Shackel goes on to link this particular memory of one group to power by stating, “They often present an interpretation of the past that seems authentic, but a closer contextual analysis of the meaning of national sacred objects shows how their meanings are not fixed but rather created”. Shackel explains that created meanings behind material culture is malleable and is used as tools in which to bolster the power of a group. In the years following the Civil War, advocates of the Lost Cause built monuments to commemorate the South that they wanted to carry forward into the next century. They used one particular image, the faithful-slave monument, to interpret the Civil War era in the way in which they wanted as well as to validate the continued exclusion of African Americans in the collective memory of the Civil War.
The Confederate flag stands as one of those symbols, and those who fight to keep it who state that it is no longer a symbol of racism and white supremacy, are the ones who not only benefit from both, but also have a purposeful gap in their understanding of history, memory, and symbols. If people cannot comprehend how symbols become embodied in our everyday actions, then our education system is truly failing.
I’m often reminded of Chimamanda Adichie’s TedTALK on the dangers of a single story, and how power in the South and the rest of America as well that falls in place behind it, has always been about controlling the memory and how we talk about slavery’s past and slavery’s present. Instead we are left with inscriptions such as those found on the faithful slave monument to Heyward Shepherd at Harper’s Ferry:
This boulder is erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a memorial to Heyward Shepherd, exemplifying the character and faithfulness of thousands of Negroes who, under many temptations throughout subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people, and an everlasting tribute to the best in both races.
You can find it in the pages of archives of history after the war, and you would not have to look hard enough. Articulation after articulation that the South needed to control how they were remembered: that they were the victimsof a malicious North and the white man of the South was the Negroes best friend in slavery. As a popular saying went, the Confederates may have surrendered at Appomattox but they did not put down their weapon. And their greatest weapon is their ability to collectively forget. The UDC and SCV made sure that the faithful slave monuments they erected would stand as a testimony through time of ‘thousands’ of slaves who did not disrupt the way of life in the South. The ‘best of both races’ meant subserviant blacks. The monument to Heyward Shepherd is not about Heyward Shepherd, but about the Lost Cause using him and countless other monuments to advance the Lost Cause ideology. Despite efforts from the NAACP, the Heyward Shepherd monument continued into history.
It’s time to take down the Confederate flag. It has been time to take it down. We continue to miss the marker on what we can do to move forward in rebuilding the nation in a manner that includes everyone. Not just those who would have us forget the darkest moments in our past. We can’t do this without having a real conversation about history. We can’t do this when we hold on to symbols of oppression. The Confederate flag is the ‘faithful hate and racism’ monument. There is no question about where individuals like Dylan Roof obtain their hatred and the symbols they hold tightly to that fuel it.