Thursday, June 25, 2015

On the Confederate Flag

Troy D. Smith

This was not intended to be a blog post, but was actually a (VERY long) Facebook comment. It is one part history of the Confederate Flag and one part my take on the present controversy. I will just post it as I wrote it on Facebook, along with this image (culled from my American History I power point lecture.)

In all the discussion of the Confederate flag lately, there has been some confusion... in particular, even news anchors keep referring to what we today consider the "Rebel Flag" as the "Stars and Bars," which is inaccurate. What flies at the SC capitol grounds (but no longer from the capitol building, having been moved to a -more visible- Confederate memorial a few years ago) is the Confederate Battle Flag, which was the official flag of the Army of Northern Virgina (Lee's army); it also served as the Confederate Navy Jack for the second half of the war. The Army version was square, the navy one the more familiar rectangle. In other words, it was a military flag and not the flag of the Confederate States of America, though it was incorporated into later designs of that flag. 

The CSA went through four national flags, all shown in the image attached: The Bonnie Blue Flag (the first, and unofficial, flag- this is the one that South Carolinians were flying when they attacked Fort Sumter); The Stars and Bars (the ACTUAL Stars and Bars- which was very similar to the American flag, and the reason they needed a separate "battle flag", since U.S. and C.S national flags looked so similar it was confusing on the battlefield when you were trying to figure out who to shoot at). This was the official CSA flag for roughly the first half of the war; The Stainless Banner, which was the national flag for most of the second half of the war, and did in fact incorporate the battle flag; and The Blood-stained Banner, used in the final weeks of the war, which was basically the Stainless Banner with a red stripe added.

Someone asked me recently if I thought the Stars and Bars should be treated the same as the battle flag, so far as public outcry. Here's my take on that... on the one hand, the Stars and Bars represents the Confederate government, the one with the constitution that promoted slavery and white supremacy, which policy Confederate VP Alexander lauded as "the corner-stone of the Confederacy," whereas the battle flag, it could more effectively be argued, stood for, yes, the military arm of that government, but also the common soldiers who served. So from that perspective, the Civil War-centric arguments pro-and-con about the Rebel flag, one COULD argue, could shake out as the anti-flag folks' arguments pertaining MORE to the Stars and Bars than to the Battle Flag, since it officially represented the Confederacy, and latter-day defenders' arguments about the heritage of their ancestors' military service might have some bearing. 

BUT. All that is rendered moot by the fact that the Battle Flag did NOT just represent the common soldier, then or afterward. After all, the symbol caught on so well it became PART OF the national CSA flag. And afterward? We all know how the Rebel flag has been used by white supremacists, from right after the end of the war until the present. This is especially true since 1948, when it was used as a symbol by the segregationist Dixiecrat Party and caught on with white Southerners in that context. People have pointed out that the KKK was just as likely, in fact more likely, to use the U.S. flag as the Rebel one -but fail to take into account that this was in the 1920s, when anti-immigrant prejudice was at a fever pitch and when the Klan was truly national, not just Southern (in the 1920s, it has been estimated, one out of every seven white men in America was in the KKK.) 

But this was not the case in the 1950s and 60s, when the Battle Flag was used as an emblem of racist Southerners fighting against federally imposed desegregation. And THIS was the period during which most of the Rebel flags and neo-Confederate symbolism started being used bigtime, and started being flown over Southern state capitols or incorporated into Southern state flags (except Mississippi, who started using it in the 1890s at the dawn of the Jim Crow era.) The Confederate flag became part of the Georgia state flag in the late 1950s, at around the same time a lot of stuff in Tennessee started being named after Confederate general -and KKK founder -Nathan Bedford Forrest. During the Civil Rights era. To illustrate opposition to civil rights for black people. The Confederate Battle Flag was no doubt one of the last things a lot of black lynching victims saw down through the decades. 

So here's my take: both the Stars and Bars and the Battle Flag represent (1) the Confederacy, founded on the principles of slavery and white supremacy and (2) the Battle Flag especially went from being a military emblem of that government to being a symbol of racial terrorism, and it was actually in that capacity it was enshrined in Southern political venues, not in the 1860s but the 1960s. Not to mention, it was the flag of an illegally formed nation that treasonously attacked the United States (all these people who claim Lincoln and the Union "started" the Civil War somehow miss the fact that the Confederates fired on the U.S. outpost at Fort Sumter, thereby initiating hostilities.) For all these reasons, I believe any version of the Confederate flag has no business flying or being displayed at any federal, state, or local government site (unless it is a historically designated Civil War battlefield.) If you are a black citizen in South Carolina, YOUR GOVERNMENT and YOUR TAX DOLLARS support the flag of the Confederacy that tried to keep your ancestors enslaved- how fair is that? 

On the other hand, this is America; I believe that if you want to fly a Rebel flag at your house, or on your car, or any other private property (including your belt buckle or your T-shirt), that is your business and your right. Of course, Wal-mart and Amazon have the right to protect their business interests by staying away from controversy. But if you can want Confederate merchandise, and can find a place to buy it, that is your right. And others have the right to criticize you for it, and you have the right to criticize them right back. If your ancestor was in the Confederate military and you want to put Battle Flags on his grave, well, that is the flag he served. But it doesn't belong on anything government-sponsored, especially state flags and capitol buildings. And -as a region and as a nation- we all need to acknowledge just what the Confederacy was and quit romanticizing it, and let it be our past instead of our present (you don't have to glamorize the Confederacy to be a proud Southerner.) Finally, as a professional historian, I have not only the right but the duty and obligation to keep telling you the historical meaning of it all. (P.S.- yes, Virginia, the Civil War was primarily about slavery.)

Troy D. Smith
Assistant Professor of History
Tennessee Tech University

Author of Bound for the Promise-Land, Good Rebel Soil, and "Legacy of Blood: The Legend of Champ Ferguson" in People of the Upper Cumberland.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Tragedy in Charleston: What Should We Do?

I am tired.

I had planned to be in bed by now, and I am so far behind on so many things people are depending on me to do. But I can’t rest just yet, not until I’ve articulated the thoughts swirling in my mind today while they are still fresh (and before the world has begun, as it always does, to move on.)

I managed to avoid making any comment whatsoever on social media about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who has passed for years as black, because her story itself makes me tired. But today, with all the media attention to the horrible racist attack on the AME church in Charleston, SC (the church of Denmark Vesey, as it turns out), and especially the responses to it I’ve been seeing from conservatives (especially on Fox News, quelle surprise), I keep thinking about what Dolezal’s story says about white liberals, and what Fox’s responses (and many Republican politicians’) say about white conservatives. And how it all ties together.

Most white Americans don’t want to face racism, and the legacy of slavery. Understandable; it’s a hell of a thing to face. Being members of the dominant end of the racial hierarchy, of course, gives white folks the freedom (aka privilege) NOT to face such things, a freedom those victimized by the hierarchy have never had. This deliberate blindness takes different faces, though. One way to avoid facing race is to deny that it exists, or that you personally benefit from it –to say that it is over, it was the bad old days before you were born, and it has all been fixed so just get over it. This denial becomes intrinsic to certain political views, hence you have –not just politicians but “journalists” –saying it is impossible to know the shooter’s motives, or even to deduce them, unless maybe he was motivated by a hatred of Christmas or something.

That’s one way.

Another way is the route chosen by Rachel Dolezal, and by some other white folks in less dramatic ways. It is embarrassing to be part of the oppressive end of that hierarchy. We want to identify with the underdog. There is more honor to be had by playing the part of the oppressed than the oppressor. Dolezal went full-tilt with this approach, claiming not just affinity or empathy with the black experience but… the actual black experience. Which is patently ridiculous, like the prince dressing as a pauper and claiming a full understanding of pauperism… when all he has to do is put his crown back on and he is back on the ruling side, an option denied the myriad paupers. A similar, but less dramatic, example was recently when Ben Affleck –the subject of one of those “discover your ancestry” TV shows –tried to hide the fact that one of his ancestors was a slave trader. That does not fit in with his personal identity as a New England liberal “good guy.” It was embarrassing.

There are a couple of huge problems with this approach (beyond the dissembling.)

Number one. As white Americans, it is absolutely essential that we FACE THE TRUTH ABOUT RACE. It is what this country was built on, and continues to echo into the present. It is the foundation, the chassis, of our society, and simply ignoring that will never change anything. We have to recognize our privilege, and yes, our communal culpability. We weren’t around back then, true, but we’re around now and we are benefiting from the accrued advantages of whiteness whether we recognize or admit it or not. Even if, like me, you grew up poor and disadvantaged in other ways. Dolezal and Affleck did not want to do this. They didn’t want to be associated with the “bad guys.” Again, who could blame them.  My point is: we have to face up to our cultural (and family) pasts, all of us.

Number two. Now, I know Dolezal did a lot of good things (as has Mr. Affleck). But she missed a chance to do it in a much more appropriate way. Rather than culturally appropriating blackness, she could have worked just as hard without fudging on her background. What this would have done: given her the opportunity to take advantage of her privilege… to combat privilege. To deconstruct it, to work against it from the inside. To work in a supporting role at some times, and to step to the fore at others.  Many people of color that I know grow weary of being expected to explain the most fundamental things about race over and over again to a white audience; white folks who get it have a responsibility to keep trying to explain it to those who don’t, but without pushing people of color out of the spotlight when they are talking about their own lived experiences.

What this approach would NOT have done for Ms. Dolezal: allow her to be the victim. What it would not have done for Ben Affleck: allow him to be the scion of a spotlessly heroic family. Well… too bad.

Most American Indian tribes in North America believed (and still believe) in community responsibility, more than individual responsibility. If your group collectively did something to disrupt the spiritual balance of the universe, it was your responsibility to do what you could to fix it, whether you personally had performed the actions or not. I believe in this philosophy. It is not white guilt: it is white culpability and responsibility. Not responsibility in a “White Man’s Burden / Nobless Oblige” sense, tied to saviorism; responsibility in the American Indian sense, the acknowledgement that your people have messed up and it is the duty of all of you to do something about it. It must have been very tempting to Dolezal to immerse herself so deeply into black culture, and into fighting injustice, that she came to view and promote herself as black –but in a very real way, in doing so she was shirking her duty in that fight. That duty: to recognize and acknowledge her privilege, and to renounce the system that privileged her.

What does that look like? On a day like this…. When an acknowledged racist has slain nine black people at a historic black church, and many white people refuse to see race in it all, just as they refuse to see race in the spate of killings of unarmed black men (and children)… what does it look like?

It means raising your voice, fellow Caucasoid individuals. It means saying “No, this IS about race, it IS about privilege. I am benefited by it, but I condemn it, and I am calling for an end to it.” It means standing in support of our brothers and sisters of color- without having what I think of as a “Tarzan moment” when we swoop in and tell them how they should feel and react, and show them the “right way” to do it. And “lead” them (cough cough, Rachel Dolezal.) But most of all, it means admitting, and explaining to our fellow white folks. Especially at times like this.

Again I say: I am so tired. Many of you are, as well. But we have miles to go before we sleep.

God bless the members of the Emanuel AME Church, and God strengthen us all.