When I was in graduate school at Iowa State in the late 1980s I hit a period, during my second year, where a little homesickness set in. So I did something to remind myself of the place and people I was missing: I bought a Confederate flag and affixed it to my desk in the office, which I shared with 10-15 other MA students.
Some of my colleagues were, I think, appalled, and it was suggested that this was a symbol of slavery and racism. No, I said. I’m not a racist – it’s simply a reminder of home. I don’t think I used the word “heritage,” but from the outside what I was saying probably sounded exactly like what defenders of the flag are saying today.
As irony would have it, at the time I was dating a black woman. Her name was Shannon and I’d met her at Top o’ the Town, the club where I DJed. So I asked her: does this flag offend you? She said it didn’t. Case closed. Right?
If you’re a shrewd reader, you’re already assembling a list of all the things wrong with this story, and if you’re like me you’re writing as fast as you can and having a hard time keeping up. Among those questions is whether or not this young woman was being truthful with a guy she had just started dating and didn’t want to upset, especially since she was a black woman living in a culture where even smart white people like me didn’t always get it. And in Iowa, even, where it probably seemed like the only black people in the whole state were on the ISU and U of Iowa football and basketball teams – I can only imagine that under those circumstances she might have decided that it was often best not to say everything that came to her mind.
Was I a racist? Well, I have been very forthcoming here in the past about my difficult journey from ignorant working class Southerner to the more enlightened man I am all these years later. I am deeply embarrassed by some of the things I said and did back then, and I know I am not fully actualized today despite my best efforts. At that moment in time I absolutely felt that I had not a drop of racist hatred in my soul and I’d have dropped the gloves to defend my goodwill had you challenged me.
On the other hand … well, I was a Southern white guy with a Confederate flag on my desk who didn’t quite understand what the symbol meant to a large segment of the American population. That is what it is.
Sam 2015 has a hard time defending Sam 1989.
My friend Sara Robinson recently forwarded along a Houston Chronicle piece by Chris Ladd, a native Texan working as a GOP precinct chair in Chicago, entitled “What It Means to Be Southern.” I recommend that you give it a read, because he opens the door to a more nuanced conversation about the South generally, and more specifically about the role of its culture in forging a new South beyond the politics that have defined it since … well, forever. As these things often do, it set me to reflecting.
I haven’t engaged the subject of the South in a serious way in a long time. For one thing, while I grew up there I have identified as a Westerner for a long time and I go out of my way to talk about Southerners as them, not us. For another, it’s just so damned hard to get a handle on the complexity of my native region, especially in a context where we tend to speak about complicated issues in bumper stickers. Finally, and frankly, I have backed away from writing in general and from contentious political issues specifically. There’s a firm knowledge, emerging from years of experience, that no matter what I have in the way of insight, it’s only going to be read by a handful of people and engaged by none of them. Perhaps none of this absolves me of my abdication of a moral responsibility to speak out, but it at least explains it.
But the Confederate flag debate, and all that it stands as a proxy for, has flared up again, and this time in a way that feels like a legitimate tipping point, so here we go.
The single most frustrating attending any conversation about the South these days is our tendency toward either/or-ism. The American mind cannot hold within itself two contradictory ideas, even for the purpose of reflection, let alone ten or fifteen. And that’s precisely what thinking about the South really requires. “Multi-faceted” barely begins to describe the bubbling mess of history and ideology and religion and politics and ignorance and beauty and creativity and sacrifice that define the region.
The Confederate flag debacle? Well, yes, it’s absolutely racist. Those who follow my Facebook feed know that on this subject I give no quarter. Are all the people who adhere to its symbolism – their idea of its symbolism, anyway – racists? Well, now we’re deep into what the term racist means. Yes, for sure, but… how well are we served by quick, dismissive pronouncements that ignore a world of crucial nuance?
In a way, the South suffers from a persistent collective case of PTSD. The Civil War and its outcome twisted the Southern psyche in ways even I have a hard time coming to grips with, and I grew up in the thick of it and have been trying to unravel its essential character for decades – as have any number of people who are far more informed on the subject than I am. Now, understand, this PTSD has persisted for 150 years due to the passion with which the culture has clung to it. Our collective cultural psycho-pathology is our greatest heirloom – it is a treasure that has passed down from generation to generation – and as the old joke about how many Southerners it takes to change a light bulb suggests (10 – one to change the bulb and nine to sit around talking about how great the old bulb was) we don’t let go easily. Not even of our trauma. The worst of us cling to our pathology because it is in some ways all we have.
Here’s the thing nobody says. Southerners who defend the flag, arguing that it’s about #heritage and not racism (failing to acknowledge that slavery and racism are that heritage) are often quite aware of the truth of the symbol and what it stood for. Underneath it all, though, their defense of the flag’s alleged noble meaning is less about what they pretend and more about cognitive dissonance. Southerners are like everyone else in that they have an abiding need to feel pride in something. In many ways they’re worse on this point than Americans from other regions because the population and culture of the South is largely derived from Scot-Irish borderlander honor culture.
But what are people who care about their honor to do when their history – their true heritage – is so powerfully and immutably defined by the ass-kicking that shaped a nation?
The complexity surrounding Southern culture is richer and often harder to reverse engineer than a dense Brunswick stew. Toss into that soup the artistic culture Ladd talks about, then wade into the history and current state of the Southern progressive movement (which is badly outnumbered at the moment, but very much alive) and by the way, the longstanding texture of face-to-face, lived race relations (as opposed to the collective political abstraction), which is possibly even more complicated than everything else put together, and you have enough to keep historians busy for 1000 years.
The condemnations of states allowing a symbol of racism and treason to adorn their flags and fly at government facilities are just and, it must be said, decades overdue. That flag asserts that while we lost, the fight isn’t over. The flag in question isn’t the official flag of the Confederacy, it’s the BATTLE JACK, remember? So what we’re dealing with here is a symbol of defiance, a slightly more sophisticated version of the old “South’s gonna rise ag’in” belt buckle that we all saw plenty of growing up.
Further, it’s high time that we said enough is enough to those who wrap themselves in “heritage.” Yes, you have the right to say what you will here in the US, to be as offensive as you like, but you have no right to be free from the consequences of your expression. That’s how our system works – those who disagree with you have a right to speak and act on their convictions, too.
All these things being said, it’s critical that those of us yearning for a true enlightenment keep in mind that complex soup I talk about. Among the number of those defending the flag today are people who are ignorant of some important realities and who, as a result of their heritage and deeply rooted collective trauma, are unwilling to see past their own narrow ideologies. People like Sam 1989, if you will. However, they may not fit the hillbilly racist stereotype as neatly as we imagine. That crowd may well contain future Civil Rights champions, and if so, nothing will ease their path down that rocky road quite like our willingness to reach out and reward their humanist impulses wherever we find them. Is there a way we can help them see honor in repudiation of hurtful symbols instead of in their embrace?
The Confederate battle jack represents a history of racism – no doubt. But it’s counterproductive when we reduce a problem that’s a million miles deep to a bumper sticker. You don’t cure PTSD by telling the patient to cowboy up, get over it and smile more.