Thoughts on the symbolic nature of the Confederate flag from a Southerner

A horrific thing occurred last week in South Carolina. An act of terrorism that will leave a permanent scar on the United States. A racist asshole named Dylann Roof stepped into a house of worship and shot nine African-Americans dead.

South Carolina chose to run the state and American flags at half-mast to honor the victims of Roof’s terroristic actions. But nearby, one flag stood at full-mast and waved proudly: the Confederate Flag.

I say “proudly” because so many Southerners defend their use of the flag behind such high-minded ideas as ‘Southern pride’. What are the principle tenets of this Southern pride? In general, I read them to be:

1) Cultural Identity — The stylized idea of genteel gentlemen, women in petticoats, hospitality, sweet tea, and all those things Hollywood likes to play up.

2) States’ Rights — There is a claim that the Confederate flag stands as a symbol for states’ rights. The mean ol’ federal  government worked hard to prevent the institution of slavery spreading to the western expansion of the country. Washington DC was becoming overrun by abolitionist lawmakers who had this crazy notion that owning another human was not humane, so when Lincoln won election, the South bolted. The South rallied up a big ball of nationalism under the cover of “states’ rights” and allowed the slave owning politicians to secede.

Oh, to be sure, there are plenty of southerners who truly view the Confederate flag as a symbol of states’ rights and cultural identity. Having lived in the south all my life, I’ve never met one of these individuals. Being raised in southeast Kentucky, an area that would identify itself as ‘South’ despite Kentucky officially being a border state during the Civil War, I’ll give you an account of the flag’s meaning to a majority of people in the area as I experienced it.

In 2015, the government census puts the white population of Clay County, Kentucky at 94.4%. Black population is 4.4%. Back when I was a freshman in high school, I’m certain it was lower. It wasn’t until high school that I had actually met or spoken with a black person. The first 14 years of my life, my only experience and knowledge of black people came from laughing at them on television (The Jeffersons!) and what the adults around me said.

Black people weren’t referred to as black–always the N-word. A high percentage of vehicles had some form of “Southern pride” on their bumpers, typically the Confederate flag. Flags hung on walls in bedrooms. The flag adorned trucker caps. The amount of hate toward the ‘horrible black people’ always confused me. When I would ask racist family members and friends, it always amounted to some random slight a black person had supposedly performed against them. Or they would cite an incident on television. If they ever caught their sister or girlfriend with a black guy, they would brag that they would beat a lesson into the woman and hang the n—–.

As a grade schooler, a black kid named Deshae Henson was the top football player in the county. At the games I saw him play, I would hear racial slurs that would be at home in a KKK Grandmaster’s house. I won’t repeat them, but give you some key words: jungle, monkey, lynch, animal.

Growing up, Clay County was essentially segregated. A majority of the tiny black population lived on a hillside community in the county seat of Manchester. I was warned many times by adults to stay away from the area, lest I be raped up the ass, robbed, beaten, and so on. Many times I heard whispers and rumors about so and so white girl being seen going up the hill. If you wanted to ruin the reputation of any female, all you had to do was state you had seen her visiting the hill.

A black choir visited my church once from central Kentucky. Their singing was beautiful. The guest preacher was passionate about his faith and moved me. The following week all the talk at the church was about the n—-s and how great they were. I remember being disgusted that such a foul word was being used in a church by people “of faith”.

Once I got to Transylvania University and moved to Lexington, the concentration of the day-to-day casual racism I encountered lessened. Yet, my college freshman dorm was named Jefferson Davis Hall. One of the four on campus fraternities, Kappa Alpha, had a large Confederate flag hanging in their ‘house’ and was known as the frat to join if you were southern, wealthy, and racist.

When the organization was exposed, my alma mater tried to hide its dirty not-so-hidden secret.

Not once in my four years at Transy did anyone equate the Confederate flag to states’ rights or non-racist southern pride. There weren’t lessons about fighting federalism. Only knowing winks by faculty, staff, and students about the underlying institutional racism on display.

My life experience has taught me that the Confederate flag is a symbol of hatred. Perhaps the flag’s original intent has been co-opted, like how the Nazi’s symbol was once more known as a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Odinism.

I can’t imagine how painful it is for a black person to see a reminder of their race’s enslavement flying over a state capitol after the racially motivated murder of nine human beings in a church.

I find it inexplicable how a person with any semblance of human emotion can place higher importance on “pride” and a political stance of “states’ rights” (of which they likely have little understanding) over the REAL horrors of human enslavement and abuse.

It is shameful that South Carolina is still flying that flag in this day and age. It is pathetic and racist that a symbol of hate is flying with pride after the murder of nine innocent black people.

 

5 comments

  1. This is a thoughtful and accurate assessment of what the Confederate flag means to the majority. There is no excuse for its presence in public places. other than perhaps a Civil War museum.

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