Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Curtains for the Stars and Bars

Having grown up mostly in Upstate New York, most of what I first learned about the Confederate Flag I learned from the ornery character "Granny" on The Beverly Hillbillies.

For example, she believed the Civil War was fought between the Yankees and the Americans.  (Think about it for a minute!)

She pitched a fit whenever anybody didn't show suitable respect for the "Stars and Bars."

Stars and bars?  As a kid, watching those old black-and-white reruns of the classic TV show, I thought Granny was talking about cheesy Southern actresses and places that serve alcoholic beverages in dimly-lit lounges.

Of course, some might say my initial impressions of the South weren't very far off at that...

Nowadays, however, I know what the "Stars and Bars" are.  Yet they're still about as anachronistic to all of us in 2015 as my mistaken impression of them was back when Granny was thundering her adulation for Tennessee's old, deep South.  Instead of Tennessee, however, today we're talking about South Carolina, whose state legislature appears poised to remove the Stars and Bars from their capitol building.

This symbolic and historic move comes in the wake of last month's atrocious slaughter of 9 churchgoers by a white supremacist at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.  Many South Carolinians -  both white and black - say the time has now come for the Confederate flag to be stricken from official commemoration.  It's something many civil rights activists have been saying - not just about South Carolina, but the Confederate flag in general - for generations now.

Yet it's what the Stars and Bars commemorate that has a small yet vociferous group of conservative Southerners fighting for its preservation.  They say the Confederate flag celebrates the pageantry, civility, gentility, industriousness, and charm of the Old South.  At least... the Old South as today's white folk romanticize it as having been.

Meanwhile, how much of the Old South would the blacks who endured it have celebrated?  Whether they were slave or free?

Forget the tired arguments about the Civil War being about states' rights.  Let's pretend that the Old South was as equally pleasant a time period for blacks as it was for whites.  What else about the Old South is worth commemorating by an official flag?

It's not that all white folk in the South were evil bigots.  It's not that all black folk were abused and mistreated.  Shucks, even back then, women couldn't vote, so for today's modern Southern woman to celebrate the Stars and Bars seems a bit misguided on their part.

Nostalgia has a funny way of clouding our interpretation of the past, doesn't it?  Nostalgia also tends to become more one-sided, the further away we view the things for which we've become nostalgic.  Sometimes cloudy nostalgia is relatively harmless.  But in this case, it perpetuates stereotypes and ways of viewing people - both white and black - that never were healthy to begin with.

Why hold on so dearly to the Confederate flag?  Is the present that much less worthwhile than the past?  After all, the present time is our opportunity to fix past wrongs, isn't it?  Nobody's calling for the Stars and Bars to be outlawed.  They can still serve as a reminder of one of the worst episodes of our country's rambunctious history.  And fly as a counter-point to the sanctimonious abolitionist fervor in the North that often tended to begrudge Southerners not for owning slaves, but for simply having a cheaper workforce than Yankee industrialists did.

Let's not forget that there was fallacy in the Civil War on both sides.  It's just that the North didn't really have as potent a symbol for its cause as the South has managed to preserve for theirs.

Which brings us to today, and the appropriate civic use for the Stars and Bars in a society striving for racial equity.  Sure, removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina's statehouse won't itself fix any past wrongs when it comes to racism.  But at symbols go, isn't doing so a good step in the right direction?

Update:  I believe it's inappropriate for the Confederate flag to fly over any statehouse.  However, as I've heard in some reports, I also believe it is inappropriate for any federal cemetery to ban the Confederate flag from individual gravesites.

Since the Confederate flag can represent different things to different people, as it's applied to an individual citizen's personal belief systems, a certain latitude should be given regarding how individual citizens choose to interpret the Confederate flag.  It can wave over private residences, private businesses, and adorn a person's grave.  Whether a passerby is "offended" by seeing a Confederate flag at another gravesite in any cemetery or not, that's part of "free speech."

Free speech for which, presumably, that American soldier fought.


  1. Tim - first off lets get a few details out of the way. The flag to which you are referring is not the "Stars and Bars". The Stars and Bars was the first flag of the Confederacy. The flag to which you are referring was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.
    See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flags_of_the_Confederate_States_of_America

    The meaning behind the battle flag can be many things to many different people. It has been wrongfully co-opted by groups and thus its meaning has been distorted. What to do over co-opted symbols? What about the rainbow?

    As for me, I don't go around displaying the battle flag, but to me is both a symbol of war that many of my ancestors thought noble enough to fight for - and a symbol of people standing against an oppressive government... Hum.


    1. I'm not sure who you are, MF, but everything you write almost certainly tells me that you're white. And that is a key part of the problem here, right? Whether my terminology about historical flags is accurate, whether I'm giving enough deference to historical figures, whether we can agree that "oppressive" governments are worth warring against Biblically - at their root, all of these reasons rely more on race than God-ordained humanity. So why does a flag beloved by only one race of people fly over government buildings intended to serve all races of people?

      Nevertheless, thank you for your feedback! Thanks for reading.


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