Many of my southern friends and relatives are upset at the removal of the Confederate battle flag from its appointed flagpole in Columbia, South Carolina, and are defending it once again as a symbol of southern heritage. The Stars and Bars, they say, is meant to stand for the Southern way of life, its ease and graciousness, its courtesy, and the love of the region itself. The flag is a symbol of a war that was about northern imperialism, not about slavery. It reminds us of an ideal time in which a group of states stood up to oppose the idea of a large federal government taking away the rights of the individual states who had agreed upon a union that was voluntary, not compulsory.
Nearly all of the people talking along these lines are white, of course, and the argument they are making is one that has been made for a long time to defend nostalgia and even reverence for this flag. But it is an argument that is empty at this point, and the statement ignores the fact that there are other people in the South who would have to be in agreement with any symbol of our joint heritage. What defines the South is a matter for all the people who live here to decide in common; the process by which such a commonality is determined is not a matter for the majority race to impose on the rest.
While I have read a good deal of rhetoric about what makes the south different, I cannot agree with much of it. The notion that our people were more gracious or polite in the old South, that they were more genteel, and that nobility and honor were paramount, is a self-serving notion. I would prefer that others tell me that I am noble and honorable; it is empty to make the claim for myself or for my ancestors. The history of the South does not bear out any idea of gracious, genteel living, unless one narrows the focus to the old and fabled planter class, and it is hard to see what is so genteel about making a living by forcing labor out of one’s slaves.
As for that other idea, that the Civil War was not about slavery but was about state’s rights, it seems to me that this argument will never be settled to the satisfaction of all parties. In the case of the Confederate flag, the very fact that so many southerners oppose the public display of the flag – black, white, and brown southerners – settles the issue. While you can hold the flag to be dear to yourself and your idea of history, you cannot insist that others do so. White people cannot dictate to black people that they should agree with our idea of history; to do so would be simply another act of white supremacy. If you are a person who does believe in grace or gentility, then the way forward is clear: move beyond the need to fly this flag in public. Do this for the sake of your fellow human beings. They are more important than your idea of the past.
The debate will continue, of course, and even as I write this, Confederate monuments are being defaced in many southern states. This issue of what to do with monuments for those who died on the southern side of that war will be more painful than the flag debate. We will be discussing this issue for a long time. For myself, I am willing to see the monuments pulled down and the flag tucked away. The dead have long forgotten that war and that moment in history. It is the living who must now learn to let go.