Recently, states have begun taking down the confederate flag, recognizing it as a symbol of racial hatred. I support these actions. Not because I think that the flag has an inherent meaning in it, but rather, because of what IT MEANS to many of the people in our country.
The thing about symbols, is that they mean nothing, inherently. They are just an image, a drawing, a design. Their power, and their meaning, is assigned by the people who view them in a culture. And it is in this understanding of symbols, that we can begin to appreciate what exactly they do. Symbols are interacted upon by two different groups of people: 1) Those who don’t know the meaning of them, and 2) Those who know the culturally-assigned meaning. To those familiar with a symbol, they are essentially, reminders of an idea. Sometimes that idea is a philosophy, sometimes an action, sometimes a religion. To those who don’t know the meaning, the general response in discovering a new symbol, is to ask others for that meaning. And here we see the action of symbol as cultural signifier that requires folk oratory, in that an oral history is required to establish the meaning. Without that cultural explanation, the symbol remains meaningless.
For many years now, that oral history about the confederate flag has had a few versions. At the beginning though, there were two versions that I had seen in my life: One from the culture of those who benefited from the system of slavery, and the other, for those who despised slavery. And as the years passed from the flag’s use as battle flag of the south, other interpretations arouse. To some it meant an idea of preserving southern heritage, and to others, a more benign idea of the south. But ultimately, it was the battle flag underwhich this nation went to war with itself about the idea of state’s rights, and directly underpinning that, slavery. And to those on the side opposed to slavery, the meaning of the flag as a symbol of the confederate states, the confederate army, and a battle to maitain the practice of slavery, has never weigned.
For many years now, those of us, as southerners whom were opposed to slavery, grimaced at it’s sight, and listened to the excuses of ‘heritage not hate’ as it’s explanation of why it was flown. In essence, to honour fallen family members, who fought for the south.
And here is where the chasm occurs. Sometimes it is hard for us to accept that good people, people with families, people who love, have done bad, horrible things to other people. And it can be even harder to understand when time passes, and the general social consensus of the era they lived in is no longer around to justify these horrible actions as status quo. It is in these moments, that we see the thoughts of a time, against the stark contrast of progress in the social views of society regarding human rights. Yet the flag still flies above the courts and statehouses of many places in the south.
In pulling down this flag, I see the states as admiting progress in the view of what ‘human’ is, and in keeping the flag up, the symbology narrates a resistance to the acceptance of African-Americans as equal citizens. It really is that simple. Accordingly, we see extremists using the flag to carry on those old ideas of racism, because against the backdrop of the 21st century society, that is what the symbol has come to mean to a lot of people.
And because of that, I believe our society cannot with good conscience claim to believe that all of it’s citizens are entitled to equal opportunity, regardless of color of skin, while enforcing laws and passing legislation under such a flag.
At the end of World War II, the Germans faced a similar dilemma. Much of it’s citizenry, had fought, killed, and died under the swastika. And they chose to ban it from public display, and criminalize it’s display, as the exhibition of it was counter to the interest of what Germany wanted to be. In doing this, the German’s had to accept that offending the people whom were targeted under the regime which used the swastika, were actually just as entitled to be Germans, as anyone else living in German, hence it being in the public interest to ban it.
For America, it has been no coincidence, that the flag has flown in areas that have continued racist practices, either in zoning laws, voter ID laws, or many other affronts to African-Americans. But as these states take it down, it means, for the first time, they are recognizing the insult to the humanity of African-Americans in this country. And while that does not solve the years of racial injustice that have been placed in the path of African-Americans, it is, without question, a much needed step in the right direction.
And for that, I am thankful.