On February 22, Bree Newsome spoke at the College of Charleston. Newsome is known for forcefully removing a Confederate flag from a statue at the Statehouse in Columbia after the Emanuel AME terrorist attack here in Charleston. Newsome’s visit was met with some protest from a group of “Secessionists” waving a giant Confederate flag outside of Sottile Theatre where she was speaking, reminding us that the emotions and racial tensions surrounding the Confederate flag are not yet history.
It’s a touchy subject, especially here, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. To have a focused conversation on the matter, though, we must separate the politics surrounding the Civil War from the Confederate flag, a very powerful symbol.
To complicate the issue, tied to the image of the Confederate flag are truly genuine feelings about this beautiful culture; Southern culture. It is a culture inclusive of all inhabitants. In its pure, ideal form it is astounding. It is hospitality, smiles, handshakes, and hard work. It’s sweet tea, grits, and sunsets. It’s stopping to help someone fix a flat tire. I was born and raised in the South. I am proud of that and I’ve defended it.
However, also tied to the image of the Confederate flag are feelings of inferiority, oppression, hate, torture, and white supremacy. It’s systemic oppression. It’s rape, murder, and enslavement. It’s whipping the skin off someone’s back.
That same symbol is a banner under which some people gather to hate people because of the color of their skin. It represents a philosophy that suggests blacks don’t count as full human beings. It’s a belief that people can be treated like animals; bought, sold, and tamed. Can you stop and imagine what it is like to be a person of color and see a person flying that flag in your face? Can you imagine what it is like to wonder if a person hates you and wishes you harm because your skin is too dark? It’s horrifying and nauseating.
For a person of color, the presence of that flag suggests you’re not welcome. If I’m driving through an area where I see a plentiful number of those flags, I take a quick look at my gas gauge and find comfort in the fact that there’s no need to stop. These feelings of fear and anxiety are not an irrational phobia. They’re based on tangible possibilities and factual history, especially in today’s “great” America.
The fact that it took the death of nine innocent African-American churchgoers for that flag to be removed from the Statehouse grounds is sad. What we have to realize is that an attack on the Confederate flag is not an attack on the South or on Southern heritage. The “South” is not racist. Racists are racists. There are just as many racists up North.
The problem is that the Confederate flag has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde issue. It is heritage and it is hate. They are two sides of the same coin. They are bound together like the swastika and the Holocaust. Would you defend that as a symbol for German heritage?
I admit, it’s unfortunate for those who love the Confederate flag and have nothing but compassion and acceptance for all people in their hearts. That does not change the fact that many others display that flag in celebration of a culture that believed in the right to own, torture, and kill other human beings who weren’t white. Slavery was born from the belief that black skin and Native American heritage makes you inferior to whites. The Confederate flag was forged in that fire and that philosophy pervades today’s society. For the record, no amount of Africans selling other Africans to slave merchants will justify American slavery, so leave that argument at the door. Everyone is responsible for their own actions.
This “symbol,” though, must lose its power. The admirable characteristics of the South which make it so lovely must stand on their own. The Confederate flag has become an idol to some. The South is not a flag. A flag is too finite and restricting to contain the ideals that truly make the South a place of envy. You can’t put time in a bottle and Southern culture doesn’t fit on a flag. However, you can catch glimpses of it during a sunset over the marsh, when the breeze blows the Spanish moss ever so slightly or you catch the aroma of some Confederate Jasmine. It’s barely kept in bounds by the Carolina blue sky. Do you lose the beauty of Southern culture if you lose the flag? Do you inspire fear among the historically oppressed by waving it?
We are trudging through a new era in which fear, bigotry, and oppression have, once again, become the weapons of choice for those in authority. It is increasingly imperative to choose our own weapons wisely. Here on the ground, on this battlefield, let’s pay homage to Southern heritage and rebel. Let’s wield love, instead, which is rooted in sacrifice. We can give up this idol and stand for something worthy and eternal and value all human life. Let our words, actions, and Southern charm be our new flag.