Of Signs and Symbols

My family reunion was held a bit early this year, so I arrived in South Carolina on July 10, the day the infamous Confederate flag was removed from the state house grounds in the aftermath of the horrible shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Because of the significance of the flag and of its removal, I’ve found myself thinking a lot the last couple of weeks about signs and symbols.

That flag was first flown atop the state house itself in 1961, ostensibly to mark the centennial of the beginning of the Civil War. The subtext, of course, was that the flag was a poke in the eye for the burgeoning civil rights movement. Emotions surrounding that issue were running high across the South. At that moment, the spring of 1961, I lived in Chattanooga and was attending a brand new high school, Brainerd High, whose teams were called the Rebels. Our anthem was sung to the tune of “Tara’s Theme,” from Gone with the Wind. (In the 1970s, amid growing racial unrest, the school teams were renamed the Panthers. On Facebook, though, alumni from the ’60s still call themselves Rebels.)

In the fall of 1961 I enrolled at a new high school in Greenville, SC—Wade Hampton High, named after a Confederate general (and slave owner) and governor of the state in the 1870s. We were the Generals. In spite of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), my senior yearbook (1963) is devoid of black faces. Several pictures show Confederate flags waving at pep rallies and ball games.

In 2015 the flag is being touted as a symbol of state pride, a reminder of the “Southern heritage.” I am a native South Carolinian, but I’ve never understood that argument. I see no reason to take pride in a place just because my mother was there when she went into labor. I was conceived in California, where my father was in the Marine Corps, but I take no pride in that fact either. What I take pride in are some of my accomplishments—the successful marriage my wife and I have enjoyed for nearly fifty years, our four children who are caring, responsible adults, our wonderful grandson, the degrees I’ve earned, the books I’ve had published.

nazibannerBut symbols have power. My father-in-law was in the Army in Europe at the end of WWII. He brought back, among other things, a Nazi banner. Not a flag, mind you, but one of those huge banners that you see in film footage hanging from buildings and balconies. It’s blood red, with a white circle and a black swastika in the center.
Just once, I showed it to a class. The students who held it, stretched across the entire room, seemed reluctant to touch it. The others tended to draw back in their seats, repulsed by the thing. Considering that the swastika was for centuries a good-luck emblem, it’s amazing how completely its symbolism has been reversed.

A hundred and fifty years ago, the Confederate flag stood for a way of life, but a way of life based on slavery. An African American colleague of mine keeps a Confederate flag draped over the chair at his desk. He says he likes to plant his butt on it every time he sits down. I can understand that sentiment. I do think, though, it is excessive to portray the Confederate flag alongside a Nazi swastika or an ISIS flag. Southerners did not (and do not) behead infidels or gas millions of Jews. Yes, some of them held Africans (who were usually captured and sold into slavery by their own people) in a reprehensible bondage. But at that time slavery was, in the opinion of many people, not the abhorrent thing we now deem it to be but a necessary fact of life. And yet the Confederate flag is still such a powerful symbol for some people that stores which still sell it—such as the “Dixie Republic” north of Greenville—can’t keep up with the demand.

Dixie Republic, SCIncidentally, today there are more slaves in the world than there ever were in the American South. The United Nations estimates that 27,000,000-30,000,000 people are enslaved today. India, China, and Pakistan account for about half of them. The British Home Office estimates that there are 10,000-13,000 people enslaved in various ways in Great Britain. Mauritania, in 2007, was the last country on earth to abolish slavery, but over 4% of its population are still enslaved.

I’m all in favor of removing the Confederate flag from public buildings or property. It should not be there, any more than a Nazi banner should be. But it has a place, just as a Nazi banner does, in a museum. We have to remember the history. An American history textbook now in use in Texas does not mention slavery as a cause of the Civil War. This is the worst sort of revisionism, on a par with the Soviets rewriting their encyclopedias whenever a leader like Stalin or Khrushchev fell out of power and favor.

We do continually reinterpret history, but, if we hope to learn anything from the past, we have to look at it realistically, to see humanity’s mistakes as well as our accomplishments. We cannot reinvent history. The symbols of various eras of the past serve to remind us of that fact. We cannot pack them away and pretend they never existed.

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