Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Confederate Flag and (White) Southern Pride

The following is reprinted with permission from the author.  - sm

To those who, like me, were raised to believe that the Confederate Flag is a symbol of Southern Pride...

I grew up in Maryland, the Old Line State. My birthplace was not that far south of the Mason-Dixon line. My father's people, though, were from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. Family lore has it that one of my great-great-great grand uncles from Virginia took up the cause against Northern aggression, was captured, and slowly was starved to death at the Point Lookout prison camp for Confederate soldiers in Maryland. I was raised to be proud of that ancestor's reputation for kindness to everyone - even his slaves- and for being a responsible and loving family man. I was reminded that we should not be ashamed of our history and we should learn from it. I learned those lessons in places where almost every garage or work shed had the Confederate Flag hanging. I learned those lessons from kind, caring, loving people, who always gave generously to everyone, even when they didn't have enough.

I have retained many of those lessons, about sacrifice and duty and family and history. But there is another lesson from my ancestor that I carry with me every day and use as a "check" in my interactions with people who do not share my experiences. If the myth of my ancestor is true – if he was a kind, loving, generous-to-a-fault person, who fought and died for his State and who was kind to everyone, free or not – then the real lesson that I have to learn is that otherwise kind, caring, and brave people are capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty, particularly when social norms permit that cruelty.

I am not guilty about my family’s past history. That history, however, serves as a powerful reminder. Just like my ancestor was able to convince himself that owning humans could somehow fit into a moral scheme that supposedly valued generosity and kindness, I am sure that there are things that I convince myself are totally valid and proper that actually are cruel and devaluing. That's the complicated white Southern history that I think about when I see the flag. The Confederate flag reminds me to listen critically, especially when the words that I hear make me feel uncomfortable and defensive.

To those who, like me, were raised to view the Confederate Flag as a symbol of Southern pride.... We all know, each one of us, that the flag isn't really a symbol of Southern pride. It's a symbol of white Southern pride. We edit out the "white" part because it makes us uncomfortable and reveals the flag for what it really is. If we are being honest with ourselves, though, we know the "white" is still there. I know many people who fly the flag and speak of Southern pride, but behind closed doors speak fondly of the days of segregation. I still see in my mind the Confederate flags that the KKK flew in front of my best friend's store in Southern Maryland when the Klan wanted her father, a prominent Indian immigrant, to move. I still remember the Confederate flag flying in the garage of a neighbor who addressed her housekeeper, whom she loved dearly, not as “Miss___” but as “Black ___.” I remember the sound of the Confederate flag flapping when I was 6 or 7 and drinking a Coca-Cola in a small general store off a dirt road in West-By-God Virginia that had a "No Coloreds" sign in the window (1983 or 84). Here's a little bit of truth... No matter how much we want the flag to be our symbol of survival and rebellion and states' rights, we know deep down that the flag is just as much about white pride. That kind of pride comes at someone else's expense.

We know, if we’re being honest, that the flag is a weapon. It terrorizes. I am sure that my neighbor’s housekeeper, who was from the South, did not view her southern heritage as wrapped up in those stars and bars. Even though I may really want the flag to be a symbol of my love of the South, I know deep down that it is a threat to a whole class of fellow Southerners.

But I don't mean it that way. I'm a kind, caring, generous person, just showing my pride, I'd do anything for anyone, black white or otherwise. Don’t be so sensitive. And there it is. The lesson my ancestor taught me. While being kind, caring, and generous, I am capable of hanging a threat in my dorm hallway and scaring the hell out of someone for whom the flag is a notice that terrible things are coming.

What happened at Bryn Mawr College happens every day around the country. It happens in backyards and on porches and at the end of piers and over beer coolers in garages. It happens in the North as much as in the South. I purposely am not getting into the procedural mechanics of any student or College or governmental entity’s specific response to the flying of that flag. I purposely am not directing this letter to those who have been terrorized by that flag. Instead, I am speaking to those of you who, like me, were raised in the shadow of that flag, who will argue that I am trying to ignore my history or am ashamed of my past. Know this. It is precisely because I have a deep pride and respect for where I come from, and it is in honor of my history and my ancestors, that I will remember that it is the impact of my actions that count. My intent is meaningless. That is why I do not need to fly the flag. Its lessons already are etched on my heart.

The author is a BMC graduate from MD. She remains thankful for her Bryn Mawr education, which taught her about critical thinking and cussed individualism.


Melissa Dey Hasbrook said...

Thanks for this reflective honesty of this piece. It brings to mind my last visit to Lake Michigan for Full Moon; I sang with the waves.

Walking back to the car, a man was just arriving and wore a ball cap with the confederate flag. I was taken aback somewhat; being in the Midwest, I don't run into this symbol too much.

Immediately I thought of the land where my dad's mom's people are from, Cherokee country, now southeastern Tennessee. Ancestral lines there run deep, Cherokee and Irish.

Funny to run into this guy on the beach, and then next to my parked vehicle, I noticed a different person's auto plate -- from Tennessee!

I became aware that the sighting of the confederate flag had put me on alert after having just held ceremony at the water. It brought up lots of stories told to me about growing up in the South and Midwest during Civil Rights as a child of an Amer. Indian parent. Symbols may evoke ancestral memory too.

Anonymous said...

One of the best pieces ever written about this controversy.