Note: I originally wrote this post in 2015, in the context of events spelled out below. In light of our current national re-examination of various monuments, I recently looked it up. I found that it still expresses my feelings, and a few folks have asked me for the link recently, so I’m sharing it again here.
Today the rebel flag will be removed from the Capitol grounds of South Carolina. The South Carolina House and Senate, by overwhelming majorities in both houses, voted to take it down this week, and Governor Haley signed the bill yesterday.
I’m a Southerner. My father’s father’s father’s father was one Thomas Jefferson Talley LaMotte, who walked home to Columbia, South Carolina after fighting for the Confederacy in Virginia and North Carolina. Except for time overseas, I’ve lived in the South my whole life, and both sides of my family are from the South. The first LaMotte in the colonies immigrated to Charleston, South Carolina. I watched too much TV as a kid to have much of a Southern accent, but I say ‘y’all’ without irony. And this fully credentialed Southern White Guy is celebrating this day.
I have been watching and listening to conversations about this issue, and it has taken me a while to organize my thoughts, but I think it’s time I weighed in, as a Southern White male. So here are a few thoughts:
To those who point out that this was never officially the flag of the Confederacy, and rather was the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, I say that this is a specious detail. There is no symbol more widely associated with the Confederacy than the rebel flag, and that is why South Carolina chose to fly it fifty years ago.
To those who say that taking down the flag is a denial and burying of history, I see it as just the opposite. The flag is being moved to historical archives, where we can learn about, reflect on, celebrate and critique our history. The South Carolina legislature has chosen to no longer hold this symbol in a place of honor. Taking it down is a matter of honestly facing history, not denying it.
To those who say that ‘we might as well blow up the Washington monument, then. He owned 300 slaves,’ it is a different thing to honor a man who made many good contributions and also participated in some terrible things (which could possibly be said of anyone), than to hold up a symbol of a large movement whose primary cause we find abhorrent.
To those who say, ‘what about other injustices? you’re a hypocrite!’, I say, yes, I’m a hypocrite. But I’m trying to be a hypocrite who is moving slowly toward justice rather than a hypocrite who is resisting it. If our standard for taking any action is that it addresses all injustices at once, we will never take positive action.
To those who say ‘heritage, not hate,’ I say that heritage does not mean living in the past, frozen in our understanding and beliefs. It is up to us what we make of our lives from the raw material of our history and inheritance. Heritage is the starting point for our lives, not the end point.
It is also worth noting that the flag has not flown there for 150 years, but for 50. It was added in commemoration of the Civil War, and remained as a repudiation of the civil rights movement. Do we want to celebrate the heritage of resisting civil rights?
And ‘not hate?’
Well, actually, I agree with you there.
It’s worse than that.
The Confederacy and the system of slavery that it fought for was not about hatred of Black people; it wasn’t that passionate. The people, including my own ancestors, who held other people in bondage didn’t do so because they hated them; they did it because it was economically advantageous. It was a cold-hearted denial of others’ humanity, and a defense of greed that required the violent enslavement of other human beings. It was also, for some, a desperate clinging to self-worth by poor white people who had come to believe what they have been told: that they are pretty worthless, but at least they are better than those other folks. That’s what a lot of racism still is, and both halves of it are a lie; They are not better, and they are not worthless.
It is so easy to feel superior and condemn oppressors from a safe distance. As I write these words, though, I am painfully aware that the pants I’m wearing and the computer I’m typing on were both made by people working under slave-like conditions (just enough food and living space to survive, abuse, unsafe work spaces, unconscionably long hours, child labor, etc.). This system benefits me, and I support it financially, allowing me relatively cheap merchandise at the cost of others’ well being. In that knowledge, I have to bring some humility to this conversation. I think we all do. We are participating in the oppression of others, even now, through systems that seem too large for us to affect (though they are not). Perhaps that’s how Thomas LaMotte felt as he marched off to war. Or maybe not. I wish I could talk with him about it.
The idea that the Civil War was over ‘states’ rights’ is revisionist history, unless we finish the phrase with ‘states’ rights to buy and sell other people, beat and murder them with impunity, take their children, etc.’ In fact, all of the Declarations of Secession from the various states mention challenges to the institution of slavery as a primary reason for leaving the United States, and the text of the Declaration of Secession of the Confederate States of America actually argues against states’ rights, listing among its primary grievances the northern states’ refusal to return stolen slaves. It argues that they should have been forced to.
Having said that, many Southerners have our identities tied up in symbols like that flag. It feels to many like a symbol of where we’re from, of places and people we love, not what we’ve done. So, as illogical as it may be, marginalizing that symbol, to some people, feels like an attack on one’s very self. It isn’t that, of course. It is a call to be better, to write a new story, to acknowledge the ways we have blown it in the past, and to nourish ‘the better angels of our nature’, as Lincoln said.
Still, what is intended is not always what is understood (yes, that argument works both ways, and it doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for the damage we inflict in either direction). Let’s not live into the misunderstanding. I’ve seen lots of South-bashing lately, and though I understand something of where that’s coming from, I think it’s a mistake. Let’s not put down Southern White people, South Carolinians, or any other group of people as ‘less than,’ in the very moment that we remove this powerful symbol of denigration and subjugation. The foolish notion that some groups of people are fundamentally better or worse than others is precisely what we are standing against.
A White man whom I love recently said to me, after reading something I had written about race, “Sometimes I wonder whose side you’re on.” Let me clarify that: I’m on the side that doesn’t believe there are sides. We can’t hate people in the name of love, or put people down in the name of tolerance and inclusion, whether we’re winning or losing. We have to reach a little higher than that.
Some say that the flag issue is a distraction. They worry that we will win this struggle, call it done, and then go back to business as usual. Doubtless, some of us will. Others will be awakened to the fact that things that seemed impossible to change are not, if we work to change them, and will be energized to work for the next goal. There is no shortage of important work to do in the world. What is yours to do?
History moves incrementally, and lasting, real change is slow. This day has been a long time in the making. Those words are not a call to patience, however. We should be impatient with issues of justice. It’s a call to hope, and a rebuke to despair. This is only one step in a long journey, but things do change for the better if we work to change them.
As it turns out, the Rebels had it right in at least one regard. The South is rising again. This is what real rising looks like.
Watch and see. The flag is coming down.
Black Mountain, NC