Confederate Flags: Before You Stand Behind That Mule (Again)

Are you as shocked as I that the South Carolina legislature actually voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from its place of prominence on the grounds of the statehouse in Charleston, the capital of South Carolina? It could be my cynicism has increased as I have aged, but when South Carolina governor Nikki Haley first proposed to remove the flag in the aftermath of the cold-blooded murder of the Emmanuel Nine, I raised my brow somewhat incredulously; I have learned from experience that if something looks and sounds just a little too good to be true, then it probably is.

I have —we have— been down that road before, and as my grandfather was fond of saying, “It takes a fool to get kicked by the same mule twice,” and I am determined not to be that fool and get kicked a second time, again.

I reasoned that Governor Haley and her lot would make grandiose promises, and then wait for the statue of limitations to run out on our rage. However, they managed to prove me wrong.

But keep in mind that in arriving at the decision that the flag should be removed, Governor Haley and others like her proffered the notion that they simply had no idea of the extremity of the animus engendered by and contained in that antiquated symbol of the South.

Really? Did they not hear what so many of their constituents have been so adamantly proclaiming for so many years? Is it really possible that they did not know? Or did they just not care until now?

And many people are labeling this action and others like it across the South as progress even though nine innocent people had to unwittingly and unwillingly become martyrs for the cause.

confederate-flag-removal-south-carolina_640xThe urge to insert the oft-cited Malcom X quote—“If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress.”—almost overwhelms me, but it has been used so often and so carelessly as to be rendered trite, so I shall resist that urge, though it would be apropos.

But, seemingly word of this progress has not reached the grassroots because as I drove to the grocery this morning to pick up a bit of milk and honey so that I could proceed with preparing breakfast for my family, Confederate battle flags littered my piece of the Southern landscape as if they had sprung up overnight from ground thoroughly fertilized by bitter hatred and resentment.

Nevertheless, it is Friday morning the flag is down in South Carolina. I watched the ceremony, and when they were done taking down the flag, the honor guard charged with striking the flag, then even pulled up the whole pole.

Yet, the issue as to just what the flag represents remains very much a point of heated contention. The one group claims that the Confederate battle flag is nothing more than a symbol of Southern pride in Southern tradition and heritage. However, the other views the flag as a sign and symbol of abject racial hatred and strife.

And as strange as it may sound, though, both groups are correct. The problem, then, is that the former group has an unrealistically naïve—maybe even delusional—conception of the true nature of that tradition and heritage and all that they entail.

From what I have observed, within the American cultural imagination, the antebellum South has been romanticized as an extended scene from Gone with the Wind, one huge verdant, agrarian utopia dotted with stately mansions and sprawling plantations, peopled with noble, gallant gentlemen, genteel Southern belles, and happy, singing darkies, and animated by slow, sleepy afternoons on the front porch sipping lemonade or sweet tea, frequently punctuated by grand, elegant balls in the late evening.

I believe this to be the fantastical, allegorical scene motivating most Southerners who cling so ardently and desperately to the symbolism offered by the Confederate battle flag when they speak of their tradition and heritage. But this scene is mostly that—fantastical allegory.

In a society and culture completely permeated and enriched by the institution of slavery, only a small class of Southerners, an aristocratic class made up mostly of planters, even lived this way. Only this very small class of people got filthy rich on the labor of slaves.

The vast majority of Southern whites did not own slaves. In fact, the very institution of slavery made many—not all but many—of their lives even the more difficult. Across the South, slaves performed a wide range of tasks, from the artisanal to the most menial, which, for the majority of Southern whites not owning slaves, resulted in limited opportunity, depressed wages, and a lack of education.

There is no need to pay someone for labor when that same labor can be had without cost.

In a sense, this poor degraded class of whites were themselves victims of the system of chattel slavery. I guess it could be said that they, themselves, were slaves to and within that system. However, the aristocratic class masterfully stoked the fires of racial resentment by manipulating the white masses and laying the fault of their squalid poverty at the feet of the black slaves even as they grew rich off the free labor of these same slaves.

But when the aristocratic class that benefited most from that exploitative system saw that system threatened, it sounded the alarm. It excitedly and desperately sought out the white masses that it held in only the utmost contempt, and proclaimed, “They are threatening OUR way of life! They are threatening OUR very tradition and heritage. WE must do something!”

And the degraded white masses, elated to be finally included in the WE after being shut out and devalued for so long, answered resoundingly, “Yes, WE! WE must do something!”

See; that’s that slave mind.

With that, the aristocratic class united them under various iterations of the Confederate battle flag, now a symbol of their WE-ness, and marched them off to battle. And in the excitement and fervor of the initial rush of war as they proudly marched off to meet the common foe, inspired emboldened by chorus after chorus of “Dixie”, I can only imagine that many glanced up at that flag flapping in the Southern wind, and for that moment, felt immensely powerful.

However, had they taken a second to think, they might have realized that the very traditions and heritage they were marching off to protect actually subtended the system of oppression that kept its boot planted firmly on their neck. Had they just taken a second to think, they might have realized that they were also a slave to and within the institution they sought so vigorously to protect and prolong.

But that symbol, the Confederate battle flag, has served the exigencies of the ruling moneyed class well. During the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, the moneyed class broke it out again just to remind the white masses of the tradition and heritage at stake, and again the white masses enthusiastically responded without critically examining that tradition and that heritage.

Even now the white masses in the South have united in a state of ersatz rage in defending that flag as symbolic of the traditions and heritage of the old South even as this tradition and heritage have yet to be examined, and furthermore, they have failed to recognize the face of the current Southern moneyed class as just the latest iteration of the antebellum aristocracy that has managed to maintain its money and its power by drawing upon the same racial resentments and pitting the one group against the other.

And before we truly embrace the flag coming down as a sign of progress, consider the following caveats.

The murder of the Emmanuel Nine by that young son of the South who had cloaked himself in that revered symbol, the Confederate battle flag, embarrassed the Southern moneyed class, which is currently in the process of rebranding itself in an effort to attract international investment and getting some of that global money, and laid bare the contumelious meaning invested in that symbol making it a financial liability, so the rapid divestment in this symbol perhaps had more to do with the needs of capital rather than a sudden moral realization.

Not only that, and perhaps most importantly, have you considered that the absence of this symbol is even more powerful than its presence, and that in its absence it is even more efficacious in maintaining and reinforcing the old racial resentments and pitting one group against the other?

The most dangerous being on this earth is that being that finds itself cornered and feels it has nothing left to lose. That being will always strike back with a certain ferocious urgent desperateness, knowing no bounds.

And there are many across the South watching that flag come who feel exactly that way, as if all is lost, and they are being pressed into a corner. What will they be willing to do to fight their way out of this imagined corner?

Be careful standing behind this mule. Stay woke.