Historian: "I don’t want my students to simply choose sides in a polemic between heritage and hate"Historians in the News
tags: Confederate flag
The South is home for me, but to my students in Minnesota, it’s an exotic place from which I am an ambassador. So when Dylann Roof massacred congregants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last month and students began asking me about the killings and the debate they reignited over the Confederate flag, I did not know whether they sought my analysis as a scholar of the Confederacy and its legacies or my feelings as a transplanted Southerner. My uncertainty deepened because the questions came between semesters, from men and women who had taken courses with me last spring and would do so again in the fall. Did the timing of the questions change my relationship to the people who asked them, and therefore inform which part of me -- the professor or the person -- answered?
The difference between my answers depends on whether I want my students to embrace or reject the polemic through which we discuss the Confederacy, its cause and its symbols, ascribing them to represent either virulent hatred or regional pride and nostalgia. In a “Room for Debate” feature on June 19, The New York Times pitted former Georgia Congressman Ben Jones’s views of the flag as “A Matter of Pride and Heritage” against three authors who emphasized the flag’s postwar uses as a banner for Jim Crow violence, reactionary resistance to integration and civil rights, and the most obdurate hate groups in the contemporary United States. Governor Nikki Haleyinvoked a similar framing in her speech calling for the South Carolina legislature to remove the flag from the state capitol grounds. The governor presented the flag’s dual meanings on an almost equal footing; which interpretation a person chose, she implied, depended on their race. For white people, the flag meant honoring the “respect, integrity and duty” of Confederate ancestors -- “That is not hate, nor is it racism,” she said of that interpretation -- while “for many others … the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.”
In asking the South Carolina legislature to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds, the governor posed the meaning of the Confederate flag as a choice, and she refused to pick sides because she understood the sympathies of those in both interpretive camps. Because many of those who honor the state’s Confederate past neither commemorate nor act out of hate, in the governor’s logic they are not wrong -- merely out of sync with the political needs of 2015.
As a person, I want my students to take sides in that polemic, to know that Confederate “heritage” is the wrong cause to celebrate in any context. I want my students to know that the Confederacy was created from states that not only embraced slavery but, as Ta-Nahisi Coates has demonstrated beyond refutation, proudly defined their political world as a violent, diabolical contest for racial mastery. I want them to understand that the Civil War rendered a verdict on secession and, in the words of historian Stephanie McCurry, on “a modern pro-slavery and antidemocratic state, dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal.”
I want them to scrutinize, as John Coski has done in his excellent book The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Symbol, the flag’s long use by those who reject equal citizenship. I want my (overwhelmingly white) students to grasp why the flags of the Confederacy in their many iterations -- on pickup trucks, college campuses and statehouse grounds -- tell African-Americans that they are not, and cannot be, equal citizens. I want them to feel the imperative in the words of President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, in which the president claimed that only by rejecting the shared wrongs of slavery, Jim Crow and the denial of civil rights can we strive for “an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.” ...