Blogs > Cliopatria > Honor and a Flag

Jan 13, 2004 3:13 pm

Honor and a Flag

Timothy Burke has written another fabulous short essay for this Blog. It is on the complex relationship between commemoration, celebration, atrocity and politics. (Here’s the permalink, though most of you can just scroll down a bit.) There’s also a darned good idea for a student research project.

His essay—which centers on a commemorative statue for a man who is both a founder of El Paso and a killer of natives—got me to thinking about the Confederate flag and my own internal conflict concerning it.

When I grew up in Texas I was taught to honor the Confederate flag. It was almost on a par with the U.S. flag and the state flag. (Whenever you pass through Texas, just look at the number of Lone Stars flying.)

I did not think of the flags this coherently, but as a kid all three signified different tableaus of the same courage. The Alamo, a Confederate charge, Normandy. They were all in some way a part of the same world of military honor; so each flag symbolized that common honor.

Even when I went to college (Fall 1970) and became far more aware of the Civil Rights movement, my respect for the flag continued. But that attitude ran into new challenges. The anti-war movement stuck question marks on most of my adolescent military visions. Also I had friends who disliked the flag viscerally, who saw in each one a redneck bigot’s vision of America. I chose not to argue, largely because I thought they might be right. By then I knew much more about slavery. Still my heart did not quite agree.

It was only in 1988, when I started my Ph.D. work at South Carolina that I really began to think my friends were right. The USC is adjacent to the state capital, and proudly atop the capital, the Confederate flag flew.

There was no romanticizing that context. The flag went up there early in the Civil Rights movement: a way of saying no to the North, no to Blacks, and yes to oppression and the antebellum heritage. Of course, time had passed between then and my arrival. The racial realities in 1988 South Carolina were far better—though hardly untroubled—than the situation when the flag was first unfurled there. Still it was there, and it was wrong that it was there.

That sense of wrongness only increased as my doctoral studies taught me far, far more about slavery, about the New South and Jim Crow, and about the truly bleak southern landscape of much of the 20th century. No flag with that sort of history should fly over a seat of government of a state in which so many descendants of the enslaved and the oppressed still dwell.

So, I had finished my conversion and flag was now anathema to me in any public place, right?

Not quite. There’s still a bit of a spark in my heart for it. In part that’s just a bit of childhood that I can’t or won’t let go. In part it may be something else, a reluctance to give up something that I long associated with things that are good: honor and the willingness to value some things more than life.

Is it possible to celebrate the good in something bad, without celebrating the bad? Sure. Can that be done with the Confederacy and its flag? Someday, perhaps, but not now, when the legacy of slavery and the century of struggle over freedom is well within living memory (if not still going on). The misuse of the love of that flag by individuals and groups truly dedicated to hate confirms that.

But when I see people who are not using it for hate’s sake, who see in it what I once saw (and still glimpse), I feel a bit of kinship, right or wrong.

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Timothy Burke - 1/14/2004

I think this is exactly right, that we have to find a way, in trying to change or be different from the past, to hold on to the things that we have emotional ties to, or that have come to have meaning. I think maybe the fundamental political as well as intellectual error of one style of cultural activism from the 1960s on was to assume that changing the meaning of things was as simple as not speaking one group of words, not looking at one group of symbols, not seeing one group of sights, and speaking, looking and seeing some consciously designed alternative or replacement instead. I just don't think we work that way; that creates a challenge to be resentfully overthrown or mocked, rather than a wisdom that encompasses the pain of the past within its everyday sense of the world.

Ophelia Benson - 1/13/2004

Interesting. I found myself in a discussion about ideas of the South, military honor, courage etc. recently (triggered by a discussion of the movie Cold Mountain [which I haven't seen, nor have I read it]). It inspired me to re-read Bertram Wyatt-Brown's 'Southern Honor' which in turn inspired me to re-read Cash's 'The Mind of the South.' Both, of course, talk about a lot of these matters.