A certain odiferously racist symbol is making a comeback at a rural Ontario high school. No, not the swastika. Instead these Canadian students are flying the Confederate flag. That’s right. The South has risen again, North of the border.
Confederate pins, rings, decals — you name it — have become the latest craze at York Region high scool. The defunct flag of the former Confederate States of America was being sported by a large enough minority within the school that the administration had to call an assembly, explain the deep historical and contemporary significance of the symbol, and ban its use on school grounds going forward.
The administration is exactly correct in this matter, and I particularly appreciate that they took the time to give some of their less culturally-literate students a much-needed history lesson. Unfortunately, the complaints of affected students reveal their stubborn ignorance. They’re at that impressionable and inexperienced age where I don’t really want to label them as racist idiots, when they might simply not know better (though I wonder what’s wrong with their parents).
Instead, let’s give them a little remedial lesson, in the form of a Q&A, or a FAQ, as kids these days might call it. Here are our Frequently Asked Questions (at least, in York Region) about the Confederate flag.
Was the Confederacy racist?
Yes. Well, I mean, duh.
In the Southern states that were once members of the self-declared Confederate States of America, and whose attempted secession set off the American Civil War, a certain revisionist view of that time is very popular today. It’s known as “The Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” and its roots go back to the reconstruction period immediately following the South’s Civil War defeat.
In its modern iteration, proud white Southerners imagine a humble, down-to-earth folk whose way of life and independence were threatened by an elitist and totalitarian Union government. Confederate troops fought bravely and skillfully but were steamrolled by sheer force of numbers. Indeed, it never was possible to win this fight, even with moral right on their side.
Notice there’s no mention of the Confederacy’s god-given right to keep people as slaves. In this version of history, the “peculiar institution” wasn’t really what the war was about. But while it is true that Lincoln prioritized maintaining the Union over everything else, including ending slavery, for the South, at least, it was very much about slavery. On the eve of the war, Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens gave his now-famous “cornerstone speech”, from which I’ll quote:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…
Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of my favorite writers on race matters, and definitely the Civil War expert when it comes to short-form journalism. Read his article, “The Ghost of Bobby Lee,” for plenty more detail on what various states and statesmen in the Confederacy had to say about slavery.
Even if the Confederates were racists, hasn’t the meaning of the symbol changed over time, to represent a sort of “country pride” or “Southern pride”?
No, the meaning of the symbol hasn’t changed. The most you can say is that the historically-ignorant have sometimes used the symbol without being fully cognizant of its implications. You can’t take pride in a defunct government whose raison d’etre was preserving slavery without tacitly endorsing a racist view or being remarkably clueless. Even Lynyrd Skynyrd has completely stopped using the flag on their albums and promotional materials, finally coming to terms with its implications (better late than never).
The most prominent organization to make use of the flag today? The Ku Klux Klan.
Even if 99% of people agree it’s racist, aren’t the meanings of words and symbols still individual and relative to the person using them?
In a word: no. I can punch you in the face and then tell you that it was a gesture of respect, but it’s not just a question of what I believe my words and actions mean, but how other people interpret them. Exhibiting pride in our arbitrary circumstances of birth, be that nation, region, city, ethnicity, religion, or even the relative urbanity of our particular community, is, in my view, problematic from the get-go. But if you insist on exhibiting some type of outward “I’m rural and proud of it” signifier, go with a big belt buckle or a cowboy hat. The Confederate flag is taken already.
Photo credit: The Library of Congress American Memories Collection