Diary of a Reb School Graduate: Contemplations on Vexillological Persnicketiness

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In most Southern towns, the best barbecue can be found outside the city in some rickety shack down a dusty road. This was certainly the case in Durham, North Carolina. I had gone to Durham in the summer of 1997 to work at Duke University and had befriended a local fella who was working at the same camp, but who attended Davidson. Neither of us were 21 at the time, so when the rest of the staff went out drinking, he said he would take me to the best BBQ joint in the state.

I don’t remember the name of the spot, and I couldn’t tell you how to get there, but the barbecue was indeed delicious. What I remember more than the pulled pork, though, was a conversation that the owner of the joint had with me. When he saw my hat, emblazoned with “Washington & Lee University,” he pointed his dark brown wrinkled hand at me and asked, “son, you go there?” When I replied in the affirmative, he paused, pulled the corners of his mouth down, then pointedly asked, “son, ain’t that a REB school?” Reb. As in Rebel, as in Confederate, as in the Jefferson Davis, slavery, secession, the Civil War, and Robert E. Lee, one of the men after whom the college was named (the other being George Washington). Not knowing exactly how to respond, I could only shrug sheepishly. Then he shook his head again and warned me with a chuckle, “son, don’t go messin’ with them white girls. They’ll string your ass up.”

Over the years, I have had many versions of this conversation with a great many people. The question is usually about the same: how in the hell is it that a black kid from Oregon went all the way to Virginia and enrolled at a school with a chapel entombing Robert E. Lee and where Confederate flags still hung in dorm rooms and in various administration buildings. Well the short version is that they offered me a full scholarship, and my parents didn’t have much money, so the decision sort of made itself. But that’s being a bit glib. Even at the age of 17, I wouldn’t have enrolled at W&L if I didn’t think that I could handle attending a decidedly Southern school.

But what about that flag? My relationship with the Confederate flag operates on several levels. On the most basic level, I see it as the symbol of an insurrectionary movement begun by traitors who feared losing their slaves. Slavery was the most obviously vile institution in American history, and thus I probably understate my opinion when I saw that my esteem for its defenders is best described as abject disdain. I reject out of hand notions of honor, state’s rights, and all the rest of the defenses for why the South fought the Civil War or why its leaders should be seen as patriots. To me that’s the easy part. The historical record is quite clear on this.

But here is where things begin to become complicated. In terms of what I wanted to do and be in my life, none of this was immediately important. I am proud of the education that I received at W&L, and when I think about the 17-year-old boy I was when I arrived, and the 21-year-old young man I was when I left, I can credit that to the mentorship of professors who knew my name and cared deeply about me as a human being. Hell, even though I haven’t stepped foot on the campus in over a decade, I still look strangers in the eye and say “hello” as we pass. 

When people ask how I could have gone to W&L, what they’re really asking, if we can be blunt, is how the hell I could have tolerated all of the constant overt racism. Yes, the flags bothered me, and so did the occasional condescending comments from classmates and the odd professor. But, truth be told, I experienced just as much of that at Yale as I did at W&L. Even when these things did bother me, though, I’ve always been exceedingly pragmatic about racism. I understand how it can prevent me from getting what I want, and I understand when it is simply hurtful background noise that I need to block out. I’ve become adept at navigating this reality. I went to Lexington, Virginia to get an education and that was my focus. Whatever they could dish out, I could take. Besides, neither then nor now did I have much interest in the Sisyphean struggle of saving white folks from their prejudices and misconceptions.

And ultimately, this is where I part company with many of my fellow black and brown people. I understand that whites should correct themselves and surrender symbols like the Confederate flag, but I cannot see how it’s worth the energies of black folks to fight that battle. Beyond the profound pointlessness of a people in economic, social, and public health crisis wasting time on a flag, there is also the question of whether winning this battle would produce a positive outcome anyhow.

In his inaugural address, Nelson Mandela famously told his new Afrikaner countrymen “wat verby is, is verby.” The message was simple enough: what is past is behind us. Now, in a post-apartheid South African context resetting history to Year Zero made sense, but in an American context this is neither advisable nor possible. But, we do have to find a way to balance memory and accountability on the one hand, and forgetting and forgiveness on the other. My old doctoral advisor, Prof. David Blight, wrote extensively about the question of memory and history, most masterfully in his classic text “Race & Reunion,” which discusses how Americans have imagined and reimagined the Civil War through the subsequent decades. But even he speaks of the necessity of balancing memory and forgetting. In his epilogue to Fitzhugh Brundage’s essay collection, Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity, he wrote that, “too much memory can consume and kill us; without it, though, we risk being ignorant creatures of fate.”[1]

As Nelson Mandela understood, this balance is the key to producing harmony within a multiethnic society. If in fact the Confederate flag is seen as a beloved symbol for Southern whites, it may make sense for blacks to not pick that bear to poke. In his seminal book The Culture of Defeat, Wolfgang Schivelbusch wrote about the psychological processes that defeated peoples go through in the wake of humiliation. The first step he notes is the creation of myths that mitigate the psychological trauma of defeat. Mandela’s genius was to recognize that Afrikaners needed these symbols and myths, and thus celebrations of Boer victories (that is, slaughters of Xhosa and Zulus) and stories of God delivering land to the Afrikaners (that is, blacks having it snatched) were incorporated into the new national mythology. To this day, one can attend school plays in which black school children reenact portions of the Great Trek- that they do so largely without bitterness or irony is an amazing sight. Even the current South African flag incorporates the old Boer Vrikleur flag, and in parliament all of the old national flags are displayed with full honors, and the busts of all the old National Party leaders –save Hendrik Verwoerd, the inventor of apartheid- remain in the foyer. The power of these steps in placating whites cannot be overstated.

The worry, of course, is that allowing Southern whites to have these symbols will be both immediately toxic to relations with blacks and also inconsistent with a truthful narrative of American history. This is where my pragmatic inclinations most nakedly overwhelm my training in history. The fact is that we already live within a nation whose history has undergone many comprehensive retroactive continuities. Our ability to square our love of country with the reality of its history requires the acceptance (or at least tolerance) of a whole slew of vital lies. In American history, nearly every triumphal moment is coupled with an ugly inconvenient fact. Which ideas and facts we choose to emphasize shifts through the years and has been hugely important to questions of our national self-identity. For example, in his March 1860 speech at New Haven, then-candidate Abraham Lincoln spoke of America’s history and destiny and compared slavery to a venomous snake coiled in the family bed in order to demonstrate the dangers posed by that institution to the basic functions and ideals of democracy. But, one could just as easily put this metaphor on its head, and assert that the Enlightenment values proclaimed in the Declaration and hidden throughout the Constitution were themselves snakes in the bed of a slave nation as created by its slave-owning Founders. Certainly most wealthy Southerners in 1859 would have seen it that way.

However one views the essential nature of America at its inception, what is true is that as America moved beyond slavery in the 19th century, and de jure segregation in the 20th century, Americans would come to see these moments, not as a departure from our essential character, but as fulfillments of it. Or, at least as corrections of prior deviations from it. Such a perspective requires constant reimagining of who we are and who we were. The notions of becoming and fulfillment found their most eloquent expression in the opening thirty words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Within this paradigm the Civil War was not a deviation from the trajectory of a slave-holding nation, it was the fulfillment of an America that had always been there, but was just not realized; after all, Lincoln told us, America was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” But, re-remembering these moments as events in line with a newly formed platonic ideal of America required a comprehensive retroactive continuity that imposed a false seamlessness onto a morally disjointed past.

So when I hear Southerners claim that the Confederate flag has this or that (historically inaccurate) meaning, what I hear is very much in line with our national commitment to willful ignorance. Like Othello’s Iago telling the audience, “I am not what I am,” white Southerners want history to know that a few bad choices (Oops! Slavery!) are not indicative of their true history and heritage. Many non-Southerners, perhaps suffering from a bout of historical parallax, would take some righteous satisfaction in condemning the South for such self-serving assertions, while at the same time ignoring the broader vital lie that undergirds America’s self-conception: we are not what we are. Or, perhaps more generously, we were never who we now say we were.

I will conclude by offering a sort of non-example. That is, it’s a question that could have been asked, but never was. I have an older brother who attended Amherst College and another who grew up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. How might the classmates of the latter feel about a school whose founder, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, has two main claims to fame: 1) the college that bears his name, and 2) while under George Washington’s command, he helped to wipe out several Indian tribes by distributing smallpox-infested blankets. On the hierarchy of evil, I don’t know where Lord Jeff stands relative to Robert E. Lee or, for that matter, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But I do know that we have collectively decided that the maintenance of national mythology requires us to laud certain slave-holding Southern elites who led an insurrection but to relegate others to the dustbin of history. I say this not to rehabilitate Lee or Jefferson Davis (they are scoundrels), but rather to note that as we go about the necessary process of picking which villains to laud, we should acknowledge, to ourselves at least, that who gets sacrificed for the purpose of a narrative with heroes and villains is a largely arbitrary process- or at least an illogical one.

Hate the Stars ‘n Bars if you want, but try not to think about how every one of those stars on our beloved Old Glory represents an act of land theft and try to ignore that the red stripes might better be understood, not as the blood of patriots, but as the blood of millions of slaves and Indians who had to die to build the country. In other words, if it eliminates a distraction and eases reconciliation, we can tolerate that Confederate flag because American history has ample room for useful dishonesties.

When I think about my people and the plight of black folks, there are a million things I worry about. None of them have anything to do with the Confederate flag. Yes, white people should take it down, but from my perspective that’s an issue for them to figure out. If the opinions of black folk had sway on the matter, it never would have flown over a statehouse in the first place.  But a lot of black people have grown old and died trying to teach white people the meaning of justice; certainly. It’s time to let that one go and focus on getting ourselves right.

[1] Fitzhugh Brundage, “No Deed but Memory,” in Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity, ed. Fitzhugh Brundage, (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2000), 352.

 

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