A Southerner's entreaty to take down the flag

Jason Isbell—one of the modern South’s smartest chroniclers—recently tweeted about the Confederate flag: "It's not helping you be more southern. Give it up."

Out of all the commentary that the flag of the one-time Confederate States of America has generated lately, Isbell's comment has resonated most powerfully with me, perhaps because it grapples with one of the core struggles of my identity: What it means to be Southern.

As a nation, we have argued this week about what the flag means. It is at its worst—and probably irrevocably at its heart—a banner for hideous racism. The creators of the Confederate States of America were explicit in that regard (read Ta-Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic).

There are those that argue—I believe in good faith—that this is not so, that the flag can refer to a variety of different meanings. But one of those interpretations of the flag I believe is nothing more than frustration of circumstance and the other is tantamount to a willful and ultimately regressive blindness.

Megan Garber wrote a really smart piece in The Atlantic this week about the evolution of the flag as a symbol of generalized rebellion, a meaning that latched on to the coattails of the states' rights indications of the flag. Flying the stars and bars is a kind of generalized "fuck the government," a paean to a man’s right to go his own way. How else, my friend Samantha points out, do you account for the sheer number of rebel flags she saw flying the last time she was in rural Oregon? The diaspora of attic Confederates isn't that great—and God willing, there aren’t that many confirmed white supremacists floating around. (Depressingly, given the kind organization that Dylann Roof was a part of, there’s obviously more than any of us want to believe.)

In the South especially, it's easy to see how this interpretation could become rooted in culture. Even now, the South is incredibly poor. North Carolina and a few other Southern states saw the greatest increases in the number of people living in "poverty areas" between 2000 and 2010, according to a 2014 Census Bureau report. And they can’t get out of it, either: children born in poor homes in the South are the least likely to climb the economic ladder, according to the Equality of Economic Opportunity Project.

I looked up these figures, but I didn’t have to. Take a day to drive through the dearth of industry that is Mississippi and it’s easy to understand where the wry expression "Thank God for Mississippi" came from. Two hundred and fifty years ago, the South was built on agriculture—and with a few notable exceptions, we never evolved. We clung stubbornly to the idea that prosperity, if it came again, would come from the ground.

That kind of pervasive poverty is fertile soil for the fortification of a symbol as powerful as the Confederate flag. If you take a people that are trapped in inescapable dirt-road, going-nowhere towns—Drive By's "Buttholeville"—a kind of nameless rebellion may be all you have. The flag became a dead-end repository for all that was ever complex and unfair about low-income rural life in the South.

The second interpretation of the flag is the one that I grew up under. I don't remember the first time I was exposed to the flag but I do remember standing in our driveway when I was five or six and singing every word to "Look Away, Dixieland"—a song that some will tell you is a racist relic and others will defend under the "heritage not hate" interpretation. We didn't exactly hang the flag in our front yard, but I definitely grew up in home that adhered to the latter way of thinking. I was taught that between 1861 and 1864, the United States fought a civil war to resolve the economic and political limits of federal authority—not a moral dispute. I'm deliberately not going to fight that war here.

In my house, the flag was representative (I think now) of an entrenching of dogma, a loyal refusal to look directly at the sins of our forebearers. To suggest any other identity of the South than an invaded people was tantamount to spitting on the grave of my great-great-grandaddy who was captured at Cedar Creek.

Critics have said the moony-eyed sentimentality of Southerners—this crippling affliction we have that causes us all to rush to her defense—is nothing but a submerged yearning for the days of slavery. I can't be so cynical as that, or I condemn myself and everyone I love to hell—and I would be cheapening my bone-deep affection for a place that, for all its unutterable flaws, has tremendous things to value. But I do think it is incumbent of us, if we are to defend her, to come to some kind of reckoning about our abject refusal to let go of the symbols of a bygone and inhumane era.

There are things to be proud of in the Southern experience. We can be proud of her rivers and mountains—was there ever a more beautiful piece of ground than Shenandoah? We can be proud of the fierce independence famous in her sons and daughters, in the cultural emphasis we place on generosity, hospitality and grace—even if sometimes we fail utterly. We can be proud of Walker Percy and Maya Angelou, of Martin Luther King, Jr., of Johnny Cash and Jason Isbell.

But there are also things for which we should be profoundly ashamed, namely the willingness to defend to the death the right to own another human being. To be a Southerner, I think, we cannot ignore that—maybe why those that love her the most are her fiercest detractors (W.G. Cash, I’m looking at you). Mississippi-born Willie Morris, once the youngest editor Harper's Magazine, wrote that he never stopped fighting "the old warring impulses of one's sensibility to be both Southern and American."

At its most benign, the flag is a symbol that has outgrown its usefulness. More frankly, it is the de facto symbol of a shameful period of our regional history. So why can't we let it go? I suppose because it feels disloyal. But recognizing the failings of our forebearers is not the same as being disloyal to them—I'd argue refusing to look them in the face honestly is a greater disloyalty. You can't be loyal to a fantasy.

I don't give a shit about fighting the damn war over and over, of finding blame—there are a thousand arguments we could have about whether Lincoln forced the South's hand at Sumpter, if the only reason slavery didn't survive north of the Mason-Dixon was because it wasn't economically viable for an economic system comprised of small farms and industry—and I don't care about any of them, except to say that in few wars does either side walk the moral high ground without slipping. My reckoning is that either by virtue of economics or moral failure or both—does it even matter?—we were late to the party in rejecting a terrible human crime. Let's not cling to a painful symbol of the past because we refuse to accept any portion of blame.

The South's most representative female heroine—a character I love in spite of the deeply problematic book she exists in—was famous for her inability to look back: "Scarlett moved impatiently. She had thought Grandma was going to understand and perhaps show her some way to solve her problems. But like all old people she'd gotten to talking about things that happened before anyone was born, things no one was interested in. Scarlett wished she had not confided in her."

The South was on the wrong side of history and like Scarlett, I would rather look forward. I prefer to find my identity as a Southerner in 2015, not 1864—and we don't need a flag for that. It's not helping us be more Southern. Take it down.