Flying the flag at the cemetery and 'the Duality of the Southern Thing'

On Friday morning at 10 AM, South Carolina will remove the Confederate flag and the pole it flies on from its statehouse lawn, a move long overdue. Simultaneously, the House of Representatives is grappling with the display of the flag in federal cemeteries—some of which house Confederate dead. The GOP is pulling the appropriations bill until "we come to some resolution," said Speaker John Boehner. 

The risks of barring the National Park Service from allowing private groups to decorate the graves of Southern soldiers with Confederate flags are two-fold.

First: On a federal level, we cannot separate intent from perception when it comes to the display of symbols. On a private level, we can appeal to the populace to be more enlightened, more educated, more sensitive—but we can’t mandate it in the absence of discrimination. I think the sanitizing of commemorative gestures by private citizens by a government agency is an overstep. While the government can and should create a culture in which inappropriate symbology goes unsupported, I don't think it should have the authority to bar its citizens from expression on public property—even if it is problematic.

Second: On both a personal and a historical level, I am uncomfortable with the sanitization of history. Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts addressed this very cogently with regards to the debate over the removal of Confederate monuments, but the same argument applies to forcing Southerners to contend with their history in a prescribed way. Kytle and Roberts wrote, "Historical monuments are interpretations of one era but also artifacts of another. Confederate and proslavery memorials embody, even perpetuate, deeply flawed narratives of the Old South and the Civil War. Yet they also reveal essential truths about the time during which they were erected."

I am not ashamed of my Southern heritage. I have shame, but that is not the same as being ashamed of my forbearers—the latter implies a desire to erase them from my history, and that is not the case. They fought for a terrible cause, but that does not make them terrible men. They were the product of a society that valued honor above all else and their definition of honor was a willingness to take up arms for one’s homeland, one’s government. The argument that conscientious objection would have been the more honorable, the more moral choice, is a powerful one, and one I subscribe to. But it does not make their actions wholly condemnable—just human, and in their own way, worthy of memory if not necessarily adulation. It’s an uncomfortable and gray distinction (pun absolutely intended), but I do not believe it is an apologia. It is as honest of a reckoning as I can make of imperfect men in an imperfect time. It does not stop me from having shame—but it does stop me from being ashamed or wishing I was not of those men.

I am not going to go hang flags on the graves of my forbearers—I’m actually not sure where any of them are, to be honest—but I refuse to dictate the terms by which other children of the South reckon with their own complicated history. It is my fervent hope that we can remember the human, honor the dead and make peace with the shame without glorifying the cause for which they fought. Patterson Hood put it succinctly and perfectly in his op/ed in the Times today: "When our kindly Grandpa says 'state's rights,' that’s the 'right' he’s talking about. Unfair tariffs? Many of the soldiers in the Civil War probably couldn’t spell 'tariff.' But they certainly knew that the South's economy and very way of life was built upon the backs of men, women and children of color."

(By the way, while we’re talking about things from the South worthy of great admiration, Patterson Hood—and Isbell and the whole of their 2001 release "Southern Rock Opera"—should be held up an antidote to apologia and an education in both pride and unflinching honesty. Thanks, y'all, for being a touchstone and a voice for the not-insignificant number of conscientious Southerners, who, as Hood indicated about his father, "looked at George Wallace and Bull Connor with great disdain, and was mortified to think that people around the world believed all Southerners were like that.")

It's a tall order, this conversation with our history. There are those on both sides that argue that there should be no negotiation—that we should tear down the monuments and ban the flag; or conversely, that the flag should be flown over state legislative houses as a symbol of region or history or... I don't know, I don't understand the argument for institutional support for a government that no longer exists and fought to enslave part of the population of the current state. It's literally crazy talk, why did we even have to have this conversation?  

So I'm thrilled the South Carolina legislature is taking down a flag that it has no business flying over a government institution. And I hope—God, I hope—that as a people, we will choose not cling to a painful symbol of the past because we refuse to accept any portion of blame. It's not my flag—I am choosing for it not to be my flag—and I hope that more and more, Southerners will take up that rallying cry. I hope that the argument over whether folks should be allowed to place the Confederate flag on the graves of the dead will be purely academic.

But I refuse to mandate how private citizens tell their story and I will not—and I'm going to use some loaded language here—support federal attempts to reconstruct individuals into a more sanitary version of history.

Read the first installment of this Southerner's take on the flag controversy.