Monday, June 29, 2015
Burning My Confederate Flag
by Akim Reinhardt
To be born in America in 1967 is, to some degree, to fall through the cracks.
The Baby Boom was most certainly over by then, its most senior elements old enough to vote and drink. But the Millennials, now the focus of every drooling advertising executive and marketing guru, were naught but twinkles in the eyes of their Boomer sires and dames.
Bookmarked between bigger generations, being born in the late 1960s and early 1970s meant you were conceived and suckled amid the tumult of the Civil Rights and Vietnam protests; in (cloth) diapers when the moon landing occurred; discovering kindergarten as President Richard Nixon’s Plumbers were bumbling the Watergate break-in; and learning to read when the final U.S. helicopters evacuated Saigon.
To be born in 1967 means that when the late 1960s and early 1970s were becoming iconic, you were there, but you weren't. You didn't get to partake in the Summer of Love. You're what it spit out.
Thus, when coming of age, many important things were very familiar to you, but their meanings were muddled. Cultural symbols like bell bottom jeans and rubber Richard Nixon masks were still common enough to be lodged in your consciousness, but deeper insights were lacking. By the time you were waking up in the late 1970s, they seemed to be little more than goofs, unmoored from the bloody anti-war protests that divided a nation, or the collapse of a presidency that shook Americans' faith in their government.
Sure, we understood our own moment well enough. Late Cold War and early computers. AIDS and acid rain. Crack cocaine and homelessness. But the gravitas that had conceived us was by then little more than parody and catharsis. Black Power surrendered to Blacksploitation. Protest songs gave way to disco and synth pop. Vietnam was reduced to Rambo.
And if the late 1970s began glossing over so much of what had immediately preceded it, then the 1980s buffed it into a smooth, porcelain sheen. In pop culture representations of the 1960s and early 19790s, substance had been overtaken by style. Symbols, absent their meaning, were rendered fashion accessories and punch lines. A case in point was the Confederate flag.
Maybe it was different in the South. It almost certainly was, I suppose, at least to some extent. But growing up in a Jewish-Irish section of the Bronx during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Confederate flag was little more than a rarely seen piece of kitschy exotica. It was about as common as a Don't Tread On Me Flag in the pre-Tea Party era, and seemed to carry about as much meaning, which was almost none. It came across as gaudy and irrelevant, a relic of some bygone era.
If the Stars and Bars, which looked like the redheaded stepchild of Old Glory and the Union Jack, was to be taken seriously at all, it was only as a token of the losing side in the Civil War more than a hundred years earlier. But beyond that, on the rare instances the banner caught your glance, it was merely cartoonish.
The Confederate flag was something you associated with Southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was painted on the side of a hot rod in the bubble gum TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. For a teenager in the Bronx in the 1980s, if the Confederate flag signified anything at all, it was drunk people in cutoffs.
Which is all just a long winded, and perhaps self-rationalizing explanation of why I bought one at a tourist trap in 1985.
Our senior year of high school, three friends and I piled into a small, brown Toyota Corolla and drove from the Bronx to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break. Only two of us knew how to drive a stick. Only one of us had a license.
Our parents were a bit tentative about the whole thing, but when we rotated a smattering of well timed lies among them to tweak the details, they all signed off.
My dad took me down to the bank, got me some traveler's checks, and instructed me to find a good hiding spot in the hotel room for my cash; I elected to stash it above a drop ceiling tile. Another dad, a thickly accented German Jewish immigrant, urged us to be safe and responsible, passing his son a string of condoms through the car window just before we hit the road.
It was a different time.
Our parents had suggested we stop in North Carolina the first night, as it was about halfway and they didn't want us driving tired. But we were young and full of steam, and we plowed on. Late that first afternoon, we crossed the North Carolina-South Carolina state line and pulled into a tourist trap whose billboards we'd been mocking for miles. It's called South of the Border.
For those unfamiliar with the I-95 jaunt down the East Coast, South of the Border is a massive, Mexican-themed rest stop that's been around since the 1950s. It's also got a lot of Southern tchotchkes, and it was there that, on a lark, I purchased a polyester Confederate flag for a couple of bucks.
I thought Daisy Duke was hot. I liked Lynyrd Skynyrd and a few other bands of that ilk. I stuffed the flag into my bag, we crowded back into the Corolla, and continued embarking on our comically misguided adventure.
As the years went by, my flag languished. To be perfectly honest, I have almost no recollection of what I did with it over the next decade. I assume I hung it on various walls and draped it over random objects. But then again, it may very well have remained stuffed in the corners of closets much of the time. It made virtually no long term impression on my life. Rather, the object remained true to its origins: another meaningless piece of crap picked up at a tourist trap while on vacation. The very first, in fact, that I could ever lay claim to, and I quickly learned the lesson: Don't bother.
By the late 1990s, I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, earning a Ph.D. in history. I had my own place, a spacious 1 BR with beautiful wooden floors, a living room and a dining room, faux Dutch molding on the ceiling, and both a front and back porch.
The back porch was really more of a mud room off the kitchen and it led out the back door. The front porch, however, was reasonably large and screened in. Being the bearded heathen I was, I squandered this pleasant space, using it to stow random crap and to house the litter box for my two cats. Since the screened porch was perpetually ventilated, I allowed myself to change the litter far less often than I should have.
One day, while scooping the poop, I noticed the old Confederate flag, crumpled in the corner and enmeshed in cat hair. I picked it up. It stank. Perhaps the porch wasn't ventilating as well as I'd presumed. Time for this thing to go, I thought. But let's do it in style.
I phoned up my friends and told them I was having a flag burning party. Come on over. We'll drink whiskey (that's about as far as my party planning skills generally take me), and at the stroke of midnight, I'll burn my Confederate flag while playing "Sweet Home Alabama" by Skynyrd.
Now that I was a history graduate student with a better understanding of the past, it seemed like a just ending for this troublesome symbol. It seemed like an appropriate demise for a piece of tourist trap ephemera. It seemed like a good excuse to have a party.
My friends arrived. We drank some whiskey. Mostly we drank cheap beer. And as midnight approached, I placed a Skynyrd album on the turntable and dropped the needle. I went out to the front porch, stood beside the litter box, held the Stars and Bars aloft, and flicked open my zippo.
The song had barely gotten underway before it was all over. I didn't stop to consider that polyester is, after all, that most petroleum based of all our beloved synthetic fibers. Nor that cat hair, of which there was a considerable coating, is also quite flammable.
When you think of a flag burning, you probably envision some angry protestor waving the flaming banner over and over in a display of fierce and dangerous recalcitrance. This, however, turned out to be more like Wile E. Coyote getting burnt to a crisp in no time flat.
It was all a bit anti-climactic. The song still had quite a ways to go. I went back inside, lifted the tone arm prematurely, and popped a tape in the cassette deck. Time to move on, lest the party end as quickly as the flag had.
The ashes remained on the front porch, amid the clutter and litter, until I finally cleaned up the apartment on my way out in 2000.
Symbols, of course, can mean many things to many people. Such is the very nature of symbols. And when those symbolic meanings clash, negotiation is sometimes in order.
In 1995, just before moving to Nebraska, I was best man at a Hindu wedding. Learning that I was half-Jewish, the groom's side assured me they would cover up the Hindu swastika that is used in one of the rituals. Hearing of this, I sent word that I understood the Nazis had misappropriated this ancient symbol from India, and that I would not be offended in the least by its presence. They covered it anyway, out of respect for me.
Shortly thereafter, while studying American Indian history, I learned that the swastika pattern appears in numerous cultural displays across Indigenous North America. In fact, it was so common in Dene (Navajo) woolen tapestries, that during World War II, the United States made them disown it.
However, the various symbolisms of the Confederate flag are not nearly as far flung as the global reach of the swastika. It's pretty much just an America thing, and the palette of meaning is much more limited.
It was the emblem of the rebellious Confederacy during the Civil War. Afterwards, it slowly faded from view, particularly outside the South, remaining in American memory with pretty much just that one meaning. Then, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, white supremacists proudly resuscitated the Stars and Bars. It became ubiquitous in the South again, re-emerging as the symbol of modern racism.
Instead of just representing the Civil War of the 1860s, the Confederate flag was now waved to assert "states rights," a common and flimsy excuse for maintaining legalized segregation. And in this effort, the flag once again represented a failed cause. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the end of Jim Crow segregation in the South and in those parts of the West where it was also on the books.
After the Civil Rights movement asserted itself during the 1960s, and the bloody battle over Jim Crow ended, the Confederate flag's symbolic meaning was finally able to become a bit fuzzier. It could represent the Civil War. It could represent a modern white supremacy. Or it could, more innocuously, represent a somewhat generic pride in the South's rich heritage, culture, and traditions.
And of course, as the number of symbolic meanings grew, meaning itself could melt away into the vagaries of fashion and pop culture. It was in this sense that the Confederate flag often got waved at rock concerts, or painted onto the side of a car in a TV show, or purchased at a tourist trap during a truly epic and ill-advised Spring Break fiasco.
Consequently, there is a temptation to say we must emphasize the context. Just as there was no need for that Hindu family to cover up their swastika in my presence, and just as it was wrong for the federal government to strong arm Denes into disowning the swastika, isn't it also wrong for us to now demand that the Confederate flag be erased from official display in the South Carolina state house?
It is not wrong for us to demand that, in light of a Confederate flag-loving racist slaughtering black churchgoers in South Carolina, that the state of South Carolina finally remove this longstanding emblem of racial hatred and repression from its official public display.
For starters, the Stars and Bars is not some ancient symbol cris-crossing world cultures ranging from the Indigenous Americas to India. Rather, it is a uniquely American product, barely 150 years in age.
Second, while we can talk about fuzziness and innocuousness all we want, the simple fact is, the Confederate flag had only one real meaning for about a century. It was the calling card of the Confederate States of America: a would be nation state born from the Southern elite's desperate effort to retain slavery, and the destruction of which is the only reason the United States completely abolished slavery in 1865.
Furthermore, the Confederate flag's rebirth in the 1950s and 1960s was most certainly not fuzzy or innocuous. It was part of a segregationist program. It was the logo of racism. The fuzziness and innocuousness only came later, during my own lifetime, and I'm really not that old.
So on the one hand, I don't have anything against the harmless, reasonably innocent, though perhaps mildly misguided individual who sports a Confederate bumper sticker to announce their love of fried food and bent vowels. Many people, both black and white, love the South and, for reasons that actually make a lot of sense to me, would rather live there than in the North or West. The music, the food, the weather, the sweet tea, and most of all, the people.
However, I also understand the history of this very troubled symbol. And over the years, I have also met and talked with a fair number of very serious racists for whom the Confederate flag symbolizes the goal of initiating a RaHoWa (Racial Holy War) that "cleanses" America of blacks and other non-whites.
Furthermore, I also understand that the Confederate flag was originally flown atop the South Carolina statehouse dome only as recently as 1962, and it was not placed there innocuously or in a moment of fuzziness. Rather, the South Carolina state government raised the Confederate flag as a resentful, nasty, stubborn statement in support of American apartheid. And so it never should have gone up to begin with, regardless of the playfulness it represents to some people nowadays. That it has fluttered this long above a government building is both an insult and an embarrassment.
So I'm glad that not only is the state of South Carolina finally debating removing the Confederate flag from its statehouse, but that this movement of questioning the flag and other Confederate memorials has spread into the wider culture and become part of the national debate.
I'm glad that the nation's oldest maker of Confederate flags has announced it will cease production of them.
I'm glad that retailers including Amazon, Ebay, Sears, and even Arkansas' own Wal-Mart, have announced they will no longer sell the Confederate flag.
I'm glad Warner Bros. will no longer sell Dukes of Hazzard toy cars with a Confederate flag emblem.
And I'm glad that I burned my two-bit polyester version many years ago.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Posted by Akim Reinhardt at 07:18 AM | Permalink