On the Confederate flag: a rare (possibly unique) political post

My sister emailed me from Canada to ask what I thought about the issue of Confederate flags in the South, and after some consideration, I’ve decided to post my reply to her here. Though I have strong opinions on a range of issues, I generally don’t write about those opinions in this space. This is a fibre arts blog, and I try to keep it free of the strife and antagonism that’s easily found all over the internet in our increasingly shouty climate. Once I wrote these thoughts out for her, however, I realized that I wanted to put them out there. I hope you will bear with me. This won’t become a regular thing, I promise.

For context, I’m a Canuckian married to a Southerner who was born and raised in Birmingham, AL. I’ve lived here in Birmingham for many years, and though I’ll never fully grasp the nuances of the culture and history of the South, I believe I’m coming to understand and love the place I now call home. So with that in mind, here’s what I told her, as an immigrant who’s been here long enough that my accent sounds funny to everyone:

Well, the people I know here are pretty embarrassed about it: the idea that one can somehow separate slavery and racism from a symbol that has been used almost entirely by slavery apologists and racists is insulting, and the fact that the flag still flies at many state capitol buildings down here is infuriating. Of course, the group ‘people I know’ is pretty much restricted to lefties and non-racists, so it’s hardly a cross-section of Southern thought, but there are a lot more of us down here than you’d think, given that the right-wing loonies and racism apologists are louder and have more control of the press. The irony of the whole ‘the war was long ago and we’re just honouring our dead/our culture/Southern pride’ argument is that when it comes to commemorating the civil rights movement of the 60s, the same people say, ‘why must you bring up our unpleasant past when we’ve moved on?’ (Seriously, there were prominent people in Birmingham who didn’t want to commemorate the 50th anniversary of ’64 because why bring up ugly history? I shake my head.) For years, [my husband] has talked about getting bumper stickers made with a Confederate flag with a red circle and line through it and the words, “We lost. Get over it.” I still think he could sell a lot of them.

So my take, and the take of Southern friends I’ve talked to about it, is: Take the damned flags down. It’s racist, it commemorates atrocities, and it has no place on government property, nor should African Americans still have to be dealing with this crap. Having that flag on the grounds of the seats of power down here says some very ugly things about the people sitting in the state legislature, and the hand-flaily arguments to keep it there are just embarrassing. The South is about so much more than the Civil War, and there are innumerable ways to show justified pride in the good things about this place. That flag isn’t one of them, and clinging to it gives credence to those from elsewhere who stereotype the people of this region as a bunch of ignorant rednecks and oppressed black people.

Ahem. A bit ranty, for which I apologize. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty hot topic down here.

If you’re interested in why, if there are so many progressives here, the South overwhelmingly votes right, Donna Ladd wrote an excellent piece on the subject for The Guardian.

7 Comments

  1. Kristin

    Well said, E., well said indeed.

    1. Thank you, Kristin. Coming from you, especially, that means a lot.

  2. Alison James

    Great essay!

  3. Alison James

    I really like this post. In fact, I would like to put your rant on my Facebook page, if you let me. Also, I read the Guardian article, which was really good.

    Unfortunately, too many in the north still see the south of the 60’s. Jerks like the creep in Charleston don’t help. It is a lot harder to see normal people just trying to get along, and it is also difficult to see all the good stuff about the south, through the filter of bad memories. I have to say, I really liked Birmingham, although that is something I would never have said before I visited.

    And then there are the US gun laws. OK, don’t let me get started on that one.

    Much love,

    Mumacita/Alison >

    1. Please do feel free to share it. As you can tell, I was a bit unsure about posting on the subject here; I’m both pleased and relieved to see such a positive response to it.

  4. As one with a southern mother and more time living in Georgia than I liked, your rant…ahem, essay, is right on. But it is a complicated issue and that racism is alive and well in ALL sections of the country should not be overlooked. As we were once discussing in our college days (early seventies, in Georgia…heavy sigh), about how blacks and whites interact in the south, we came to the conclusion after going over the cases of very close and loving relationships between blacks and whites in the south that we knew (among the older generation) and the vicious riots in the Boston, etc. that the South loves the individual but hates the race and the North loves the race but hates the individual.

    We were young and so hopeful for our black friends amongst us, sincerely thinking that all would be well in 30 years…how naive and simplistic we were.

    1. You’ve hit it right on the head, Michelle, especially about the difference between north and south.

      It’s a complicated issue, indeed, and I rarely comment publicly about southern issues because they are so complicated and multi-layered that a non-southerner will never completely understand. Indeed, I ran that email past himself before sending it to make sure I didn’t misspeak. I’ve put my foot in it more than once here, though people were forgiving ’cause I’m a crazy foreigner and folks here tend to be pretty gracious.

      Your point about all sections of the country is an excellent one–when my non-southern friends go on about racism here, I quickly point to the many, many race issues in the north, and Canada’s own horrendous treatment of First Nations people. If anything, I find that southerners–at least the ones I’ve met in the cities–tend to be very sensitive to racism, precisely because of the past. Interestingly, the racial make-up of the Birmingham police force reflects that of the (mostly African American) population of the city–a massive shift from the 60s, as you know–and they have a pretty good reputation as police forces go. The suburbs are a different story: I could go on and on about it (and did, but deleted because wall o’ text). Suffice to say that a) we’re not even close to where we want to be, though we’re moving (mostly) in the right direction, and b) I’m so glad to be living in my bubble in the city, near the university, surrounded by people from everywhere, with friends with whom I can have honest conversations about these issues.

      ETA: And yeah, it’s far from being only a southern thing.

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