History and Symbolism

By Malveaux, Julianne | Black Issues in Higher Education, August 5, 1999 | Go to article overview
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History and Symbolism

Malveaux, Julianne, Black Issues in Higher Education

If you drive south on U.S. Route 95 from Washington, D.C., you'll start to see the Confederate flag being used for all kinds of reasons. Some retailers use it to sell automobiles; others use it to sell hot dogs. or Reb, the dirty dog of a Confederate soldier, starts turning up on billboards and placards, I suppose as a way of reassuring some people that this hole-in-the-wall store or that bitty distributorship is "down" with Confederate values.

The symbolism, which some find meaningless and harmless, is frightening to me. Confederate values were those values that not only allowed human beings of one race to enslave human beings of another race, but also impelled people to fight and lose life over the right of one group of people to own others. I'm not sure why fealty to those values would help sell potato chips, bottled water, or automotive pans, but the use of the Confederate flag in retail establishments suggests some kind of coded language.

Those Southerners who say they use the flag to honor their ancestors do not sway me. They really must not think much of their ancestors when the flag is being slapped on everything from museums and state legislatures to juke joints and corner stores! Where, actually, is the reverence in that?

I am fascinated, though, by the way that some people have manipulated history to assert their right to shove "Confederate values" down the throats of those who have been offended by the Confederacy. And I am fascinated by the fact that, more than 140 years after the Confederacy lost the Civil War, the debate over the use of the Confederate flag and other Confederate symbolism continues to rage.

In Richmond, Va., the issue is whether a likeness of Confederate General Robert E. Lee ought to be displayed on a community floodwall. Klansman David Duke has jumped into the Kool-Aid, visiting the majority-Black state capital -- which has only three monuments to African Americans, but dozens of Confederate monuments -- sputtering nonsense about "European" and "Southern" heritage. Duke's embrace of Robert E. Lee is reason enough for African Americans to oppose symbols of the Confederacy.

Virginia isn't the only place where Confederate memorabilia has become a public issue. In Georgia and South Carolina, the issue has been whether the Confederate flag ought to continue to fly in states where the descendants of slaves may have legitimate objections to a concrete symbol of their oppression. In summer, thousands of tourists also throng to Civil War parks and museums, some participating in reenactments of pivotal Civil War battles.

Usually, winners of wars recount history. In the Civil War case, though, the losers often have the ability to put their "spin" on the Civil War story. Villains are transformed into heroes, and losers turn into martyrs. It is easy to so faithfully commemorate the loss of life that we forget that people chose to lose their lives for an oppressive cause. One wonders how the world would look upon reenactments of genocide in Nazi German.

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