When Bree Newsome scaled to the top of the flagpole outside of the State Capitol of South Carolina (with the help of James Tyson) she did what many black and white Southerners alike had dreamed about for a long time. She simply and with respect, took down the Confederate battle flag. This particular flag was put in place as a direct protest to the Civil Rights Movement back in the 1960’s and there has been a great deal of debate about it ever since. A particularly interesting debate occurred some 3000 miles away last week in my current city of San Diego when Dwayne Crenshaw of RISE San Diego was interviewed by Allen Denton of KUSI about the Confederate flag. I encourage you to watch this entire piece (KUSI Confederate Flag.) Besides the nervous vocal ticks of Allen Denton when he is with Mr. Crenshaw and the interviewer’s not so subtle bias toward the more academic approach of Trevore Humphrey of the San Diego History Center, the most telling moment is when Crenshaw skillfully reminds Denton that yes the Civil War was about economics…the economics of slavery; and yes, the Civil War was about states rights…the right to own slaves. He drives home the central point of everyone who ever objected to the public display of this flag from 1960 to Bree Newsome, to this weekend when the flag finally officially came down: there is no escaping the connection of the “Stars and Bars” with slavery in the United States.
But this leaves us with a very large and challenging vacuum. Suddenly, a symbol that has been adopted by millions of people in the South as a signifier of Southern culture, history, pride, etc., regardless of its direct symbolism of the racial polarization of our nation, has been legally and democratically removed signaling what will probably be a trend of its removal by other governments and agencies. Already retailers have removed it and are refusing to sell it. This is the Paula Deen fiasco on a much larger historical and cultural scale. The days of the even tenuous political correctness of the Confederate Flag are over. What is a Southerner to do in its absence?
I don’t have an answer to that. I was recently involved in a brief Facebook exchange with some black colleagues who spoke of something that we almost all share. We have researched our family history using a number of online tools that are available today and everything is fine until we try to go back before 1865. There are no records of our families or our people or our history prior to 1865. Actually, that’s not true, there are records “Negro/Male/24; Negro/Female/7; Negro/Male/ 50…” They are as anonymous as parts of machinery, for that is all they amounted to for the people keeping records of human life in the United States south prior to 1865. My and my friends histories, were ignored and deleted while our ancestors were slaves. I believe that this is part of the reason we have the kinds of struggles of belonging that we have today among many blacks. We can’t point to our people who facilitated the lives and wealth of our “founding fathers.” We can’t name the nursemaid that cared for the slaveholding elite that drove industry in early 19th century America. We have systematically been written out of the history of the United States prior to 1865.
So, I don’t have an answer to how or what form or why Southern pride will be reborn once the Confederate Flag is uniformly relegated to history books and museums. I do, however, know that Southern pride is very real and a valuable part of what makes the United States what it is. My earnest and sincere hope is that the people of the South are able to find the part of Southern heritage that they can celebrate that doesn’t celebrate the denial of my heritage as a black person.