Just when I think I’ve heard every absurd argument for keeping the Confederate flag flying, I’m treated to the latest – which I’ll paraphrase: “Well, the flag didn’t do anything wrong.”
Of course it didn’t. Symbols can’t do anything. But we can – mostly because we give symbols their power. After all, symbols are malleable things.
When we really get down to it, a symbol is a nexus – where the tangible world meets abstract thought. Symbols are time machines – allowing the past to inhabit and co-mingle with the future. They can embolden and destroy inasmuch as we allow them to.
Tragically, our society is light-years behind other nations in doing as much as we can to right the insidious wrongs of the past, including the long overdue retirement and removal of certain symbols from government-controlled, public spaces. What’s more, one of the only ways we seem to collectively act is when some horrific incident triggers a shock wave through our social consciousness. And even then, oftentimes nothing of substance is done. All that’s left is anger or confusion surrounding the memories of the dead – as with the cases of Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Kimberlee Randle-King, Trayvon Martin, Natasha McKenna, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Dante Parker, Ezell Ford, Freddie Gray, and all of the other women and men – LGBTQIA and straight alike – whose lives were cut short. We have moments of silence to remember. And then we forget. And we go about our days until another victim’s name reverberates in our heads, until another Sandy Hook or Aurora happens and we shake our heads and say “Something has to be done.” Just like I did when I woke up last Wednesday, opened Facebook, and wondered aloud, “What in the hell happened in Charleston?”
What we can do is this: face the facts. Who cherishes the Confederate flag and believes it honors the nation? I can think of a few groups. And there’s little to no racial diversity among them. Of course, when I’ve said that, I’ve heard the other argument (it’s more like a whine, really): “Just because I’m against taking down the Confederate flag doesn’t mean I’m a racist.” Actually, in all likelihood, it does. Let’s face it: anyone against this can only bumble through the semantic shuffle so long before the ugly bits that’re so often veiled are brought to light, or are woven into the tired, moldy chestnut about “heritage not hate.” Whose heritage exactly? Oh, right. The slave-holding Confederacy’s heritage. (And yes, of course there may have been some wonderfully decent people who thought slavery was as disgusting as it was, but got lumped into the rank-and-file and fought for the Confederacy. But you know what? I’m pretty sure those folks would be okay with removing the flag.)
As a born-and-bred southerner, I have to say I’ve never associated that flag with anything good or positive. It always elicited a visceral reaction – one of disgust and fear; it was (and still is) a tacitly understood warning. It’s a symbol whose past is drenched in blood, whose meaning has become so enmeshed with the disgusting atrocities of history that it largely fails to represent anything other than the violence and racism that wove it into existence.
If this country really wants to do something to start mending race relations, we have to start back at square one and remove symbols that celebrate dehumanization and subjugation.
The flag has to come down. It’s the only option.
We owe it to Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson.