25 June 2015
The memory of African people in this hemisphere of the world –as it relates to terrorism in our most sacred and intimate spaces– is long and painful. The recent slaughtering of nine black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina by a white male domestic terrorist was the grotesque reminder that white supremacy continues to render prone black men, women, and children. The heinous slaughter carried out by the white male domestic terrorist Dylann Roof, who brandished a white supremacist triumvirate –namely the apartheid-era South African flag, the old Rhodesian flag, and the Confederate Flag in his social media posts–has renewed the debate over one of the South’s most “prestigious” emblems, the Confederate Flag. Brief History The current Confederate flag that flaps atop the capital grounds in Charleston, South Carolina, according to John Coski’s book, The Confederate Battle, was never the flag of the Confederate States of America. However, according to Coski, “By the middle of the Civil War, it was the most visible Confederate battle flag pattern and had become the most important symbol of the fledgling nation.” On December 20 1860, South Carolina was the first State to secede from the Union shortly after the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln (whose oxymoronic title as the Great Emancipator will be a discussion reserved for another post). Fourth months later, ten other states (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee) followed South Carolina in secession from the Union. These eleven southern states formed the Confederate States of America (CSA). There is no doubt that the flag assumed an embattled existence as both the reminder of southern secession from the United States and a source of white southern pride and heritage. With the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, the battle flag hung at a paradoxical angle. Today, the flag dangles not only as the reminder of a South that lost the Civil War, but also a South that prided itself on a particular sovereignty (aka states’ rights) that included enslaving and exploiting millions of African people and their descendants. Thereto, if we are honest to the historical record, we are required to remember that slavery also existed above the Mason-Dixon Line where another flag waved.
In Light of Its History, Does Removing It Matter?
As a lifelong resident of the South, I am not a fan of the Confederate flag and I think that removing it is a “good call.” However, as a person who spends most of my time studying and writing about black folks and their (our) lives and histories, I’m obligated to ask deeper questions: how does removing the Confederate flag fundamentally alter the reality of black people? Or does it? Once it’s “removed,” does that represent progress? If the current debate over the Confederate flag is centered on its offense to black folks historically, what can we say of the American flag which was also brandished at lynchings and Klan raids? The aforementioned questions require deep and honest thinking. It also requires a departure from the myth and hypocrisy that characterizes the debates we sponsor. While Governor Nikki Haley’s call to remove the flag from capital grounds might appear to be a “win” for anti-Confederate flaggers and more broadly African Americans who rightly take offense to its representation, the reality is that removing the Confederate flag represents little more than discarding an optic sore from the collective gaze. In other words, it doesn’t do anything for African Americans materially. Removing the flag is not a form of corrective justice. It does not fundamentally change the condition of black people and it does not fundamentally change anything about white supremacy or its imposition on the lives of African people in America.
The larger problem (nay reality) is the fact that white supremacy lays claim to the entire American narrative. A narrative under which is housed both the American flag and the Confederate flag. Both flags were appropriated as emblems of white American exceptionalism and white supremacy. We are pressed to remember that Jim Crow transpired under the 13 bars and 50 stars. Does removing the flag matter? I think it will matter, but only in the symbolic, immaterial realm. However, while calling for the removal of the Confederate flag is offered as a moralistic debate rooted in an ugly history, it behooves all of us to remember what the imposition of white supremacy has been as a total system structure on the lives of those rendered “persona non grata” or the non-human Other. For more history on the Confederate Flag consult: Coski, John. The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. Harvard University Press, 2005.