Kanye the Unionist
The Confederate flag represents a dark chapter in American history, and Kanye is right to confront it.
Kanye West wants to reappropriate the Confederate flag, and he knows people won’t be happy about it:
React how you want. Any energy is good energy. You know the Confederate flag represented slavery in a way—that’s my abstract take on what I know about it. So I made the song “New Slaves.” So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag. Now what are you going to do?
Thanks to the neo-Confederate movement, I tend to bristle at modern usage of the Confederate flag. But this is different. Kanye isn't trying to redeem the Confederate flag by changing its fundamental meaning, nor is he attempting to whitewash its past as other musicians have tried to do. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J sought earlier this year to decontextualize the Confederate flag and sanitize it as a symbol of the modern South. But by sanitizing it, they unwittingly accepted the central (and false) tenet of neo-Confederate ideology: that the Confederacy didn't fight the Civil War to defend slavery.
One need look no further than its founding fathers to disprove this. On a spring day in Georgia on March 21, 1861, the diminutive ex-senator Alexander Stephens addressed a crowd at Savannah’s Athenaeum. He hailed the newly-proclaimed Confederate States of America, of which he was now Vice President. And he left no illusions as to the rebellion’s purpose:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.
Stephens’ statement demonstrates how deeply rooted slavery and the plantation system were, both as an economic institution and as a way of life, in antebellum Southern society. Southern representatives opposed internal improvements that would threaten slavery’s economic advantage. Southern legislatures tried to nullify tariffs that would weaken “King Cotton” on the international market. Southern senators feared western expansion and the number of free states it would bring into the Union. Fire-eaters like William Yancy and Edward Ruffin claimed that states’ rights were under assault by Northern abolitionist agitators. Southern governors then formed militias to protect slave-owners — the only true aristocracy ever to spring forth from North America — from both abolitionists and slave uprisings after John Brown’s heroic raid on Harper’s Ferry. These militias would later form the nucleus of the Confederate Army.
Slavery was not the Civil War’s only cause, but it was the primary cause, the inescapable cause, the cause over which hundreds of thousands of Americans died. And those who marched to protect slavery marched under the Confederate banner. Kanye is right to place that flag in its historical context. Simply by wearing it as a black man, he forces an audience to confront the inescapable past that flag represents. Yes, the Confederate flag is a rebel flag — and those rebels fought to protect a socioeconomic system predicated on the eternal subjugation of four million men, women, and children. Yes, the Confederate flag is a symbol of the South — a South that bears little resemblance to the modern South, which has made tremendous and irreversible strides forward since the darkest depths of the 1860's.
This forces us to confront another great neo-Confederate myth: that the Confederate flag still represents the modern South. Southerners today, by and large, reject the Confederacy and its ideals. Southern heritage cannot be fully cleaved from the Confederacy, of course, but it need not be inexorably linked to it either. Even in 1860, a notable minority of Southerners refused to support the Confederacy during the war, including figures like Texas’ Sam Houston (who was ousted as governor by secessionists in one of American history’s few coups d’etat) and Tennessee’s Andrew Johnson. Over 100,000 white Southern men joined the Union Army during the war, fighting alongside white Northerners and eventually free blacks to crush the rebellion. They too are a part of Southern heritage, one often suppressed by those whose ideology can only be sustained by the image of a South in lockstep with the slaver aristocracy that led it into civil war.
In an ideal America, no one would use the Confederate flag. It would be universally recognized for what it is — not a symbol of the modern South, but a symbol of hatred, of injustice, of slavery, of treason — and then voluntarily relegated to the pages of history. Never again would it be flown outside of the home of America’s first black First Family. Never again would it paraded through Richmond’s streets. But if anyone is to use the Confederate flag, let it be Kanye West. Let it be the one of the brashest, most outspoken, and most successful black men in America. Let his act of wearing it show the historic injustice that flag represents. And let that act symbolize the full, final, and irrevocable defeat of what the Confederacy stood for.