The Truth Does Not Change According to Our Ability to Stomach It: A Southerner’s Perspective on the Confederate Flag

In the wake of the Charleston massacre, I’ve limited myself to reblogging, retweeting, and reading the words of the Black community. As a person, I grieve the loss of human life, but I can’t pretend to know what it feels like to be a Black person in America right now. My words about grief, about mourning, aren’t useful to anyone, because the words of a white person’s experience of empathy are not what America should be hearing when we’re hearing about grief. As a country, we must listen to Black people who are — as they have always been — speaking directly to their own experience. On that note: my heart is with the victims’ families, and with the Black community in this country.

Within the last several days, there have been a lot of conversations happening nationwide and within my communities (internet and IRL). Racism, obviously, is chief among them. Others include mental health and gun control. Again, I don’t feel that my voice as a neurotypical person adds anything of value to conversations about mental health. I don’t own guns. I’m not even well-versed in my local gun laws (incredibly lax though I know them to be). There is one conversation that I feel I can add to, and it is the shameful debate that we in the South have been having for far too long: the flying of the Confederate flag. From this point forward, I speak directly to other white Southerners in the hopes that any reading this will consider my words carefully.

It is an outrage that the confederate flag is still flying in the year 2015. As a southerner who values and loves her home, I am ashamed and embarrassed by the people who continue to fly it privately outside their homes, and in particular by those who endorse its flight on government property.

If you are asking why the confederate flag is racist, here is your answer.

Here is my experience: I have lived in the Deep South for my entire life. I have a complicated relationship with this place, but that relationship is rooted in deep love. I love my home. I’m proud to be a Georgian and a Southerner. When I look at the South, I see the immense amount of work to be done. Growing up here — in particular, growing up rural — instills a certain work ethic in you. You work to fix what’s worth fixing. I hold a deep belief that my home is worth fixing.

For reasons too varied and complicated to get into here, white Southerners are fond of revisionist history. In our schools and homes, the history of the confederacy gets warped. As a kid, I heard a lot about how the civil war wasn’t simply fought over slavery: it was fought over states’ rights. That’s a nice, pretty way of saying that it was fought over “the states’ rights… to enslave other humans,” but as a young person in school, you probably don’t think about that. You learn what they tell you, and you grow up to teach what you’ve learned to the next generation.

This cycle has to stop. It has to stop, right now, with you. You need to listen. You need to wake up. I know that Southerners love pride. We are proud of a lot: our food, music, art, work ethic, land, God, family… the list is a mile long.

What we cannot be proud of is our roots in the Confederate States of America. Pride in the Confederacy is irresponsible, it is dangerous, and it is dishonest. Lay aside the revisionist history you were fed in the sixth grade, and open a book. Southern historian Gordon Rhea can lay it out for you right now:

“The battle flag was never adopted by the Confederate Congress, never flew over any state capitols during the Confederacy, and was never officially used by Confederate veterans’ groups. The flag probably would have been relegated to Civil War museums if it had not been resurrected by the resurgent KKK and used by Southern Dixiecrats during the 1948 presidential election.
… It is no accident that Confederate symbols have been the mainstay of white supremacist organizations, from the Ku Klux Klan to the skinheads. They did not appropriate the Confederate battle flag simply because it was pretty. They picked it because it was the flag of a nation dedicated to their ideals: ‘that the negro is not equal to the white man’. The Confederate flag, we are told, represents heritage, not hate. But why should we celebrate a heritage grounded in hate, a heritage whose self-avowed reason for existence was the exploitation and debasement of a sizeable segment of its population?”

Our history is grotesque. That is the fact that white southerners have to accept: the confederacy is nothing to be proud of. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

I’m not saying all of this to condemn the contemporary South. I’m saying it because I believe in it, now. When I look around me, I see a place whose values I align myself with proudly: I value the intimacy of community. I value the determination it takes to scrape by. I value coming together. I believe in these things, and I believe in the potential of my home to be a good place for every citizen in it. I love the South, and I want it to be a place that I can take unashamed pride in.

That progress starts with us. It is our responsibility to fix what needs fixing, and we can start, right now, by refusing to fly the Confederate flag.