Monday, June 22, 2015

Not such a grand old flag

My mother once owned a red car. This was at a point in time when Massachusetts only used one license plate, so folks filled in the empty space in the front with something decorative.

My mother’s friend and colleague – a very sweet woman named Inis – found a decorative plate that she thought would work perfectly for my mother’s car: a plate that depicted the Confederate flag. I am quite sure that Inis got this plate for my mother because it was red. As far as I know, Inis had no connection to the South.The same, of course, could be said of my mother.
This was when the Dukes of Hazzard was on, and the dukes drove a car that had the rebel flag painted on its roof.

I suspect that’s why those license plates were on sale in Worcester, Massachusetts, which has never exactly been a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers or the home of slave-owners. Massachusetts was one of the first states to outlaw slavery, and Worcester was a stop on the Underground Railroad. I’m guessing Inis found the plate at Spag’s, picked it up for $1.99, and gave it to her friend Liz (that would be my mother) who had never gotten around to getting her empty plate holder filled in.

My mother plunked the plate in and drove around with it on her car for a while – yee-haw – until, if I recall, one of her kids got her a replacement: a white plate with a rainbow on it. We were embarrassed by the stars and bars plate, but not because it was shorthand for white supremacy or opposition to civil rights. While such associations may have been in the consciousness of some, they weren’t at the forefront of ours back then. Mostly we associated the plate with the Dukes of Hazzard, which was embarrassing enough.

It was not as if our mother were a fan of the show. Hardly. If I were going to pick a show for my mother, it would have been Murder, She Wrote.  My mother loved mysteries and, in fact, resembled Angela Lansbury, who starred in Murder.

Knowing my mother, she was probably a bit embarrassed herself by the association with The Dukes. She would have kept the plate on her car for as long as she did only because she would not have wanted to hurt Inis’ feelings.

If my mother thought for a moment that her license plate was associated with racism, she would have been mortified. She was absolutely one of the least bigoted, least prejudiced people I’ve ever known.

But the association is certainly there now, so it really might be time for those who want to proudly fly the Confederate flag in the name of tradition, to accept the fact that the cause it represents was not an especially noble one, and that the white supremacists and racists have pretty much commandeered it as a symbol. Hanging on to it is kind of like saying that the swastika is a perfectly fine old Sanskrit symbol. Well, yes and no. There may be innocent connotations, but if you wear one on a red armband, guess what, people are going to think you’re a Nazi.

I have to admit that I have no idea what the flag might mean to someone whose great-great-great-grandfather fell at Antietam. And whose great-great-great-grandfather may not have been a slave owner to begin with, but was a shopkeeper or small farmer who just got swept up in “the cause” along with all the other shopkeepers and small farmers. But however folks may want to mask “the cause” as just states rights, when you peel things back, “the cause” was preserving slavery.

Sure, there are plenty of Civil War era monuments in Massachusetts, but I don’t know very many folks whose ancestors were here to fight in that particular war. People fly heritage flags around here, but most of them are the Irish tri-color.

Which reminds me that the Southerners aren’t the only ones with misty-eyed reverence for their overly-romanticized, glorious past. Plenty of American Irish helped fill the coffers of the IRA when they were killing hundreds of completely innnocent civilians – not soldiers, not paramilitary, not coppers. Half the people killed in the Omagh bombing were kids.

Anyway, it might be time for the good people of the South to recognize that the Confederate flag has had its day, and to – at minimum – give up the custom of flying it in public places.

What’s wrong with honoring those who fell with the grand old American flag?

When you really think about it, the Civil War was as American a war as any.

The Confederate flag, whether it’s on a license plate or in front of monument on the state house grounds, has just become too divisive. This is not, at least in my opinion, a case of people being too thin-skinned. Keep flying that flag, and there are an awful lot of people who aren’t going to think about your shopkeeper great-great-great-grandfather. They’re going to think Grand Kleagle and Dylann Storm Roof.

Who wants to be associated with them?


Rick T. said...

Gen. U. S. Grant said it best in his Memoirs, one of those books I never would have read in a million years, except some guy in my book club picked it:

"I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse."

valerie said...

Of course your points are all well made and a delight to read so I don't disagree. But I do hold an additional point of view as someone who has spent a lot of my life in the south, starting with my run as a domestic exchange student to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in the 70s. Family that has lived and died just outside of New Orleans in Slidell and many many wonderful chunks of time with friends in North Carolina.

There is a contempt of many, perhaps most, non-Southerners for the South. It is presented as a redneck haven of haters and ignorance. This depiction completely ignores the gracious tradition and reality of graciousness, strong family values, hospitality, friendliness, community, love of life and God, hard work ethic paired with a high valuation of fun. Oh, and fried food, strong drink, wonderful pies.

The flag, in my experience, is more a celebration of Southern life than of history and definitely not of racism. But then most of my friends are white, which does circle round to your points... which I already said I share.