I am a Yankee-- more specifically I am a Yankee from the Great State of Ohio. I have lived most of my life in Ohio, though I spent two years in North Carolina attending graduate school.
Growing up a Yankee I learned about the Civil War from a white northern perspective. We must always remember that when it comes to reading history, perspective is everything. I am thankful that my parents instilled in me a real vision of all persons created as equal in the image of God regardless of their skin color. I am thankful I did not grow up in a racist home. It was from that perspective that I understood the terrible and evil atrocity of slavery in America.
But my upbringing did not instill in me the knowledge of the subtleties of racism. I don't blame my parents for that. We lived in a white world, for the most part, and we were shielded from those subtle forms of racism that African Americans experienced regularly.
But as I got older and my world became larger, I began to realize that racism and racial discrimination were intrinsically embedded in American society in ways I had never realized. One aspect of that embedded racism was the symbolism displayed by society. There are more than a few of those symbols, but the one I speak of in this post is the Confederate battle flag.
As a young man, I began to hear the calls rising from some quarters demanding removal of that flag from government property because of its racist overtones. I confess at the time that I did not understand that perspective. Sure, I understood the connection between the Stars and Bars and the Civil War and the South, but I reasoned to myself that it was silly to get worked up over a symbol and not everyone, I thought, who has a Confederate flag on their bumper surely is a racist. I bought into the line from those who said that the Confederate flag was not a symbol of racism, but a display of southern heritage and pride, much like my fellow Buckeyes who fly the state flag of Ohio. That was my perspective until one day that I will never forget.
When our children were young (they are now grown and gone), we would vacation in the south--Virginia, North and South Carolina-- and we regularly visited historical sites. On one particular occasion we were in Charlottesville, Virginia visiting Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. We had given our children money for vacation to spend on whatever they wanted-- souvenirs, et al. At the time our son, Joshua was really into flags and had something of a collection. When we were in the gift shop after our visit to Jefferson's house, he naturally gravitated toward the display of various small flags. He pulled a Confederate battle flag from the kiosk and brought it to me to purchase. At that moment, I had an epiphany. As I looked at that miniature Stars and Bars, I was not sure I wanted him to have it... and as I stood there, I was not quite sure why. I hesitated for a moment and then told my son that he could not buy that flag. He would have to choose another.
I spent the rest of the day thinking about that moment attempting to make sense of my dis-ease. As I put words to my concerns, it was clear to me. I did not want my son owning a symbol that could not be divorced from the belief that certain people could be property. I could not let him display something that in its original context promoted legalized slavery to the extent that some people were willing to kill and be killed for its preservation. And I had to explain to him why I would not let him buy it. Today, Joshua is almost twenty-three, but he remembers that incident and is grateful for the lesson he learned.
Because of history, certain symbols get so wedded to ideas and movements that it becomes impossible to see the symbol and not think of those ideas and those events that made them prominent; and no amount of denial can change that. During the reign of the Roman empire countless individuals were crucified, but because of Christianity when someone sees a cross today, only one particular crucified individual is remembered. The swastika originally was a symbol of good fortune. It also was used in early Christian and Byzantine art-- a gammadion cross-- a symbol of the death of Jesus. But because of the Nazis employment of that symbol, it is not possible to see a swastika today without recalling to mind the evil of the Nazis. The swastika is forever embedded with that evil. Would anyone today seriously suggest trying to employ the swastika once again in our church sanctuaries as a symbol for Jesus' death?
After my new found epiphany, I began to do some research on the Confederate flag and that reinforced to me even more that it was impossible to separate America's history of slavery from that symbol. History has a way of dispelling our cover stories, and to say that the Confederate flag is only a symbol of Southern heritage is a cover story that can only be believed when one is in a state of denial. The attempt to divorce our symbols from the context that gives them meaning is to commit willful amnesia as to who we were as a people so that we can deny what we have inherited and must still confront today. To quote Civil War historian, William C. Davis, "Symbols matter. They say at a glimpse what words cannot, encapsulating beliefs and aspirations, prejudices and fears. Having no intrinsic value, they take meaning from the way we use them, changing over time along with our actions."
When we remove the symbols of our racist history from monumental status to the displays of museums, we are not denying our history, but putting them in their proper context. As displays, they tell the story of who we were; as monuments they proclaim who we still want to be. As displays they remind us of the values that our ancestors embraced; as monuments they continue to proclaim those values as somehow still important. When a community places a monument in public, it is a declaration of what the people who put it there value. No one should be duped into believing that a monument in public makes no moral claims. When communities continue to embrace those monuments, they are affirming the values of those who put them there in the first place.
We must remember the worst of our history. That does not mean we have to idolize it in the town square.