In February, 2009, then Attorney General Eric Holder, in an address at the Department of Justice to commemorate Black History Month, said we in the United States were “a nation of cowards” when it comes to an honest conversation about race. He continued to speak about the importance of Black History Month and the shame that such was necessary because so much of African-American history has been erased from American history. He thought we ought to dedicate Black History Month to a conversation on race because as the demographics of the United States change, there will be no racial majority. We will need to put racism behind us.
The conversation on race is a difficult conversation to have because it goes to the core of our own identities. While race is a constructed concept with its own history, it never-the-less goes to the heart of the myth of ontological, hereditary goodness. The courage required in this context is the courage to face the reality that none of us is good because goodness is inscribed in our very being. We are not good or bad because our ancestors were good or bad. We are good or bad according to the moral decisions we ourselves make. We cannot inherit moral rectitude.
In the wake of the sad, shocking, heartbreaking, mind-soul numbing murders of nine African Americans at a prayer meeting/Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a young man with racist motives, the nation once again faces the meaning of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia that is commonly thought to be the flag of the Confederate States during the Civil War. It was a symbol that the young white killer used to represent his racist ideals. The flag that flies on the statehouse grounds in South Carolina and in other states in the south is controversial because of its use by whites during the civil rights movement and beyond.
For many Americans it is a symbol of slavery, the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil, legal racial segregation – American apartheid (apart hate) – and a white supremacist ideology. For others it is a symbol of southern pride, heritage, and a way of life. The problem is that the southern way of life is built upon a deception of white supremacy. Let us be clear. Racism and white supremacy are manifestations of a social psychosis found north, south, east, and west in the United States. The problem with people who want to make a confederate battle flag a symbol of southern heritage is that it is love for a fantasy that is not real and that cannot love you back.
I understand why southern whites would be proud of their ancestors who fought the Civil War. When we look at the battles of the war from only the perspective of military history, battlefield tactics and strategy, and the willingness to fight and defeat an army with superior numbers and equipment, there is much to admire. The victories at Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Cold Harbor showed audacity, resolve, and dedication to duty on the part of confederate generals and soldiers. We can admire these battles if we can consider any battle in any war an admiral enterprise.
In my opinion, war is the most stupid and useless endeavor ever devised by the human mind. General William Tecumseh Sherman was correct when he said: “War is all hell.” And the cause for this particular hell was to maintain a state’s right to maintain slavery, a deeply immoral institution. The south lost the war, and part of the rituals of surrender is to lay one’s weapons down at the feet of the winning army along with one’s battle flags. This ritual took place two days after the famous meeting between General Ulysses Grant and General Robert Lee. General John B Gordon and confederate soldiers stacked arms and the battle flags before Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his army. The battle flag was furled signifying the end of battle, the end of the war. The flag was unfurled during the civil rights movement to show defiance of the federal government that wanted to enforce desegregation. It was not a positive symbol of heritage. It had nothing to do with showing respect to the men who died bravely for an unrighteous cause. It was a sign of disrespect for the federal government and a symbol meant to intimidate African Americans.
I say again that the idea that this confederate battle flag represents nobility, chivalry and a genteel, civilized southern way of life is a fantasy. It is an unreal dream. Consider the novel and the movie “Gone with the Wind.” Scarlett O’Hara, the novel’s heroine, thinks she loves Ashley Wilkes. She thinks he loves her in return, but the love is not real. The story is about how she foolishly lives with this fantasy through the horrors of war and through her own ruthless business dealings during reconstruction. When she finally realizes that she loves Rhett Butler and that his love for her is true, it is too late.
It is easy to construct a fantasy and to live inside it with other people who also feel comfortable inside the make believe space. It may even seem beneficial for a while. However, reality will always always burst the fantastic bubble at some point. And when it does, we are left to face harsh realities, one of which is that the southern states are among the poorest in the nation with some of the worse education and healthcare outcomes .This is the result of a race-based politics where poor white people vote against their own economic and ecological interests.
It is not easy to look at our ancestors and to see the good, bad, beautiful, and ugly. We want them to be flawless because we want to think that our own goodness is attached to them. It is not. It is difficult to construct our own moral reality and to take responsibility for every decision we make every day. When we want to rely on the dubious morality of our ancestors, we are cowards. The cost of our cowardice is high. It is a matter of life and bloody death. It is a cost paid through structural violence and in the personal violence that we saw at the Emanuel AME Church.
Nine good people are dead. A young man’s life is ruined. We unfurled a battle flag when the war was over. We let it fly in the name of state governments. We enjoyed it on television as Bo and Luke Duke drove their car, the General Lee, and made it entertaining. We painted it red, black, and green and wore it on caps to the Million Man March. We turned a deaf ear to those among us who said over and over that it was a dangerous symbol of hate.
The good news is that the flag is coming down. Retailers have decided to stop selling it. We find ourselves in a moment where we can make a new courageous decision about the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. We can furl it and put it away. Another battle is over.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.