Submitted Date 03/04/2019

The American Civil War is a period of history most of us grow up learning about. Depending on where we grew up, though, we learned about it in very different ways. I’m not originally from the South. I grew up near the Rocky Mountains. There, our education was skewed in favor of the North. We learned that Abraham Lincoln wanted to end slavery in the South and so the South rose up in defiance. When I moved to Georgia, I quickly learned that Civil War studies were taught from another perspective.

Slavery gets the most attention by far, as the trigger issue for this civil conflict. The economic factors involved often get little attention. In the northern states, the economy was based around the booming industrial age; railroads, factories, coal. Down south, the economy was all about agriculture; tobacco, cotton, plantations. Since it was the slaves who did most of the labor in agriculture, the issue of their freedom was directly tied to the area’s economic prosperity. Abolishing slavery would directly impact the labor force in the South.

I’m firmly against slavery, in our country’s past and in the world’s present. So, it would be reasonable to expect that I’d support the recent movement to tear down symbols of the Confederacy. But I don’t. Here’s why.

The Confederate flag, like any other, is just a flag. It’s a piece of fabric (or what have you) printed with ink or paint. By itself, this object has no agency, no ability to affect much at all. The flag is not racist or anti-anybody, having no brain to formulate these opinions with. Where it gains power is as a symbol. As humans, we take in this symbol and ascribe a certain meaning to it. So this flag is what we make of it.

When some of us look at this flag, it conjures feelings of hatred. It’s viewed as a symbol of the terrible atrocities that one group of humans inflicted on another group of humans. It’s a reminder of shame, a dark smear on history. It’s an emblem of a group who still do not support racial equality.

When some of us look at this flag, it evokes sentiments like a connection with our past, tradition, home. It’s a symbol of a way of life. It represents the proud heritage of people in a certain region. It’s a tie to family and history.

Much the same can be said of the statues of Confederate soldiers and officers that dot college campuses and civic centers. Some people say that both the Confederate flag and the statues should be demolished, disposed of, destroyed. Some people say the opposite.

I say that the statues and the flag are very important. Poet and philosopher George Santayana once wrote, ”those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Do I support the KKK and the Alt-Right? Emphatically, no. Do I think that race relations in this country should be part of our discourse? Emphatically, yes. How will we celebrate the heroes of the Civil Rights movement without remembering what they were fighting against?

Burying the symbols of the Confederacy will not erase the past. It will not undo the horrifying realities of slavery. It will not bring back lives. By keeping these reminders up, we mark an important place in time. By leaving the statues in place, we remember that a war was once fought in this country, we remember that there are shadows in our past, and we gauge the distance we’ve come. One of the first things conquerers do is tear down the statues and symbols that contribute to a nation's identity.

I will say, though, that the information accompanying Confederate statues could do with an update. Perhaps, we could recognize the efforts of these soldiers, but also bring to light the negative results of their actions, or motivations. Then, these symbols can serve to educate, to encourage people to consider the past in new ways, and remind us to learn from history.

*Image from the Library of Congress via Picryl


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  • Tomas Chough 4 years, 7 months ago

    Interesting perspective. I don't think I've ever thought of it that way but it makes sense. It's definitely important to remember those moments in history. Thanks for sharing Jen!

    • Jen Parrilli 4 years, 6 months ago

      Thanks for reading, Tomas! I'm glad you're willing to consider things from a new perspective.

  • Kim Rammien 4 years, 6 months ago

    Absolutely, Jen! I grew up in Pennsylvania. Gettysburg was an annual trip with my step father as president of our town's little league. I was educated on the northern perspective of the Civil War. I moved to Virginia at 22 and started dating a guy from South Carolina at 26. I was amazed at the different views on the Civil War in the different parts of the country. In PA, we didn't really differentiate between the north and south in any way other than a geographic direction. In VA and SC the 'North' still holds a derogatory connotation. I was called a Yankee for years. I agree 100% with the idea of not removing flags and statues. Removing them will not make the atrocities of slavery go away but it will make future generations less aware of what happened. Great post!

    • Jen Parrilli 4 years, 6 months ago

      Thank you! I guess I knew that history was taught differently in other countries, but was surprised to learn that even in parts of our own country, people learn different things in school.

  • Miranda Fotia 4 years, 6 months ago

    Rebel flags and Confederate monuments are everywhere here in NC. I disagree with your take on it, only because many of the black people I am close with have told me that the flag makes them feel afraid. When they see it, they worry that the people wearing/waving them are part of the KKK. There are still many open chapters of the KKK in the rural areas around here. As far as the statues, I do see them as artwork too. Recently, one of our statues was moved to a cemetery for confederate soldiers. I thought that was a suitable place for it and a good solution. I do not think it is suitable for them to be posted randomly around town. If they are posted around town, I think there should be a description under each of them emphasizing how the Confederacy/slavery was wrong. Even though I disagree, I did enjoy reading your piece and I felt like it was respectful and thoughtful. I can see where you are coming from.

    • Jen Parrilli 4 years, 6 months ago

      Thank you. I appreciate you sharing your perspective without trying to start an argument. I do like the cemetery solution and also your suggestion of adding a note about slavery. As far as the flag and the KKK, I get what you're saying. When I see someone waving the Confederate flag, it's a clear indication to me that I need to steer clear of them. If we made them put their flags away, they'd look like everyone else. I guess what I'm saying is that I'd rather have the threat clearly identified.

    • Miranda Fotia 4 years, 6 months ago

      Good point. I do appreciate warning signs LOL.