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BURYING THE SOUTH
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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