Recently there was a scathing piece in the newspapers by a syndicated columnist in which he, writing on the South Carolina flag controversy, essentially called Confederate soldiers murderous traitors who slaughtered thousands of Americans. The columnist, an African-American, made the analogy that flying an emblem containing the Confederate flag over South Carolina was like flying the Vietnamese flag over Washington, D.C.
The column was full of rather shoddy history work. It wasn’t thought through very well. It was less fact and much more emotion. But that’s understandable. The flag controversy is an emotional issue. We’re emotional creatures. And, most importantly, symbols are based on emotion — they bring out feelings. In fact, symbols are feelings. Without passion, symbols are impotent.
I grew up in the 1960s, and began forming my views on race in the early 1970s. I was there when “Black Power” first emerged. In a movement that had many symbols, none to me was more powerful, nor intimidating, as the raised, clenched fists of the black community.
Part of my discomfort was that I knew it excluded me — kind of like standing outside a party without an invitation. But there was something ominous about the clenched fist. It made me think of potential violence.
It would have been naive of me then, even as a boy, to think that there was not at least one in the African-American community, who, when they raised their fist, meant it militantly and at least privately held the wish that white America would crumble — maybe die. I found that a teeny bit unnerving.
Yet, I had black friends, folks I knew and trusted, who used the symbol every day. They used it as a form of greeting, even to me. I felt comfortable enough to return the gesture, raising catcalls and laughs. There was no offense meant; there was none taken.
Just the other day I was talking about the flag controversy with a friend when he made a profound point: We empower symbols. A symbol is just an object until made animate by our feelings and emotions.
That would explain why the clenched fist was both uncomfortable and non-threatening to me at different times. It depended on who was displaying it. It depended on if I knew them. It depended on what I felt was in their heart.
In the end, as interpreter of the symbol, it was I who was giving the black fist power or not. I created the symbol, not the black community. A raised fist meant nothing at all to me unless I applied some emotion and passion and transformed it into something real and disconcerting.
Obviously to the columnist and many other Americans, the Confederate flag stands for murder, treachery, inhumane treatment, dissolution, despair, fear, anger. I more than understand that. And I sympathize.
I wish the Confederate flag wasn’t over South Carolina, Mississippi or any place. Moreover, I wish all symbols that offended anybody, anywhere, could forever be removed from sight and existence.
That seems impossible. But maybe not. If we were to all turn a blind heart to those potentially hurtful symbols, control our emotions and not paint with a broad brush those who, due whatever motivation, continue to cling to that object-would-be-symbol, those emblems would disappear.
“I never have believed in the institution of slavery. This is truly a dark hour.”
Those words were written by Walter Ranson during the winter of 1864 as the Civil War raged. Ranson was a Southerner. Indeed, he was a Confederate officer that served under Generals “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee. And he was my great-great grandfather, and I’m proud of it.
In his Civil War diary that covers half the war, he never made a racial slur, held a loathing for slavery and saw himself as a defender of his home, not humiliating servitude.
Is my forefather a heroic or regrettable figure (a.k.a., symbol)? That’s up to interpretation. Is my response to that columnist’s piece riddled with emotion because he made indirect reference to my great-great grandfather? Absolutely. I can’t help it. And I would guess that columnist’s emotions over the flag issue are just as strong and just as hard to control.
As far as the flag goes, I feel no affinity for the Confederate banner. I don’t feel a rush of pride when I see it wave or plastered over the rear window of a pickup truck. It doesn’t mean anything to me. Do what you want with the flag, I’ll help lower it, but leave my great-great grandfather out of it.
I’m an avid reader of the Civil War. I find it fascinating. By the same token, I’ll be the first to say that there has never been a darker, more senseless hour in our nation’s history. Casualties amounted to hundreds of thousands — more than a million for sure if you include “traitorous” Confederate losses.
And it proved absolutely nothing. Yes, the emancipation of the slaves was achieved, but freed to what? From the shackles of slavery straight into a pit of hopelessness which took another 100 years to surmount, and only after more bloodshed and terror. Thus, the only thing the Confederate flag can ever mean to me is “meaninglessness.”
Mississippi writer Shelby Foote once said that the United States was founded on compromise. The Civil War was the result of Americans not reaching compromise. The war divided Americans. And in some very regrettable ways, it still divides some of us.
The only flag that has ever meant anything at all to me is the good ol’ Stars and Stripes. It’s the only one to which I’ve ever pledged my allegiance. And it’s the only one that stirs feelings — pride, devotion. To me, it is a symbol of individual freedom — for everybody — something the Confederate flag never will.
Wally Northway is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.