The murder of nine Americans by a terrorist in Charleston Wednesday night, besides being a monumental tragedy, also gave us the absurd spectacle of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (a woman of color) telling us “that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another” as pictures emerged of the killer wearing flags of apartheid regimes on his jacket, sitting on his car with a Confederate States faux license plate, all in a state where the only flag not lowered to half-mast was the Confederate Battle Flag that sits astride the front approach to South Carolina’s capitol. The mental gymnastics it took for Haley to blithely claim we’ll never know the motives of a killer who actually told victims what his motives were as well as literally wearing those motives on his sleeve defy imagination. She has since added more nuance to her public statements on the tragedy (for which the bar was set remarkably low), but still ignores one area in which much of the state–and nation–has focused on: the continuing official presence of the Confederate flag on the State House grounds in Columbia. How can one try to explain away the racist motives of Dylann Roof in a state where the flag of an actual racist regime occupies such pride of place? The short answer is that one cannot do so without extraordinary exertions of willful ignorance. But we also know that this hasn’t stopped racists before.
It’s clear to anyone with a conscience that the battle flag’s continuing prominence in South Carolina, especially at the official level, is an outrage that, especially in the wake of the Charleston shootings, must end. Indeed, there have been some eloquent and eminently persuasive arguments made precisely along those lines in the past 48 hours, and the launch of an online petition. My purpose here is not to parrot those arguments or rehearse the history of the Confederate Flag’s presence in South Carolina. But I am a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras, and I am qualified to engage with the arguments marshaled in defense of the Confederate Flag now intensifying in reaction to the critical voices emanating from throughout the country. When I was completing my Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, the flag actually flew atop the state house dome, along with the US and state flags. In 2000, me and fifteen thousand or so of my closest friends marched on the capitol to demand the flag be removed. It eventually was, but it now sits next to a statue of Pitchfork Ben Tillman right in front of the capitol–or, as one pro-flag T-Shirt proclaimed, “Off the dome and IN YOUR FACE.” Then, as now, the pro-flaggers’ arguments (at least the ones they use for respectable public occasions) boil down to “the flag represents the history and heritage of our southern ancestors, not slavery. The Civil War wasn’t about slavery, and neither is the flag. It’s about honor/chivalry/states’ rights/pride/memorializing/crippingly dogmatic ancestor worship.” In short, as the pro-flaggers argued in 2000, as they have before and since, it’s “Heritage, not Hate.”
This argument is–to deploy theoretical language I learned in grad school–dumb. And one of the occupational hazards of being a historian of the Civil War Era is that I find myself having to engage with it a lot–either from friends and colleagues who wonder what my take on it is, or from people who sincerely believe it, and seem to have a great deal invested in trying to get me to join them. Just about any teacher-scholar of the period has encountered this–an almost visceral need on the part of white people (and it’s always white people) who venerate a profoundly racist symbol to have that veneration coated with a sheen of scholarly respectability
It is here and now that I will formally make my stand. And I urge my fellow historians to make theirs as well.
To assist, I give you my open letter to defenders of the Confederate Flag (feel free to cut/paste, and deploy as needed).
Dear “Heritage Not Hate” Guy:
Stop trying to convince me that your flag fetish, and the Civil War in general, is not about slavery. I will not provide you with the rationale you seek to continue to exercise white privilege and ignore the symbol of violent racism you want to fly on your pickup, your front lawn, or your statehouse dome. Nope. Your “heritage” IS “hate.” The two are one and the same, an inseparable proposition. This is no secret. It never was.
If you’ve convinced yourself that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of slavery and racism, you’ve managed to ignore what pretty much every prominent Confederate of the 1860s said. That takes some doing. But if you haven’t seen the truth from reading this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or the literally thousands of other documents that attest to the centrality of slavery and race in the Confederacy, then there’s nothing I can do to change your mind. You have entered the realm of fantasy. You are a Silly Person. You have placed yourself in the same category as people who argue that the sun rotates around the earth or that the dinosaurs didn’t exist. You have plugged your ears and chanted la la la la la I’m not listening to you. I would be more successful in breaking through a brick wall with my forehead than in convincing you to, say, read a fucking book once in a while. I will not engage you, because you will not engage reality.
Oh, I know you want me to engage you. You want me to wrestle with your non-sequiturs, fictitious anecdotes about how blacks loved the CSA, and the faux evidence cherry-picked by your Uncle Floyd when he self-published his
screed book. You want me, you desperately need me, to see The Truth. You want my nearly two decades’ worth of reading, research, writing, and teaching to be wrong. You want thousands of other scholars and students to also be misguided. You want all of the evidence to not exist. You want historical figures to have said things they simply did not say, and to have not said the things that they did. You want up to be down. You want all of us to believe that your precious flag represents heritage and not hate. Your very identity demands that this be so.
But I will not enable you. I will not be the trail guide for your climb up Mount Stupid. I will not honor your racist fantasies with my attention. I will not treat your belligerent self-delusion as a somehow valid viewpoint. I. Will. Not.
Now, this may bruise the tender sensibilities of the pro-flag crowd, but I don’t care*, and neither should you. Outrage in defense of absurdity does not merit our attention any more. None of the roles I play–scholar, historian, teacher, informed citizen–permit me to engage with “heritage not hate” on any level. It’s a pernicious falsehood, an absurdity that tries to pass as an “equal-time” or “balanced” viewpoint.
Don’t be fooled. Don’t engage. Let this argument–and those who spout it–dwindle into the bleak obscurity it so richly deserves.
*Twitter recently notified me that someone added me to the list “Race Traitors,” so I’ve got that going for me.
NB: Since I’m a race traitor and all, I’m not enabling comments for this post. So trolls can go rage elsewhere. I have neither the time nor inclination for your crap (weren’t you listening to what I said up there?!?). The rest of y’all, I hope you understand.