I understand that, not being a native southerner, my opinion about the Confederate flag likely isn’t worth a slice of pecan pie. I was told by the Wal-Mart greeter, when I first moved to rural Virginia, that I was a “Yankee.” There was a slight sneer in her accent when she didn’t hear any drawling from me, and I naively replied, “But I’m from Utah,” a state which wasn’t even officially in existence during the Civil War.
But, as I learned during my six years in the south, “Yankee is Yankee”, so you can discount my opinion, but here’s how one “outsider” sees the Rebel flag.
I don’t understand what it means.
Really, I don’t. My dear husband, who lived in the south for some time, tried to explain that it represented “southern pride” and “states’ rights.” But I grew up where Confederate flags were seen mostly in history books, with the caption “Symbol of the losers of the Civil War,” so I don’t understand the purpose of holding on to it. After I moved, a native Virginian told me, “Southerners, at least once a day, still lament that they lost the War.”
So I asked several of them, “Do you really still resent losing the war? Isn’t it good that the slaves were freed?” I always got a response like this:
“You see, it’s not really about slavery, but . . .” And that’s when all the responses went predictably vague.
“Because the north was forcing things on us, and we didn’t like that,” or, “Because the south has its own kind of pride.”
So then I’d ask, “Why do you still embrace the Confederate flag?”
“Because it represents all we Southerners hold dear.”
When I push for more specific answers—what exactly does it represent, what do southerns hold dear—I was told something like this:
“Pride. It’s a southern thing. You Yanks just don’t understand.”
No matter how many times I explained I was from Utah, and therefore not a “Yank,” I still never got anything more.
And I think I know why: most people don’t ask themselves those hard questions. The flag has just always been there, a tradition. To question a tradition is like questioning if your Grammy really loved you. You don’t do that.
I understand wanting to be proud of one’s heritage, but can’t that be done through any other symbols rather than the Rebel flag? I think Southerners can do much better. In fact, I think they deserve better than that old symbol of a bygone era.
I lived for six years in Virginia and South Carolina, and I met many marvelous people of different faiths, backgrounds, and races. I grew to understand and be grateful for the meaning of “Southern Hospitality,” and I even learned to decipher some of the deeper accents. (Although our excellent hillbilly mechanic was forever unintelligible to me, nor could he understand us. Fortunately he had excellent handwriting.) I made lasting friendships and realized why so many people love the south.
But I never could understand why such good, kind, generous people wanted to be associated with a flag that, for me and likely many others, represented slavery.
Symbols are tricky, tricky things. No one can control how another views a symbol, nor what it may mean to them. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that we frequently misinterpret symbols, and often we become offended when no offense is meant.
But the Rebel Flag is just as its name implies: a symbol of rebellion. Why is rebellion something to celebrate?
Up until my thirties the only exposure I had to the Confederate Flag was in history books and the occasional stickers on trucks out here in the west. The drivers of those vehicles were always . . . shall we say, “unsavory” at best. Usually the trucks were jacked up, rusted out, and filled with what I would describe as angry rednecks wearing baseball hats which look like they were rescued from the dump. These weren’t happy people. They scowled. Always. Or leered, and then they showed a considerable lack of dental hygiene. I’m not trying to fall into a stereotype, but I never saw someone driving such a vehicle and with such a symbol who struck me as having passed the 7th grade.
And so my association of the Confederate flag was always with men who I tried to get away from as quickly as possible in case they asked me a complicated math problem, such as how much change they should give me back at the gas station.
While this is clearly a very narrow evaluation, I also learned to distrust the Confederate flag and what it may represent from my parents.
I’ve mentioned before in this blog that they grew up in Nazi Germany as children, and even in their later years they literally shrank back in fear whenever they saw a swastika or a Nazi flag. Once when I was about twelve we pulled up to a store, and next to us pulled in a couple of bikers with miniature Nazi flags waving from their back seats.
My parents froze.
My mom, suffering at times from PTSD, whispered frantically, “What do they want?”
I was used to my mom escalating quickly to panic, but I was surprised at my dad’s reaction. He, too, refused to leave the car. “I don’t know,” and his voice was shaky as he stared at the flags.
“You don’t think they know we’re German, do you?” my mom asked.
“Nah, of course not.” But still my dad locked the doors at the motorcycle gang guys went into the store.
“But what do they mean by the flags?” my mom worried. “What do they mean?”
Needless to say we didn’t go into that store that day.
Years later I realized that these bikers likely meant nothing more than, “Oh, hey. Here’s a pretty flag that scares people and maybe makes us look tougher. Let’s use it!” without realizing the vast history behind the flag, nor the horrors that the symbol represented.
Interestingly, the swastika is a very old symbol, appearing in for thousands of years in architecture. It’s of sacred importance in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, almost like a lucky charm.
Until the Third Reich appropriated it in 1920.
Now, for the past 95 years the swastika been the symbol of tyranny and death. My parents regarded it as a symbol of those who tried to control them.
It was my parents who taught me to be equally wary of anyone who embraced the Confederate flag, which they thought was a similar symbol. They had never been to the south, never even met any black people as far as I know, but to them, the Confederate flag was just as tyrannical as the Nazi flag. Out of respect for those who had suffered under slavery, my parents shunned it. They were stunned that many Americans openly displayed the flag.
When my parents came to visit us in Virginia, they were alarmed at the number of rebel flags they saw. “Are you safe here?” they asked repeatedly. I assured them we were, but didn’t tell them that their latest grandson was born in Stonewall Jackson Hospital, where the Confederate Flag was well represented.
On another visit we took them to Charleston, SC for a trip, and my dad wrote in his journal that we toured “the quarters where the slaves were being held before they were sold . . . and it made a deep impression on us. Today these five buildings are occupied by souvenir shops, and people meander through these old structures without giving much thought of their historic significance. We personally felt it would have been better to tear them down!”
You can imagine just how worried they were when we moved to South Carolina for a few months, where once again a child was born in a hospital where that flag flew. Quite honestly, I never felt comfortable in South Carolina. I never could wrap my head around that flag flying proudly, because I was never sure what it really meant. After several years in the south, it still struck me as incongruous compared to the people I knew.
I still remember the very first parade we attended shortly after moving to Virginia. Cadets from nearby Virginia Military Institute presented the colors at the beginning of it, but were soon followed by an entry which shocked our kids.
Confederate and Civil War re-enactors, proudly waving a large Rebel flag.
Immediately my gaze fell upon a black family directly across the street, and I wondered how they felt about what was paraded in front of them.
What did it mean to them? What did it really mean? What did that flag mean to those waving it?
Part of me wanted to run across the road and shield that family’s view, because I thought of the quiet alarm my parents always experienced every time they saw a swastika.
My ten-year-old said, “Dad, why do they have that flag? Don’t they know they lost the war? Slavery was bad.”
My husband once again tried valiantly to explain, “Well, they see it as a symbol of southern pride—”
“Well, pride’s bad, too!” our nine-year-old son said.
My husband gave up trying to explain.
I watched the family across the street deliberately focus elsewhere. Later I realized that they were the only black family there, and while the town had a few minorities, I never saw any of them participating or attending those parades. I didn’t blame them. We quit going after a while, too.
Now that flag is coming down in South Carolina, I breathe a sigh of relief for many who I suspect wondered exactly what it really meant as well.
Southerners deserve to be represented by something better, something that reflects the kindness, generosity, and spirit that all races there exhibit. Therefore, I propose to replace the Rebel flag with something as sweet and rich and good as the south.
I propose . . . the pecan pie flag!
Here’s something everyone in the south can rally around. But you don’t have to listen to me. I’m only a Utah Yankee.