A view from the south: let the Confederate flag go | Barbara Kingsolver

The Confederate emblem was about pride as well as hatred, but racists have twisted its meaning

My little town is proud to have reared citizens like Carolee, an honour student and star athlete who offers a helping hand to anyone she meets. She wears her blonde hair in a ponytail and a delicate tattoo on her wrist. It’s the Confederate battle flag.

That flag has come crashing into the global conversation after an avowed white supremacist massacred nine parishioners in an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina. He tore up hearts and families, left a state without its senator and a nation bereft. A crime so senseless leaves us grappling for something we can blame, or fix. We’re sickened by Dylann Roof’s self-portrait with a semi-automatic pistol and Confederate flag. In the wider world where it’s seldom seen, people must wonder how that emblem waved by a racist vigilante could ever have held appeal for local historians or thoughtful honour students.

No story is ever simple here in the south, least of all the American civil war. It’s easily reduced to a morality play – a conflict between northerners who wished to abolish slavery (the Union) and southern whites who refused (the Confederate rebels). In that version, any invocation of the lost Confederacy looks like nostalgia for slavery’s return.

But history is nuanced. Economics divided an industrialising north from an agrarian south, where cotton plantations exploited enslaved labour for their solvency. Most white southerners, of course, didn’t own plantations or other humans. Poor farmers and sharecroppers were brutally conscripted to fight for the interests of wealthier men. The region where I live – southern Appalachia, was occupied to enforce compliance.

Bullets, illness and starvation killed hundreds of thousands during that brief Confederacy, and some six generations later, families still decorate the graves. Some feel their ancestors are as nobly and tragically dead as any soldiers under any flag, and would honour them independently of the worth of the war that consumed them – a distinction we’ve accepted since the moral quandary of Vietnam. If the Confederate flag only flew over cemeteries, the discussion would be over.

But it doesn’t. Around here we see it on licence plates and T-shirts. A ragged one has hung for years on the side of a barn in my neighbourhood, making me wince daily. My neighbour is a decent person, so far as I’ve seen. I can only guess he nailed it up in a spirit of defiance, maybe akin to the way some rappers use the N-word: as a belligerent gesture of identity politics. Southerners, especially Appalachians, live in a shadow of condescension. Popular culture wages a steady war on our dignity, decking us out as ignorant, vaguely incestuous hayseeds. Reality TV digs deep to find trashy families to reinforce the stereotype. In a nation with a hair-trigger sensitivity to disparaging labels, the word “hillbilly” still flies with impunity.

Attaching banality or meanness to every element of our culture is unfair, but defining southern pride is an endless navigation. In our town, high-school football games are community entertainment. Our team is the Rebels. My daughter played in the marching band known as the Rebel Regiment. We decided to embrace the title: rebels, in my opinion, are the pilots of most human progress. The school cafeteria once bore a mural of Confederate soldiers and their flag, but it was painted over decades ago when the school’s first African-American principal arrived.

Our Rebels’ only remaining civil war tie is the school’s fight song, Dixie. It’s a simple song about a southerner far from home who wishes he were back on his native soil, south of the Mason-Dixon line. Countless soldiers surely identified with the sentiment, back in the day, but Abraham Lincoln also used it at campaign rallies – it was never the official anthem of the Confederacy. I’d vote to retire it anyway, knowing it’s tainted for those who hear it as such. Alternatives get proposed, without success, because most people here identify it as the anthem of a touchdown.

Dylann Roof tore up hearts and families, left a state without its senator and a nation bereft … we’re sickened by his self-portrait with a semi-automatic ­pistol and Confederate flag.
‘Dylann Roof tore up hearts and families, left a state without its senator and a nation bereft … we’re sickened by his self-portrait with a semi-automatic ­pistol and Confederate flag.’ Photograph: AP

Who gets to draw the line between tradition and callous intransigence? Where does sensitivity become censorship? Tarring whole communities with the brush of racism doesn’t bring us grace. I could have whisked my daughter from the home of the Rebels to a private school where she wouldn’t have to play Dixie. But this is our home, and I believe public schools function best when we all support our kids together. I think they’re better citizens for having grown up with many kinds of people, to be judged by the contents of their characters, not their tattoos.

When I claim my Appalachian identity I’m embracing some things that are often mocked: the poetry of our dipthong-rich language; a fine-tuned interest in crops, the weather, and everybody’s business. The fact that when I throw a party there will be spontaneous music, and someone will bring homemade whiskey. The fact that we never say the words “hostess gift” but would never show up without one. Loving your neighbour is a commandment we take seriously.

But I don’t have to love his barn art, or the symbolic anti-freedom fighters frozen beneath a coat of paint in the school cafeteria. Southern pride doesn’t mean loving the lynchings, segregation and lingering racial inequality that have bled into this place, any more than wearing cotton implies complicity with that crop’s awful history. The modern south, home to our nation’s most racially diverse cities, now has organic farms between tobacco fields, and yoga studios beside churches. My favourite bumper sticker this year says “Namaste, y’all”.

We don’t want outsiders telling us what we are. So the duty is ours, and ours alone, to distinguish our past from our future. The Confederate flag is anathema to that project. Whatever it meant in the 1860s, since then it has been deliberately attached to a racist agenda, beginning in 1948 when the new, segregationist Dixiecrat party dug it out of mothballs. (Dixie, alas, was their fight song too.)

The flag’s presence has grown steadily more menacing. It turned up wherever white mobs opposed civil rights marchers. It showed up at Klan rallies. I’m sure it still does. Swastika was the ancient Sanskrit word for good fortune, its symbol representing the movement of the sun across the sky. But it was appropriated by vile people, and now virtually everyone sees racial hatred in that one too. Regardless of intent or origin, a symbol achieves its meaning in the eye of the beholder.

For some folks who incorporate the battle flag into their wardrobe or body art, familiarity may have made it seem innocuous. But it isn’t. A flag is a potent symbol, purporting to be the standard of a concordant nation. By carrying one into hate crimes, racists try to elevate their evil by suggesting a nation of racists stands behind them.

My southern home is not that nation. This month the Confederate flag finally came down from several southern state houses, and my neighbour’s barn. Our governor banned it from licence plates. The stock car drivers of Nascar, that bastion of good-ol-boys, expelled it from the racetracks. We’re honouring heritage by tapping our well of kindness, knowing that for too many people those colours evoke terror and despair. No more. Now is the moment in history when we send that flag to the graveyard.


Barbara Kingsolver

The GuardianTramp

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