With all the discussion lately about the Confederate flag and places that still fly it, defenders of the flag keep using the word “heritage”. They repeatedly claim the flag does not represent slavery or racism, not today anyway, but that it is simply a part of “Southern Culture”. For this discussion, let’s forget the military geek-talk about the flag being for a specific regiment. Let’s also put aside the notion that it was revived as a back-lash to the civil rights movement. Let’s take just the heritage argument as the rationale for displaying a flag flow by an army that declared war on the United States. So then I have to ask: What exactly is Southern Culture?
During a debate with someone who admitted having a confederate flag hanging in their home along with a U.S. flag, they touted themselves as a proud American and a proud Southerner; first this confounded me since people with the one flag committed treason against people with the other. Then I had to wonder: why are people from southern states the only ones who claim this dual identity? No one else ascribes themselves to a vaguely defined region of America this way. I’ve never declared myself a “Northerner”. Someone might say they are from The West Coast or The Midwest but they’re not describing a defined culture that includes a flag worthy of being flown atop a court house. Yet, people from The South claim this is the case for them; they have a common identity that bonds them all together and makes them separate from other regions.
So what are the elements that make up this common heritage? I keep hearing that slavery is not part of the equation, so what is? How do we define this supposed culture shared by distant states like Mississippi and Virginia? What do they all have in common yet is different from the rest of the nation? We’re familiar with terms like “southern hospitality” but can one area really claim a monopoly on manners? There is plenty of courtesy found in the north and lots of crass behavior down south.
The southern gentleman and his foil the rude northerner are stereotypes. These false icons are labeled “north” and “south” but are more correctly “urban” and “rural”. It’s City Mouse versus Country Mouse not Yankee versus Dixie. It might surprise many southerners but there is a great deal of “country” above the Mason-Dixon Line. (And I’m not just talking about geography.) Spend enough time in western New York or central Ohio and you might start to forget you’re in The North. The image of Southern Culture is agricultural in nature – Southerners farm, hunt and believe in a hard days work. How is any of that unique to the south? Indiana is packed with farms. Pennsylvania has the highest number of hunters in the country. Do you think Vermont dairy farmers lack an understanding of hard work? If you’re looking for a group of people with a strong agrarian work ethic and family-first ideals rooted in Christian faith look no father than the Amish – Now there is a defined culture.
A lot of southern pride is based on a spirit of individualism and independence. But isn’t this just what it means to be an American? The original rebels who forever changed world politics began in Massachusetts not Georgia. The state motto of New Hampshire is “Live Free or Die”; they put it right on their license plates. There is a rarely mentioned event in American history known as “The Whiskey Rebellion”. It began when the United States enacted a liquor tax. A group of angry distillers took up arms and the federal government was forced to send in troops. Because of our perception of Southern Culture most people would assume this took place somewhere in Tennessee or Kentucky. The Whiskey Rebellion actually occurred in Pennsylvania. It would appear the rebel attitude has some northern heritage.
Often when we discuss the culture of an area it is in terms of things like art and cuisine. Food certainly gets mentioned a lot when discussing The South and so does music. However, these are bad avenues if you’re looking to make the case that southern heritage is unrelated to slavery. Many southern delicacies began in slave kitchens. And pretty much all American forms of music are rooted in the blues, which began as “negro spirituals”, songs originally sung by slaves.
What do we really mean when we talk about southern heritage? When we think of the Grand Old South we imagine a sunny plantation with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen. Basically we think of Gone with the Wind. And yet I can’t imagine anything more un-American. Classic Dixie was nothing more than European aristocracy imported to the new world. The plantation was feudalism where indentured servitude was replaced with flow blown slavery. Those were the good old days only for a privileged few; a romanticized history written by the ruling class.
When you talk about southern heritage and claim it has nothing to do with slavery, you are deluding yourself. There is no unique, universally shared southern culture. The only tie that binds the states of the south together is The Confederacy which was formed for the primary purpose of protecting the institution of slavery. When you claim you are a proud southerner, the implication is that you believe your ancestors were correct in their thinking. When you say “the south will rise again” you are advocating for the return of aristocracy and a slave class.
I understand why you want to insist that flag does not represent racism. Who wants to believe their family took up arms to subjugate an entire race of people. It is much more comforting to view confederate soldiers as men of conviction standing up to a federal bully. This is the way you have to look at your heritage if you want to sleep at night. People who engage in bad behavior must insist there is a good reason for it, other wise they would have to admit they are bad people.
No one is saying that history should be buried or that all confederate flags be destroyed. We must remember history, the good and the bad, but memorializing is one thing, celebrating is another. Germans don’t deny the holocaust but you don’t see parades being led by “The Sons of the Gestapo”. We can reenact the battles and discuss the tragedy of brother fighting brother. You can hang that old cutlass over the fireplace and the dusty flag too. But what you can’t do is deny what those things represent. There is no way to extricate slavery from the Confederacy. You cannot have the glory days of Dixie without the cruelty that built it. Until “proud” southerners admit this to themselves, our society will never move forward. As long as southerners insist that they are different from the rest of America – deserving of their own identity and a flag that goes with it – then we will always be a country divided, still fighting a war that ended over a century ago.