I grew up surrounded by the Civil War – quite literally, since there was an old earthwork fort just two blocks from my house. The cities where I lived and traveled were studded with monuments to the Confederacy – there’s even a street in Richmond, Virginia called “Monument Avenue” precisely because it is lined with statues to Confederate heroes.
I grew up hearing the tales of my ancestors who fought in the war (all on the Southern side) and of the leaders who waged the improbably successful campaigns against the hated Yankees – the stoic Robert E. Lee, the daring but eccentric Stonewall Jackson, the wily and ruthless Nathan Bedford Forest, and the dashing cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart. My father loved to tell the tale of his great aunts who, after the war and to the end of their days, refused to accept any letters addressed to them in Shepherdstown, West Virginia on the basis that there was no such state.
The Confederate battle flag was ubiquitous at my high school and my college. It adorned cars, hung on dorm walls, and flew outside of homes. In other parts of the South it flew over public buildings, even the state capitol in South Carolina.
It never occurred to me as a child that there was anything unusual about this, or that other people and other places might not live in the shadow of the war – or would even want to.
But by the time I was in college, murmurs were starting that the battle flag might make some people, particularly black people, uncomfortable or angry because of its implicit connection to slavery. By the time I was working for a national newspaper a few years later, the Confederate flag was in retreat across the South; even South Carolina was considering removing the pennant from the top of the state capitol.
Now, even those imposing stone monuments are under pressure. The city of Charlottesville, Virginia, where I went to college, is in the midst of an emotional debate over removing a huge statue of Robert E. Lee from a grassy park downtown. The city of New Orleans is in the process this week of removing four statues of Confederate leaders.
Such moves to remove reminders of the Confederacy have provoked enormous backlash. Many Southerners, the white ones at least, reacted with fury to efforts to remove the battle flag from public places. One of my more memorable assignments in my career was covering a huge pro-Confederate flag rally in Charleston, South Carolina at the capitol building. Thousands of people turned out and at one point, the crowd spontaneously burst into a round of “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” a rousing rebel favorite during the war: “We are a band of brothers, and native to the soil, fighting for the liberty we gained through honest toil…”
I have watched all these changes mostly with resignation. While I wouldn’t have thought of it in these terms when I was a child, it now seems obvious to me that black people would be, at best, uncomfortable being surrounded by reminders of a time when their ancestors were bound in slavery. And later those confederate symbols were adopted by white Southerners intent on oppressing the supposedly emancipated blacks in the post-war era, so the flag and other symbols represented a real and visceral threat to black people.
And yet, I also completely understand the anger and bafflement of white Southerners who are suddenly being told that the symbols and monuments they loved are bad and hurtful. For the most part, we were not taught to revere these symbols as an overt act of racism or white supremacy, but rather as an honorable part of our culture and history.
It is deeply unsettling to discover that others see these symbols in a much darker light.
Napa is being rocked by just such an event now, in the form of the battle over the Napa High School Indian logo (symbol or mascot – choose your favorite term for it). I certainly don’t intend to weigh in on either side of the debate, but my own experience of watching the furor over Confederate symbols does give me a keen appreciation for the emotions involved on both sides.
On one hand, I can see how some Native Americans could see the mere depiction of their people, however dignified, as an appropriation of their heritage by a culture that stands on the ruin of their former civilization. Being surrounded by such reminders would be extremely painful and could even be seen as a deliberate provocation by a conqueror.
On the other hand, I can perfectly understand the bafflement and outrage of Napa High students and alumni who are suddenly being accused, explicitly or implicitly, of racism for supporting a symbol that they revere. They, like me, were not introduced to their symbol as a sign of white supremacy, but rather as a sign of honor and pride, and arguments otherwise feel like a very personal attack.
Whatever way the decision goes at Napa High School, I hope both sides come away with some empathy for the opposing viewpoint. Not all symbols mean exactly the same thing to everyone. However painful the debate, I think (or at least I hope) that we all gain a better understanding of each other and ourselves in discovering that.