Commemorating CHM: Remixing the Flag of Treason

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A reader writes:


So a friend and I were discussing your last CHM post about being a white southerner and coming to terms with the legacy of slavery/segregation/white supremacy/etc. in the South. And one thing he brought up was what I see as the "Lynyrd Skynyrd Paradox". It seems like (and maybe this is specific to the late 60's and 70's...but I don't think so) there were a group of artists--and people--who co-opted the flag and the confederacy as a part an of anti-city, anti-corporate, pro-environment naturalism. 

What makes this even more weird is that many of these bands have/had African American members--Lynyrd Skynyrd is the first that comes to mind--but the same is true of the Allman Brothers, and The Band (My favorite Canadian dixie band--with no African American members, but played with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers, etc.).

I would imagine this falls as more of a reflection of the culture at the time as opposed to just a freak occurrence by a handful of misguided bands. My thought is that politics and race issues were much more disconnected at the time--so waving the stars and bars and being progressive weren't exactly mutually exclusive. But to be honest, I don't know.

My sense of the question is fairly simple--knowing the history of the Confederate flag, knowing that it was created, specifically, to symbolize a nation founded on the precepts of white supremacy and "African slavery," knowing that the pursuit of the Confederate cause ended with the murder of Abraham Lincoln, knowing that after the Civil War, the flag morphed from battle standard of white supremacy, to battle standard of white terrorism, were I white, it's very hard for me to imagine a situation in which I'd want to fly the flag.

Moreover the Confederate Flag hasn't so much been co-opted, as it's been washed. The notion that the Flag is not a symbol of white supremacy, but a symbol of resistance, and anti-corporatism not the invention of Lynyrd Skynyrd or The Band; it's an invention of the Lost Causers, who immediately after the war began distancing themselves from slavery as a primary cause. 

People who fly the flag today and insist that, for their generation, its "heritage not hate" or that they've "co-opted the flag," give themselves too much credit. In fact, they're participating in a process that began 150 years ago, the washing of the flag.This is an important point. I suspect that if I started flying the Nazi flag and claimed that it had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, I would not be taken seriously. That's because, in this country at least, there is no serious, sustained history of a German Lost Cause. 


But people can fly the Confederate Flag and have a serious, evidently credible argument, about its "precise meaning," mostly because of a long historical fight to make the Civil War, and hence its symbols, about something other than slavery.  Again, there's a reason we don't think of Abraham Lincoln as being murdered by a white supremacist. There's a reason why we sing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" instead of, say, "The Night They Drove Fort Pillow Down."

Formulating the question as "Is Lynyrd Skynyrd racist?" or "Are people who fly the Confederate flag racist?" or "Can you fly the flag and be progressive?" misses the point. The better question is posed to the young man, or woman, who would fly the flag today. Simply put, it's "How well do you know the history of the symbols you claim?" It really is that simple. It's not "Are you a racist?" it's "Are you conscious?" Christopher Hitchens says it well:

The political flag of the Confederacy--the so-called "Stars and Bars"--is one thing. The battle flag of the Confederate army, the most militant symbolic form that secession and slavery ever took, is quite another. Under this fiery cross of St. Andrew, the state of Pennsylvania was invaded and free Americans were rounded up and re-enslaved. Under this same cross, it was announced that any Union officer commanding freed-slave soldiers, or any of his men, would be executed if captured. (In other words, war crimes were boasted of in advance.) The 13 stars of the same flag include stars for two states--Kentucky and Missouri--that never did secede, and they thus express a clear ambition to conquer free and independent states. 

Perhaps the proverbial young person is indeed conscious, and does know the history. But when I hear them claim that they are "co-opting" the flag, I think probably not.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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