Appreciating the Symbolic

The recent attack on Emanuel AME Church, wherein 9 parishioners were killed, has prompted discussion on many aspects of American society.  America has been compelled to confront its history of white supremacy and the oppressive violence that it necessitates.  Conversations and debates about the Confederate flag (N.B. any subsequent reference to the Confederate Flag includes the Battle Flag, Navy Jack, any of the three official flags of the Confederacy, and any such variations) naturally emerge from such discussions, as many directly associate that flag with the social, economic, and political institutions created and maintained by racist ideology.  This association aligns with the social and anthropological definition of a symbol, which any flag certainly is.  Just as the Confederate flag is a tangible, material symbol, the very act of flying (or removing) the flag is also symbolic.  Participants in the flag debate can generally be classified in three ways: proponents, opponents, and those who are apathetic.  The views of the proponents and opponents have been thoroughly and passionately presented in the public discourse, but the views of those apathetic to the discourse have not been as comprehensively advanced, due either to the size of their contingency or due to their namesake.  While the reasons for apathy may be many, one will be discussed here, particularly that which dismisses the removal of the flag as a useless gesture of symbolism.  Their argument is that removal of the flag in no way diminishes the actual attitudes and behaviors of those who cleave to the racist ideology of white supremacy.  In other words, it doesn’t matter if you remove the flag because racism will persist unabated in the flag’s absence.  They further proffer that removing the flag is conciliatory at best, disingenuous and deceptive at worst.  I will attempt to address these arguments by introducing the concept of symbolism, as well as by discussing the tangible impacts of symbolism in society.

No meaningful exposition on symbolic gestures is possible without first establishing the definition of “symbol”.  The simplest and most nondescript explanation of a symbol is that it is any object (material or otherwise) that represents something else.  More specifically, a symbol usually represents a complex range of abstract ideas, and it may vary in meaning to different individuals and groups.  How a symbol is interpreted depends on the accumulated knowledge, behaviors, and rituals associated with the symbol. As such, a symbol is dynamic and evolves with the culture of those interpreting it.  In fact, symbols are one of the 5 key components said to comprise culture, the others being language, values, beliefs, and norms.  The field of symbolic anthropology even regards culture as the complex encoding of symbolic creation, interpretation, and behavior.  Preeminent symbolic anthropologist Victor Turner posited that symbols are the mechanisms of social maintenance.  Turner further argued that social cohesion requires continual reinforcement and that symbols play a vital role in such.  In short, the culture of a society creates symbols and establishes their meaning and significance.  Symbols in turn inspire actions, behaviors, institutions, and social dynamics, leading to a reinforcement or reinterpretation of the symbols themselves.

The importance of symbols isn’t merely an academic abstraction.  Historically, when one nation conquered another, it was commonplace to destroy all of the monuments of the vanquished and replace them with tributes to the victor.  This was a symbolic gesture whose purpose was to demoralize the conquered and exact loyalty and obedience through the imposition of power.  The result was often a psychological and behavioral paralysis that deterred dissent.  Another example of tangible symbolism is evident in the doll experiments conducted by psychologists Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark in the 1940’s.  The experiments involved children being shown a white doll and a black doll and then being asked a series of questions about their perceptions of each.  Overwhelmingly, Black children described the White doll as pretty and virtuous, while describing the black doll as ugly and lacking positive character attributes.  Dolls are unambiguous symbols of beauty and desirability, and the doll experiments exposed the quantifiable psychological effects of such symbolism on African Americans. The results of these experiments were so convincing that they were included as testimony in the Brown versus Education case.

Citing examples of symbolism and its impacts can be done indefinitely, but at best it represents an indirect way of addressing the apathetic argument discounting the removal of the flag.  It addresses the argument by analogy.  Let’s address the argument more directly by examining what would happen if the flag were removed from public sites.  Consider that generations of White children in the south have been taught, at home and in their communities, that the flag represents heritage, virtuous qualities, and noble sensibilities.  When they venture out into the world and see the Confederate Flag flying on state grounds, at schools, parks, and memorials, all that they have learned at home is validated.  With such broad validation they have no reason to question any of what they have been taught.  If their family, community, and state all confirm the same teachings, what other confirmation is needed?  Removing the flag wouldn’t change what children in this generation were taught at home, but it would eliminate the state validation of such teachings.  So, for the first time, children might be compelled to question why the state decisively acted in opposition to their home teachings.  Such interrogation might lead them to the truth.

There is another way to interpret the symbolic gesture of removing the flag.  Consider that the decision to fly the Confederate Flag in the first place was made by those who support it, without consideration of or consent from opponents.  In other words, Whites decided to fly the flag, and Black people had no say in the matter.  That was the social dynamic that existed.  Removal of the flag demonstrates that there is a portion of whites who now think differently about the matter and that Black disapproval of the flag must be earnestly considered.  In the past, a Black woman climbing a flagpole on southern state grounds and removing the Confederate Flag would have been met with violent (probably fatal) results.  This represents a changing social dynamic, and while removing the flag in no way removes racist ideology, it is a start.  The same could be said of emancipation, the 15th Amendment, or any other act instituted to advance the standing of African Americans in American society.  There is no moral mandate to choose between removing the flag and dismantling racism.  There is social, economic, political, intellectual, and moral capacity to accomplish both.

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A Little History

Unraveling the Flag

Mark A. Sequeira

Recent events in Charleston have reignited a discussion on the meaning and appropriateness of the Battle Flag.  Proponents defend the flag, arguing that its true meaning represents noble Southern virtues, but that it has been coopted by white supremacist groups to espouse hate and to inflict violence upon people of African descent in America.  Opponents of the flag counter that the flag itself represents hate, violence, and state-sanctioned enslavement and oppression.  These types of long-standing disputes are often characterized by some combination of truth, misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or outright fabrication, each faction of course claiming truth for themselves, while accusing the opposing side of the latter.  Identifying the truth of historical events is often hindered by lack of information, absence of documentation, and propaganda.  The Civil War, the Confederacy, and the history of the Battle Flag are no exceptions, but there are some historical certainties, many of which have been codified in text.  While a comprehensive assessment of the political and socioeconomic factors contributing to secession and subsequent civil war are beyond the scope of this text, a cursory review will hopefully illuminate some key points relative to recent discussions about the Battle Flag.

It seems appropriate to begin by declaring that the Battle Flag (see below), as we recognize it, was never officially the flag of the Confederate States of America.

 BattleFlag

This flag was designed by William Porcher Miles.  Miles was the chair of the newly created “Committee on the Flag and Seal” and proposed his design as the official Confederate flag, but it was rejected in favor of the first of three flags that would be formally recognized as the national flag.  The first flag of the Confederacy was known as the “Star and Bars” flag (see below).

 StarsAndBars

It initially had seven stars arranged in a circle, representing the first seven states to secede.  Additional stars were added each time the Confederacy accepted a new state.  This flag garnered criticism within the Confederacy for being too similar to the Union flag.  Additionally, Confederate generals voiced concerns that the flag was often difficult to distinguish from the Union flag in battle, particularly when it was hanging limp.  These objections prompted design of a second flag (see below), “The Stainless Banner”, designed by William T. Thompson.

Stainless Banner2

This flag was the Battle Flag (designed by William Porcher Miles), set on an all white background.  Its designer, William T. Thompson, described its significance in the Savannah Daily Morning News (April 23, 1863):

“As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.”

Thompson later reinforced that idea, again in the Savannah Daily Morning News (May 4, 1863):

“As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism.”

This flag flew from 1863 to 1865, when a third and final flag would be adopted.  The third flag (see below) was the “Blood-Stained Banner” and flew until the end of the war.

BloodStainedBanner

After the First Battle of Manassas, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard opined that the “Stars and Bars” flag (the first officially adopted flag) was difficult to distinguish from the Union flag in battle.  He, therefore, proposed having two flags, an official flag and a battle flag.  William Porcher Miles, whose flag had been rejected in favor of the “Stars and Bars” flag, was a friend of General Beauregard and proposed his design as the new battle flag.  President Jefferson Davis approved this proposal, and the battle flags were distributed first to General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  The battle flags were used throughout the rest of the war.

William T. Thompson was clear about the intended meaning of his flag, but it could be argued that his position on the matter was personal and not representative of the official position of the Confederate States of America.  There are several documents that reveal the official position of the Confederate States.  When each of the 13 states seceded from the Union, they forged a document formally absolving all ties with the Union.  These documents were known as an Ordinance of Secession (each state’s can be found at http://www.civil-war.net/pages/ordinances_secession.asp ).  6 of the 13 seceding states (Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas) also issued separate documents declaring the causes and justifications for secession (can be found at http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/primarysources/declarationofcauses.html ).  Each state’s declaration of causes identifies slavery prominently as a reason for secession.  The Mississippi declaration states:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.  Its labor supplied the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.”

As reasons for secession, Mississippi cites of the Union:

“It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits,

denying the power of expansion.”

“It advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst.”

South Carolina cites as its reason:

“Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied  the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

Texas (personified by “She” and “her”) characterizes their admission to the Confederacy as such:

“She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery—the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits—a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

Texas’ position on slavery is such:

“the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color—a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law.  They demand the abolition of the negro slavery throughout the Confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as the negro slave remains in these States.”

Additionally, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens gave an address (found here http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/cornerstone-speech/ ) in Savannah on March 21, 1861.  His address outlined the improvements of the new Confederate constitution over the Union constitution.  Stephens states clearly the reason for war:

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution of African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.  This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

Stephens further notes:

“Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.’ Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

It is also noteworthy to consider the Confederate Constitution itself.  Article I Section 9(4) states:

“No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

This article was added specifically to guarantee and protect the institution of slavery.  Article IV Section 3(3) addresses the Confederate Congress’ power to acquire new territory and legislate government for the inhabitants of the newly acquired territories.  It states explicitly:

“In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and the Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate States.”

William T. Thompson declared the emblematic meaning of the flag he designed.  The ordinances of secession, as well as the declarations of causes of each seceding state prominently emphasized the maintenance and expansion of slavery as reasons and justifications for absolving ties with the Union.  Vice President, Alexander Stephens, declared in no uncertain terms that African slavery and white supremacy were the “corner-stone” upon which the new Confederate government rests.  The Constitution of the Confederate States explicitly requires that any territories seeking admission into the Confederacy be legally bound to institute slavery and enforce all laws protecting it.  The flag commonly associated with the Confederacy was not only intended to be a battle flag or a flag representing the heritage and virtues of the South.  Its designers publicly and unapologetically declared its emblematic representation of slavery and white supremacy, and the Confederate government chose that flag (battle flag on a white background to symbolize the white race’s superiority over Africans) to represent the same ideals as were codified in its constitution and in the ordinances of secession of each of the 13 states.  Without addressing the resurgence of the Battle Flag as a state-sanctioned objection to Civil Rights or its emblazoned display by hate groups to symbolize their racial ideologies and violent behaviors, it is well documented that the Battle Flag has, since its conception, represented white supremacist ideology.

One of the problems is that many of the southerners who espoused or believed in white supremacist ideologies were probably good husbands, loving fathers, and “respectable” people in their churches and communities.  So, those who are the progeny of such people have often only been exposed to the noble, virtuous qualities of their ancestors.  They either don’t know or willfully deny that the family members they have known, loved, or heard endearing stories about often exhibited completely contradictory qualities in their interactions with Blacks.  How could a person simultaneously embody such dichotomous ethical and moral principles?  Simple, they had to manufacture a disconnect, which was that Blacks were less than human, affording them divinely authorized and prescribed subhuman treatment.  There is no other way to explain how a man could love his family, endear himself to the community, pray in church, yet hang someone from a tree or burn them alive, often in a publicly celebratory manner with children in attendance. In our current society, the overwhelming majority of mentally stable people can quite easily admit that such behavior was barbaric, but what’s more difficult is reconciling the fact that such a person may have been a friend of the family, a neighbor, a pastor, or a relative.  So, to avoid such agonizing reconciliation, the narrative is transformed and the flag becomes a symbol of Southern heritage, virtue, and lifestyle.  The problem with this is that it ignores the people at whose brutal expense that heritage and lifestyle were forged and maintained.

This evidence in no way absolves the North of their contributions to white supremacy.  It should be well understood that the North did not wage war to abolish the institution of slavery.  If Lincoln could have kept the Union together without abolishing slavery, he certainly would have.  He even said as much during his first term.  The North also had no economic interest in abolishing slavery since a significant portion of their economy benefitted from it.  The North was the industrialized center of the country, and the ships that were used to transport slaves were constructed in northern shipyards.  The cotton picked by slaves was transported to the Northern mills to manufacture clothing and other textiles, including clothes for slaves.  There was a significant portion of Northern industry that was supported by the institution of slavery, and its abolition would have been a severe blow to the economy.  Northern citizens and officials alike understood this and, therefore, initially resisted including emancipation as a provision of war.  So, it is understood that equally egregious atrocities have been committed under the jurisdiction of the Union flag.  There is one major difference.  The Union flag represented a nation that was criticized for failing to live up to its ideals (All men created equally; life, liberty, pursuit of happiness), those explicitly stated in the Constitution, whereas the Battle flag is criticized for representing a nation that aggressively pursued and instituted its ideals (cornerstone rests upon the Divine truth that enslavement is the natural and normal condition of Blacks).  Perception matters, history matters, symbols matter, the flag matters.