Monday, 29 June 2015

The Confederate Flag: Truly a Symbol of Slavery

by Sian Latham

Bree Newsome takes down the Confederate flag in protest,
outside South Carolina's State House on June 27, 2015
The Confederacy and all its associated ideology and symbols, have long been seen to exist hand in hand with pro-slavery morals. 

It was defeated by an army that included ex-slaves fighting with the Union and was born from a desire to protect the institution of slavery; it is is only brandished by ‘crazy’ Southern Americans. 

All these connotations, all this history, has meant that the Confederate flag, and all who brandish it, have come under fire recently, in the wake of the 9 African-Americans shot down in Charleston by a white man intent on starting a race war. 

Yet, I question whether we can be sure that all of the abuse targeted at the flag is securely grounded in fact rather than grounded in assumption and misconception.

The birth of the flag originates at the outset of the American Civil War - a war, as it has generally become known, of slavery. Many, or even most, would say that the war was fought by the North who were anti-slavery and the South who were pro-slavery. As such, any symbol of the Southern (pro-slavery) side is a symbol of racism and shouldn’t be tolerated. It’s true. If a symbol is one that boasts of slavery, then it shouldn’t be tolerated. However, let me pose you this question: Does Hitler’s abuse and usage of the swastika change its original meaning? If you are unaware, Hitler ‘stole’ the swastika from the Hindu religion in which it symbolizes good luck, the creator and power: not a fascist Nazi regime. If, much like myself, you can appreciate the dual nature in which the swastika exists, and perhaps, even further, the false connotations it now holds, then my argument may yet find understanding ears among you. If not, I’m afraid my argument will fall on deaf ears, but I can but try to convince you of my opinion.

What I am trying to say, though perhaps slightly convoluted in my manner, is that the Confederate flag is, it can be argued, no more a symbol of slavery than the flag of the Union: the Stars and Stripes. When the flag was first designed and brandished, the Civil War had only just begun and the issue of slavery as morally right or wrong did not yet exist. The South feared the oppression of the North. They feared the eventual loss of the slaves, and their resultant wealth and social structure, but also a loss of the Southern identity. For the North, the war was to regain the land that had ‘illegally’ seceded.In the North, their (on the whole) opposition to slavery was not out of a moral sense of right or wrong but rather of fear: that the slaves threatened their jobs and livelihoods. Though the South was the house of slavery, so to speak, the North were the larger benefactors. It was the North who traded, manufactured and transported the goods and raw materials that were achieved by slave labour, not the South. Before, and at the beginning, of the war, the end to slavery was as unwanted by elements of the North just the same as the South.

In fact, it was under the stars and stripes flag that the constitution, condoning slavery as a ‘necessary evil’, was followed and maintained as a code of the American's patriotic life. The United States of America was founded and born on the back of condoned slavery; the founding fathers had seen it as a necessary moral wrong in order to make a strong white country. A strong white country that brandished the stars and stripes: a flag now as connected with slavery in its connotations as the British. While both the British and United States’ flags have hung over slaving countries, the fact is now seen as an inconvenient, immoral act of the past that does not define the flag or the country it flies over. Thus, how can we argue that the Confederate flag has any more history in slavery than the Union’s? Both condoned slavery at the time of their birth. It is only that one managed to fly over a country that has survived longer and had time to change, which has allowed it to distance itself from the issue of a slaving past.

It is with these facts and concepts in my mind, that I find myself infuriated with the outcry directed at those who wish to fly the Confederate flag at this time of anguish in the United States. Every symbol and flag can mean something different to the viewer and the bearer. For the Western World, the swastika is a sign of evil and war, while to the Hindus good luck. For the Northern Americans, as well as ‘African’ Americans, the Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery, while to some Southerners it is a symbol of their history and identity. It seems wrong, on many ways, to force upon others the views of one group. That said, I also fail to understand those Southerners who fail to respect the groups who feel such a symbol as racially discriminant, by at least lowering or temporarily removing the flag. I argue that the Confederate flag is no more the point of issue than is the tie around Obama’s neck. In reality, the flag is merely a focus point for those who feel the need to highlight and rebel against the apparent and clear racism that still dominates the United States of America. Yet, they face the issue that you cannot attack a whole group of people when they cannot be easily identified by one name or brush. Thus, you can only attack a symbol, and through that symbol, those who hold the views that need to change. 

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