The Confederate Flag Is a Heritage We’re Trying to Escape

American FlagAs the debate over the confederate flag and its removal from the South Carolina Capitol building has raged in recent weeks, I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet. Not silent, but not especially vocal.

In part it’s because racial issues are a difficult topic, and yes, I recognize the white privilege inherent in saying that. As a white woman, race is a topic I can avoid in ways that I simply couldn’t if I were black. It’s also because I’ve wanted to observe for awhile, to test the tenor of the conversation, to see if humanity would succeed.

But even as success has been achieved with the removal of what is – if you want to be technical, the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia – from the statehouse in Charleston, the “heritage, not hate” argument refuses to die.

It bothers me as an American. It bothers me as a human.

And quite frankly, it bothers me as the mother of a little girl whose ancestors fought on the side of the South during the Civil War. My blood may be Yankee blood, but her Southern daddy has given her a history that hails from the lower side of the Mason/Dixon line. If you want to get technical, the “heritage” much argued over by Northerners and Southerners alike of late is hers.

As her mother, part of raising her requires me to explain that to her, to be honest about what it is that happened in the past. It’s also my job to explain how the past should shape her future, how she can choose to be better. We may not be able to escape our ancestors’ DNA, their looks or certain medical quirks, but we can certainly escape their bad choices.

We can acknowledge her so-called “heritage” without celebrating it, without hoisting a flag that has long served to divide our country — first physically and now symbolically.

Some 150 years on, we can’t know why it is my husband’s ancestors picked up arms and joined the fray. Were they fighting in support of slavery? For states’ rights? Or was it simply because they were poor and thus unable to avoid a draft that only exempted rich slave owners?

Although the latter seems mostly likely, we can’t pretend that the former isn’t entirely possible. Tempting as it is, it would do us no good. How would we learn?

What we do want – what many Americans want – is to acknowledge that once upon a time in this country, all men were not treated equally, but that we don’t have to do whatever it is our ancestors did. We aren’t them. We are new people, hopefully better people, who can  make smarter choices and be better human beings.

The Confederate flag does indeed represent heritage for many Americans. But you can live in the past or you can learn from it. We’re choosing to do the latter, which means acknowledging the hatred it represents as well … and refusing to ever fly it.

 

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