Southern Cultures 8.1 (2002) 60-75
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Living with Confederate Symbols
Bragg Bowlin and I are talking as we sit in the living room of his home, a 1920s-era row house two blocks from the famous Monument Avenue historic district in Richmond, Virginia. The room is furnished in dark mahogany and cherry, with impressive overstuffed chairs and sofa. Antique lamps and rugs join with the heavy wood furniture to give the room a turn-of-the-century feel. In these formal surroundings, Bragg's bare feet, blue jeans, and white T-shirt look out of place. The room's most prominent features, however, are its numerous images of the Confederacy and antebellum South. On a bookshelf is a bust of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Above the fireplace are framed prints of figures on horseback, generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. A Confederate battle flag hangs limp in one corner of the room. But the icon of the Old South that keeps drawing my attention is a striking collection of figurines, men in minstrel-style black face. Their pitch-black faces, stark white lips, and bulging eyes are contorted and twisted into expressions meant to convey lightheartedness and contentment. Whether these are antiques, the objects of a collector's curious fancy, or the wistful longings for the good-old days purchased by a middle-aged white southerner at a tourist shop, I do not know. I did not ask.
Bragg is a self-assured member of the Richmond chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He and I are both southerners, proud of that designation and heritage. Yet Bragg's shrine to "our" shared past leaves me uneasy for many reasons. I am an African American descendant of slaves, and, save for a few ancestors who were Cherokee and a small number who were white, I consider myself fully African American and fully southern. As I sit in the middle of Bragg's Confederate sanctuary, I wonder whose interpretation of these images is more accurate. Bragg reveres those gray-clad men of honor, courage, and love of country--men he would claim fought to uphold the independence and rights of a sovereign people. I do not see that. I see men who hoped to sustain a society based on chattel slavery and an ideology of white supremacy, a society that held that some men were by right born "booted and spurred" to ride the saddles placed on the backs of Negroes by providence itself. Looking around the room I see images that degrade the memory of my ancestors. Which of our interpretations is more faithful to the historical reality? Who is the true southerner?
Examine any newspaper in the American South during any week and you will undoubtedly find an article detailing yet another storm over a Confederate image. The principal actors are by now clichés--vocal black southerners and their liberal white southern allies on one side, demanding justice, calling for an end to bigotry and the consignment of all things Confederate to the nearest museum. Facing down this group is the needed adversary, the other half of the cliché--the conservative white southerners, usually stressing heritage, history, and the undeniable truth that their great-great-granddaddies did not own slaves. They were men, in [End Page 61] fact, who fought for their homes, hearths, and independence. Whatever the source of the conflict--the Confederate battle flag, an image of a Confederate general, the portrayal of the Confederacy in print or film--the rhetoric from both sides is so familiar that it has taken on the characteristics of a refrain from a worn-out song heard once too often at too high a volume.
I believe that for most Americans this debate is a nonissue. It's an old dog that won't hunt. This third group is guided by the principle of "The war is over, you lost (or slavery is over, you're free). Get over it! Move on!" In spite of this shortsighted majority sentiment, something important is going on in this debate. This...