Sunday, March 18, 2007

Capturing the Flag

The image above seems terribly relevant today. It's the cover of Harper's Weekly, September 17, 1864, and the title is, "HARRY DAVIS CAPTURING THE BATTLE FLAG OF THE THIRTIETH LOUISIANA REGIMENT, AT THE BATTLE OF EZRA CHURCH."

Depending on your ancestry and point of view, the above instills pride, anger, sadness, sympathy, or lust for more. There's no mistaking my interpretation; I'm a Southerner. Seeing this image stirs something akin to grief. I don't see the furtherance of slavery in that flag; rightly or wrongly, I see a people invaded fighting back. That is part emotion, and part education. I acknowledge my bias. I understand that for my friends Mark Dunkelman or Andy Waskie, there is something closer to the "triumph of right" that swells in their chests. Whatever your reaction, the fact is that you will have some reaction if you're a student of the Civil War or a descendant of its veterans.

Thanks to a faithful reader, I just received a notice about the flag controversy in Florida. A display at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee is offensive to many Southern Soldiers' descendants. The artist Robert Sims sees the battle flag as a symbol of racism and terrorism. His piece, "The proper way to display a Confederate Flag (right)," shows the controversial symbol hanging from a gallows. It is a powerful image, and that is why I want you to see it.

I am a huge supporter and defender of the Arts. Sometimes art is beautiful, sometimes it is repulsive. But art should comfort us and challenge us, cause us to see the world in a different way. To my friends, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, my heart is with you. But do not make this your battlefield. The expression of ideas, the freedom of the individual is what we've all been fighting for in one way or another. Rather, use the opportunity of this art exhibit to educate people, to let them know why you feel positively about the Confederate Battle Flag. I feel just as strongly as many of you that the stars and stripes is a more accurate representation of slavery, for that emblem waved over a slave-owning country for decades. The fact is, these are symbols. On their own, they mean nothing. It is the meaning we give them that matters. Let people know the meaning you give the Battle Flag is not one of hate nor racism, but of independence.

We have a minister here in Topeka, Fred Phelps (left), who has gained national notoriety for his anti-gay marches and protesting at the funerals of soldiers. I can't say I agree with anything he says, and when I see his children and grandchildren holding signs that say, "God hates Fags," I can't help but think their childhood has been stolen. But I also have a more comforting thought. As long as that man can publicly say whatever hateful thing he feels, we are safe.

People, our civil liberties hang by a slender thread. Don't be so quick to clip that thread because you're offended. When I look at that Battle Flag, I see my ancestors, those Scoth-Irish mountaineers who didn't own slaves, who only wanted to go home and be left alone to live their lives and make babies, make music, and make whiskey.

But that's another story. . . .


For more information, read The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem by John Coski. John is the librarian at the Museum of the Confederacy and is level-headed, insightful, and just an all-around great guy. Another great discussion of the battle flag is Jack Davis's Myths of the Cause Lost.

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